'Changes need to be made, and it starts here.'

September 11, 2018
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By Lindsay Broderick, Staff Writer

For students underrepresented in higher education, every dollar counts when piecing together a financial aid package. And their ability to obtain those dollars and succeed in college depends on policymakers establishing a Streamlined FAFSA and approving increased, sustainable funding for need-based aid like Pell Grants and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants as well as programs like Federal Work-StudyAmeriCorps, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Nikki Tylosky faced no shortage of obstacles in obtaining financial aid to attend the University of Akron, where she was accepted and hoped to enroll. However, the university’s on-campus housing requirement coupled with additional expenses, such as textbooks, made her school of choice financially unattainable.

Instead, Nikki began her higher education journey at Cuyahoga Community College.

Despite receiving no financial support from her family, Nikki was still required to report familial income on the FAFSA. The expected family contribution that is calculated using FAFSA data demonstrates ability to pay rather than willingness to pay.

Nikki was deemed ineligible for the Pell Grant due to the roughly $22,000 she earns annually and her mother’s income.

"It feels as though I am being punished for my situation and my hardships," Nikki said. "I do not believe that a parent's income should play a factor in the FAFSA application process, unless that parent plays an active role in supporting their child through school. I do not believe that making a barely livable wage should make me ineligible for any aid from a government that claims to believe in me and support me," she continued.

Although the Pell Grant would have been a tremendous help to Nikki, the program’s purchasing power is currently a fraction of what it once was. Pell covered almost 80 percent of the cost of attendance at the average four-year public institution in the late 1970s, enabling low-income students who obtained a minimum wage job to independently finance their education.

Unfortunately, this is far from the case today. Pell now covers less than 30 percent of the cost of attendance at the average four-year public college.

In April, NCAN submitted a letter to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees requesting that Pell purchasing power be increased to 50 percent of college costs by 2028. To reach this goal, the maximum Pell Grant award must increase by an average of 9.7 percent annually.

Even if Nikki had been deemed eligible for the Pell Grant, she still would have needed to rely on scholarships and other funding sources to cover the rest of her college expenses. The only additional financial support Nikki received was a scholarship from College Now Greater Cleveland, an NCAN member.

After completing three semesters, Nikki dropped out due to financial pressures. She returned to her studies in fall 2017, but had to take out loans to cover some of the costs.

"I expect to graduate community college with an estimated debt of more than $10,000," Nikki said. "This does not factor in the amount I’d have to add if I were to decide to continue to a four-year university for a higher degree, which I would like to do."

For many students, dreams of attaining a four-year degree become unrealistic after they realize the financial burden they would have to take on.

"I will barely be able to afford the repayment of my loans, and the thought of taking out even more just sickens me," Nikki said. "All of this because it was deemed that my $22,000 annual income, along with my mother's income (who I receive no financial support from), was too much to be considered for any kind of federal aid. Changes need to be made, and it starts here."

Nikki’s story is one of many exemplifying the flaws of financial aid process. Until serious efforts are made to fix FAFSA and increase Pell’s purchasing power, situations such as Nikki’s will persist.

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