Editorial: FAFSA does not indicate true income availability

With the start of the new year, college bound seniors and current college students made their way onto the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website to complete and file their 2012-2013 applications. Many are left with a clearer reality of just how hard paying for college is, no longer as confident that their hard work and accomplished resumes will be able pay off the student loans they are predicted to recieve.

The FAFSA, a service under the U.S. Department of Education, is used to determine the amount of federally funded financial assistance one is eligible to receive through student grants, work-study and loan amounts, as well as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The government calculates one’s EFC based on factors such as total family income and earnings, assets, number of people in the household, and number of children attending college at the same time. According to Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on paying for college and the founder of FinAid.org, the EFC is particularly weighted toward the parents’ “available” income, which is the difference between total income and minimal cost of living and allowances for state and federal income taxes.

The problem with this method of calculation, however, is that the government does not take into consideration that this income is not necessarily always “available” to students. Whether or not a student’s parents will pay for his or her education is not taken into account when determining federal aid; it all depends on if they can. Many parents will not pay for their child’s education for reasons such as being unable to afford it, believing it is the responsibility of the child or having gone through a divorce. The most common occurrences of this can be found in a middle class scenario: children of employed parents earning moderate wages do not qualify for need-based financial aid, yet the parents cannot or will not pay for their child’s college education, and the financial aid package from the school is too small. How will they be able to afford college without taking out hefty student loans that will haunt them for the next 10-30 years? Unfortunately, regardless of parents’ situations, the federal government’s opinion remains the same: unless one qualifies for need-based aid, financing students’ college educations is their parents’ primary responsibility.

The FAFSA’s disregard of perhaps the most essential factor in determining one’s need for financial assistance is the reason so many families cannot afford to send their children to college without taking out as much as $80,000 in student loans. The financial assistance college-bound students are really in need of is one that considers the true income availability of the parents and offers just as much, if not more merit-based scholarships as it does need-based scholarships.