The start of August officially signals the beginning of college life for freshmen students heading to universities across the country. Along with deciding what classes to take, many students-particularly those within middle class families-are wondering whether they will have the financial means to afford all of their college expenses.
This is certainly the case for student clients of the West Side community organization Introspect Youth Services (IYS), located at 430 N. Cicero Ave. The organization, which has been in existence for 33 years, serves as a means of providing high school students access to resources and test preparation programs to assist in their transition to college. Some IYS students find that paying for college is a primary concern after being admitted to their school of choice.
“This time of year we are speaking with dozens of students who want to know exactly what options are available to them in regards to paying for college,” said Bernard Clay, executive director of Introspect. “We generally encourage them not to take out loans the first year as that could lead to major debt by the time they reach their senior year. So we suggest finding out if they qualify for Federal Financial Aid as well as special grants or scholarships based on their grades.”
However, it can be daunting. Sometimes students discover they may not qualify for financial aid because their parent’s salary is too high. This could be the case even if they come from single parent homes and their parent’s wages are between $20,000 and $50,000. Abigail Kelley, a freshman student at Virginia State University, was rewarded for her high GPA and ACT scores at Lincoln Park High School by receiving a scholarship to attend the university. This was particularly important given her failure to qualify for financial aid because of her mother’s income as a Chicago police officer.
There was a problem though. She recently discovered the scholarship would not meet all of her financial needs, including campus housing, books and the final balance of tuition in the first semester. There would be a $6,000 balance on tuition alone.
“My mother and I set up a payment arrangement where we will pay $600 a month until the balance is paid off,” said the 18-year-old mass communications major. “I feel bad about that since my mother is already carrying the load of caring for my younger brother while tending to her own expenses. I am hoping I can obtain employment when I arrive at campus to lessen the burden.”
Kelly says universities should consider mitigating circumstances and not just income when assessing eligibility for Federal Financial Aid. She says such things as household expenses, number of children in the family, job security status and whether the family is headed by a single mother or father should also be considered. “The Federal Student Aid program needs to say, ‘OK, this family earns $30,000 a year, but it’s a single mother, she has two other children besides the applicant, she pays $900 a month in rent, and it’s a single parent household.’ Looking at it this way, it’s clear that $30,000 is not as much as it may seem.”
Jerlinda Gray faces a similar predicament. She was accepted for financial assistance from St. Xavier University; however, she too must decide her method of paying the balance on her tuition since it will not pay all of her expenses. “Financial Aid has agreed to pay about $10,000, but there will still be a balance of about $10,000 in just the first year,” said Gray who is a law major. “Right now I’m applying for grants and assorted scholarships, but I have not gotten a response yet. I have heard many of my friends tell me horror stories about getting in student loan debt in their first year and wanted to avoid that at all cost-although, I might have to take out a loan.”
Gray, who recently graduated from Collins High School, wonders if the concern over funds will put a damper on her first semester at the school. The daughter of a single mother, she is looking at all options related to paying for school, but wishes her options were more plentiful. The 18-year-old suggests grade incentives for students excelling in their inaugural year in college and more federal funding allocated for the student loan program.
“My peers are facing the same situation where they wonder how they are going to pay for college when either they don’t qualify for aid or don’t receive a scholarship,” adds Gray. “Some go the loan route, others decide to go to a community college, but that completely alters their plan.”
Perhaps what is needed is new legislation.
According to Clay, the U.S. House sought to address the discrepancy by passing the 1980 “Middle Income Student Assistance Act.” The act helped reduce the expected parental contributions for college expenses and allowed more access to grant aid, in particular Pell Grants for families earning $24,000 and less annually.
Meanwhile, students from families with incomes above $24,000 received more work-study options as well as more federal grant availability. However, with student loan debt playing a significant role in the current economic crisis nationwide, Clay suggests that changes to the financial aid program should perhaps be made to assure that “[middle-class students like Gray and Kelley] do not enter the workforce already behind the eight ball with debt.”