Stuck in the middle with nothing: how middle-income students fall through the cracks in the scramble for financial aid

By Danny Fisher

Sun Star Layout Editor

Students who come from middle-class families that cannot afford to contribute to a child’s education are often left out in the cold when it comes to financial aid availability.

Some students are left feeling that they're coming up a bit short when it comes to college costs.

Some students feel they’re coming up a bit short when it comes to college costs.

The cost of college attendance continues to rise in the United States.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the total cost of tuition, room and board and fees has risen by over $11,000 in the past 30 years.  Meanwhile, a study by fivethirtyeight.com, a polling aggregate website, claims that the median family income in the U.S. has only risen by about $5,000 in the same amount of time.  A considerable gap has been created.

Alaskan students work hard to find the difference between what they have for school and what they need. The 2011 School Enrollment and Work Status study by the Census Bureau showed that Alaska has the highest rate of students who also hold full-time jobs: that’s 37 percent of traditional undergraduate students in the state.

Private scholarships are also available to students, and merit-based ones are more common than other forms, according to Ginny Redmond, the directer of UAF’s Student Support Services program (SSS.) However, merit-based scholarships are often reserved for students in specific fields of study, making it difficult for students to find scholarship aid they qualify for.

Moreover, even merit-based scholarships tend to have a financial need criteria.

At UAF, a student’s financial need is generally determined by the federal government. Every year, scholars submit a Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA.) The application requires students to share their tax information – and that of their parents, if they are considered a dependent.

The information provided is processed with consideration to the applicant’s family size and annual salary, the student’s scholarships and other factors. Based on the data provided, the government determines the expected amount students will be able to pay their university, and their Estimated Family Contribution, or EFC.

The EFC is the main number considered when students are being selected to receive federal financial aid. According to Ashley Munro, a financial aid advisor at UAF, the main two forms of aid – the Pell Grant and the Alaska Education Grant – are made available to students with an EFC of about $5000 or less.

The FAFSA is processed the exact same way in every state, regardless of individual economies. In Alaska, this may put students at a disadvantage as the median income is almost $16,000 more than the national average, according to the United States Census Bureau. However, the cost of living in Alaska is also significantly higher than most of the country. A Sept. article from USA Today cited Alaska as the 4th most expensive state to live in.

The difference in cost of living means that an Alaska family’s higher income goes just about as far as the lower incomes in states with lower costs of living do.

Furthermore, students are considered a dependent in the FAFSA regardless of if they are filing their taxes as a dependent or not. Students who are paying for their own living and education expenses without parental help are still listed as a dependent until they are married or twenty-four years old, unless they have become estranged from their family, have dependents or have military experience.  A full list of the special circumstances a person has to be in to qualify for a dependency waiver can be found on the FAFSA website at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

Thusly, a student from a family with an income low enough to get them an EFC of less than $5,000 will receive federal financial aid, while a student who receives no assistance from their wealthier parents will not – even if the student from the wealthier family has an individual income of less than the lower-income family. “It’s an imperfect system,” Munro said.

“There are some hidden benefits [from parents, regardless of monetary contribution] that aren’t always apparent.” Ginny Redmond, who works with first generation, low-income, and special needs students, said. Students who are not estranged from their parents, whether or not they are paying for their child’s school, have a few advantages that may even out the gap. She said that things like being on a parent’s health insurance plan can make a big difference.  “They aren’t paying it outright, but it’s still a benefit. If you had to pay that out of pocket it would be really expensive.”

Although some students like Austin Thomas, who is studying Homeland Security and Emergency Management at UAF, enjoy the benefits of having earned a young lifetime’s worth of PFDs with which to supplement their education payments, others are not as fortunate or happy with the system. “I feel like people in the middle are really screwed,” Mekayla Ruiz, an 18-year-old undeclared UAF freshman said. “Our parents aren’t super rich, and we aren’t in ‘need.’”

While programs like SSS and the federal government focus on getting lower-income students the funds to access post-secondary education, middle-income students work with far less attention and assistance. If we are aiming for equal support, we are not achieving it.

[Correction:  “Thusly, a student from a family with an income low enough to get them an EFC of less than $5,000 will receive federal financial aid, while a student who receives no assistance from their wealthier parents will not – even if the student from the wealthier family has an individual income of less than the lower-income family.”

This statement is inaccurate.  Students who’s EFC is less than $5,000 and students who’s EFC is over $5,000 are both eligible for student loans; however, only students who’s EFC is under $5,000 are eligible for most grants distributed based on the FAFSA.]

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2 Responses

  1. Ashley Munro says:

    The section that says “Thusly, a student from a family with an income low enough to get them an EFC of less than $5,000 will receive federal financial aid, while a student who receives no assistance from their wealthier parents will not” is not accurate.

    Almost all students are eligible for federal financial aid, just not in the form that the student would prefer. Any student can receive low-interest student loans, as long as they meet the eligibility criteria (US citizen, Selective Service Verification, no federal drug convictions, etc).

  2. Danny Fisher says:

    Thank you for your comment; I have added a correction to the bottom of the article. I apologize for the poorly phrased statement. The goal was to express that the benefits for students in similar situations are unequal, and I overlooked the connotations of the way I put it.

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