The U.S is about to head into the presidential election cycle, so I found it timely to repost this piece from over two years ago. Personally, I am tired of the extremes proposed on both sides, though I more resent the attacks that politicians make on college costs and financial aid. Free college for all is not practical, but financial aid reforms are quite possible. A more amiable approach to interest subsidies on student loans as well as an end to origination fees would help, along with higher wages for part-time and Work-Study jobs–Ed.

This message is for those people who grumble about student financial aid and college costs, who say how the very poor or the middle class are being helped too much by financial aid. I’d like to discuss college costs through the stories of two students. I’ll call one Edwin, the other Edna. They both live in New York State, in a suburb of the Big Apple.

Edwin’s father works in “upper-middle management” for a large corporation. He’s survived several corporate “re-structurings” and “right-sizings.”  He has managed to save enough to four years tuition and fees for Edwin to attend the state university (about $35,000). He’s saved a little more for Edwin’s sister, who is three years younger. He might have saved even more, but the uncertainty of his job increases every year. He might be able to chip in for the room and board for both students if all’s well at work, but how long might that be?

Edna is the daughter of a single mom who earns just enough to pay rent and food. She’s saved nothing for Edna’s college education, although she wants her and her younger brother (by three years) to earn college degrees. Edna works part-time, but none of her earnings can go to savings. Their Expected Family Contribution when they file the FAFSA will be zero.

Edwin and Edna are excellent students. They win full-tuition scholarships to a SUNY (State University of New York) school. The SUNY system has campuses close to home as well as further away.

Their parents jump for joy! No tuition! What a deal!

At first, Edwin’s not so happy. He wants to go to a prestigious private university. After a shouting match, then a heart-to-heart, his parents convince him that its in his best interest  to take the scholarship. The money his dad saved for tuition  can go to cover fees and most of the room and board. Edwin might be able to avoid taking out loans if he works part time during the school year and full time during the summer. Unless his father loses his job. Then he might have to borrow. He won’t qualify for the Perkins or the subsidized Stafford loan. His father earned too much money in better times. He’ll need to take out a private loan. His father cannot borrow if he isn’t working.

At first, Edna is deliriously happy.  If she decides to commute to college, all she needs to cover is transportation and books. But if she wants to get out of her rough neighborhood,  and she does, she needs to borrow. She’ll qualify for a subsidized Perkins loan of $2,000 as well as the subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans totaling $5,500. She’ll need to work to cover the rest, but she’s used to that. If Edna wants to live on campus, she may graduate owning $35,000 in student loans because her mother cannot contribute a cent. Now she’s not so happy. But she’s likely to borrow the money.

Some could argue in a public forum (like this site) that Edwin didn’t need a merit scholarship, that the money he received could have gone to reduce Edna’s college costs, so that she would not need to borrow so much money. His dad could have pulled himself “up by his boot straps” and covered more of his son’s college costs.

Others could say that Edna could have lived at home. If she did, she wouldn’t owe so much. They also could have argued that Edna had a responsibility to choose a “marketable” major so that she could pay down that debt.

These people don’t know Edwin or Edna.

But they’re angry that their “tax dollars” are being “wasted” on them.

The point is that the students and their parents who receive aid are too often blamed for high college costs.

And that’s just plain wrong.

It’s true: college costs are too high. But we should be worried when families who face uncertainty as well as poverty must struggle to pay for an education at their state’s public colleges and universities. Not pointing fingers at the people who need the money.



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