By Cindy Sepulveda
It’s no secret that attending college now is more expensive than ever. Like most students across America, I applied for financial aid.
Financial aid for college students is one of the most critical processes in obtaining a college education.
In fact, just how important is financial aid in achieving a college education? In a study conducted for the National Center for Education Statistics about 72 percent of all undergraduate students received some type of financial aid, 63 percent received grants, 38 percent took out student loans, and 5 percent received aid through work-study programs, as of the 2015-2016 school year.
Without financial aid, a college education is a lifetime of the financial burden, but it is even more burdensome when your financial aid is lost as a result of a routine audit, as in my case.
I started my college education at California State University Dominguez (CSUDH) after being accepted in the Fall of 2017 and being awarded financial aid. After reviewing my education plan, I began my journey at CSUDH with a goal of graduating in Spring of 2019.
That journey was flipped upside down in May of last year when I received an email from the Financial Aid Office informing me that my FAFSA application has been flagged and I must provide documentation to confirm my eligibility.
Confused about the email, I took the first step by contacting the Financial Aid Office and started the humiliating process of verifying that I have a financial need. I spoke to Rosa Ornelas, a financial aid specialist/scholarship coordinator, who assisted me in my verification process.
During this process, Ornelas explained to me that the department of education randomly selected my FAFSA application for verification and I just needed to confirm my information.
The Federal Student Aid states that verification is the process that the schools use to confirm the data reported on a FAFSA form is accurate. If selected, all a student needs to do is provide documentation that is requested by the deadline, or else students won’t be able to get financial aid. Seemed like a simple straightforward process, but it wasn’t.
I started off with providing the school with my financial statements. Bank statements that went back months just to prove that I have a financial need. I also lost my job in Feb of this year, so I also provided information regarding my unemployment benefits. I exposed not just my finances, but my family ’s finances, down to every last dollar.
The process wasn’t over.
It then transitioned into me explaining my family dynamics. My nephew is my dependent and I financially support him. I felt a tremendous amount of frustration having to explain that I have a nephew who I support financially. Again, I had to expose my family dynamics, provide statements, and financial records to prove that I am indeed a provider. I felt as if I was doing something wrong in caring for and supporting my nephew.
Ornelas personally understood my position of being the family provider and wanted to help me keep my financial aid, but the verification method that was in place was against me and my family dynamics, and I lost my Spring 2018 aid. Not only did I lose my aid, but I also lost the opportunity to accept federal loans because the Spring semester had officially ended. Feeling singled out, there was nothing left I could do.
I was left with an outstanding tuition balance. In addition, a registration hold was placed on my account. I felt a sense of helplessness like I was abandoned by a system that is supposed to help those with financial need. The reality is that I do have a financial need and I have a nephew I support on my own, but how many times do I have to prove that?
Turns out I am not the only student who has endured the process of verification. According to Inside Higher Ed, “a growing number of colleges are finding more low-income students are being flagged and audited by the Department of Education during the bureaucratic process of verifying income eligibility for federal aid.”
After a much-needed pep talk, I told myself no bureaucratic barrier will stop me from achieving my goals. I obtained a personal student loan from Sallie Mae to help pay for my Spring 2018 tuition and removed the registration holds.
Ornelas and I continued to work on my financial aid packet and there is hope. A new verification computing model for the 2019-20 cycle is expected to be more effective at targeting applicants for verification, according to Inside Higher ED. With this new model, I hope low-income students and students with unique family dynamics, like myself, can receive the financial aid we so much need.