A Flawed System: My Personal Experience with FAFSA and University Financing

I am a 25 year old, single, childless woman, with NO criminal record (not even a speeding ticket). I have never received a grade lower than a B in ANY class I have ever taken. I started college when I was 17 as a concurrently enrolled student, and have since received two degrees: a Bachelors degree in Social Sciences and a Masters degree in European history. I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.A. in 2011 and I had a 4.0 my entire career as a Masters student. 

I am not artistically or athletically talented. I don’t have any awesome abilities that can score me an epic job making millions and I am not particularly good at math (in part due to my own disability, but also in large part due to growing up in the military public school systems in Georgia and Hawaii). I like to learn about history, languages, religions, etc. and I am good at learning and writing about these things. Therefore, I made a choice when I was about 19 years old that I was going to pursue academia, instead of marrying and building a family like many of my peers. I understood and still understand that every choice in life comes with complications and that I am inexplicably lucky and fortunate to live in a time period and location where I am even allowed to educate myself.

Now, with all of these details out of the way…

Every year since 2009-2010 I have applied for, and received a loan from the government in order to pay for my education. Until I was 23 I filed for the loans using my parents’ tax information and therefore received very little from the government. As of right now, with two degrees, I owe around $25,000: $6500+interest from the 2009-2010 academic year, the rest from 2011-2013 for my Masters/PhD degree. Beginning in 2011, I filed for FAFSA funds as an independent filer. Although I still live at home, my loan eligibility is calculated based on my yearly income, which is very small. Since 2011, I have been offered around $18,000 a year by the government. Not wanting to put myself in a financial position that I will never get out of, I only accept around $8,000 a year form FAFSA and with a tuition bill of around $6,000 a year, I only get a loan of about $2,000 a year for other expenses, such as books and incidentals when my salary will not cover them. As an undergraduate student you can receive “subsidized” loans, which means that you are not charged interest while you are enrolled in classes. Unluckily for me and every other graduate student, this is not the case for post secondary education. There are no subsidized or deferred interest loans and they raised interest rates. You begin paying interest whenever you receive the funds: I go to bed deeper in debt every day. Also, the interest rate has steadily increased since I received my first loan in 2009 and I now pay between 5.5 and 6.8 percent interest (my loans are broken up by semester-as outlined above-so the different loans each have different interest rates).

I completed my Masters degree in December, but had already been accepted to the PhD program at my current institution and began courses counting towards my PhD, while still finishing my Masters.

In January 2012, I applied for FAFSA for the 2013-2014 academic year which would include one full time semester as a Masters student and one full time semester as a PhD student. I was approved, once again, for around $18,000 and accepted $8,000. My last semester as a Masters student was covered by the FAFSA loan and I received the funds the week school started, paid my tuition, and deposited the remainder in my savings account. I enrolled in courses as usual and went on about my business. I finished my degree in December, as I stated above, and immediately enrolled in courses for my PhD. I enrolled in one graduate seminar course, Italian 2, and French 1.

I am a European historian, concentrating on modern Italy and minoring in Italian (the language). This means that I study Italy from around the end of the 18th century to present day. If you don’t know anything about Italy, it has been colonized by many major European kingdoms/countries over the centuries (prior to and during the period I study) and French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin have been/are spoken on the peninsula-albeit by different classes of people. Therefore, I need to learn these languages to adequately study the history of the kingdoms that came together to create the country in the 1860s, as well as the history of the country since then.

Now, every year I provide my tax information to the federal government and they give my university my loan and my university  deposits the money in a checking account I have at the university (separate from my personal checking and savings account at another bank). I outlined the process above, but it did not go that way this semester.

I looked at my tuition bill and balance of my school account on the first day of class, in the middle of January: I owed around $3,500 for tuition and no remaining funds had been deposited in my university bank account. I immediately called the student services office and asked what the problem was and what I could do to fix it. I was told that I had no holds on my account, but that I needed to complete “loan exit counseling” for my Masters degree and then my loan money would be disbursed the following week. I went home immediately and completed the exit counseling on the FAFSA website and waited for my funds. Two weeks went by and I still owed money for tuition and still hadn’t had any funds deposited in my account. I called student services again and was told that they couldn’t help me and that I now needed to call the financial aid and scholarship office, which I immediately did. Financial aid now told me that a hold had been put on my account because my graduation paperwork hadn’t been processed and I was still in the system as a Masters student, pending graduation. Obviously, I was quite confused because two weeks prior I had no holds on my account and was instructed to just wait for my funds. I told the financial aid office this wasn’t the case and that I had graduated 3 months prior and was now a full time PhD student. Once again, I was told the error had been corrected and I would receive my money the following week and once again, I received no money. I called again and was now told that because I was enrolled in two undergraduate courses that I was considered a part-time graduate student and would not get my FAFSA funds. I had two problems with this: if that was the case, why wasn’t I told the first day of classes when I could have dropped the language courses and enrolled in two more graduate history courses, and how are foreign language classes considered “nonessential” for a history student? I expressed my concern and was told that if I could secure a letter from my department saying that I needed the classes for my degree, that the financial aid office would release my funds. I immediately went to my department and asked for a letter, but was then told they couldn’t give me a letter because I already met my language requirement during my time as a Masters student, so taking additional languages was indeed “nonessential”. They said the only option I had was to contact the head of my PhD committee and get them to agree that I needed to take additional foreign languages. Since this is my first semester as a PhD student I haven’t selected a committee yet, and instead I contacted the former head of my Masters committee. Thankfully they agreed to write a letter, which I was able to deliver to the financial aid office on Friday afternoon.

So, as of right now, not only do I owe $25,000 at 6.8 percent interest which accrues daily, but I also owe $3,500 for this current semester’s tuition.

All this being said, if for some reason the financial aid office doesn’t accept this letter, I will either have to immediately come up with $3,500 or quit and come back next semester-forfeiting my employment at the university as it is awarded based on full time enrollment. Thankfully, I do not depend on my loan money to pay bills or survive, but I know many students that do. How are people that live off of loans during graduate school supposed to be financially responsible, when they are not warned or informed about the stipulations of disbursement? I had no clue that foreign languages were considered no essential and was allowed to take Italian 1 last semester, with no financial consequences. I don’t understand why I am punished for educating myself. Why is the university not required to tell you the rules yet they are allowed to withhold your funds at any time. What are students with families supposed to do when this happens?

I find it quite sad that I have consistently made positive life choices, but I am being denied the right to educate myself because I am taking a French language class instead of a graduate history class. But on that same note, I realize I am not above the rules and would have been willing to comply with those rules, had I been informed that learning European languages as a European history student was not considered essential to my degree.

What are your thoughts on funding for higher education? Are you a student? If so, have you every had difficulties paying tuition and other expenses? If you could change laws or policies, what would your solution for the cost of higher education be?