FAFSA applications for the 2020-21 school year open Oct. 1, and students will soon be tasked with the complicated process of proving they are worthy of financial assistance for college expenses. In determining FAFSA eligibility, a student is reduced to a number of qualifications, and how many of these marks a student hits determines how much financial aid they are entitled to. Unfortunately, this process leaves a lot of less-advantaged students in the dust, and the FAFSA process needs to undergo reform to ensure all students are receiving adequate amount of support.
A dependent student must report their parents’ income on the FAFSA, but this label may not always be accurate.
Students are considered “dependent” and must report their parents’ tax information if:
•They are younger than 19 years old, or 24 years old if they are college students (if the student is disabled, they can be recorded as “dependent” regardless of age)
•A student lives with their parent(s) in the U.S. for more than half of the year. Certain temporary absences, such as being away at college, still count toward this time.
•The student is unmarried and did not file a joint tax return with their spouse.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t live with your parent or parents; you still must report information about them,” according to the FAFSA website.
This overlooks students who do not receive financial support from their parents when it comes to their college expenses. A student whose parents fall within a higher tax bracket is expected not to need as much financial aid, and their FAFSA rewards reflect this, regardless of parental input.
“A dependent student is assumed to have the support of parents, so the parents’ information has to be assessed along with the student’s in order to get a full picture of the family’s financial strength,” according to the FAFSA website.
While it is necessary to gauge a students’ financial need to appropriately distribute federal financial aid, the system does not account for students who receive little to no financial help from their parents, and also denies disabled adults the autonomy of claiming themselves as independent if their parents wish to claim them as a dependent for tax purposes. A parent or guardian does not need to get a student’s consent to claim them as a dependent, and therefore, may do so even if a student largely does not live at home or receive financial support from them.
The only situations where a student who fits the above criteria may claim themselves as an independent are if their parent(s) are incarcerated, a student has left home because of an abusive family environment, the student does not know where their parents are and is unable to contact them or a student is between the ages of 21 and 24, is unaccompanied and is either homeless or at risk of being homeless. Unless a student has been legally adopted by someone other than their parents, their parents are assumed to be their guardian.
The 2020-21 FAFSA application also requires students to report tax information from the 2018 calendar year, not taking into account any financial changes a family may have encountered. If a parent has recently lost a job, become sick, injured or even passed away, this will not be reflected in tax information from two years prior. In these instances, a student who may be in the most need of financial assistance is not likely to qualify for crucial financial aid.
The FAFSA application process treats students like a set of criteria to be met, ignoring the nuances of students’ financial and living situations. These criteria alone cannot ensure students are receiving the financial aid they need to afford their college education.
Looking past the documents and tax information, parents lose jobs. People get sick. People with disabilities are able to live independently, regardless of what their parents’ taxes indicate. Parents do not support their children’s academic endeavors. Students live with family members other than their parents without being legally adopted by them. These are all real-life circumstances overlooked by the FAFSA application process.
These qualifications are put in place to keep students from taking advantage of the system, and this is an understandable effort. However, reducing students to a set of criteria is inevitably going to work better for some students.
This is an effect of a more complicated problem: the education system in the United States gatekeeps people from having access to a college education. Tuition costs are constantly rising, and FAFSA alone is not enough to keep up with the financial burden this places on America’s future workforce.
The best thing for students to do at this juncture is to be informed about the goals of politicians running for office, locally and on a national level, to gauge who has the best ideas about how to reform our education system to work for everybody. Big changes will need to happen to make this a reality, and it begins at the polling booth, armed with our values and a passion for a better future.