Counselor: Financial Aid Process Burdens Low-Income Students

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Editor’s note: A version of this post was originally published on Admitted in March 2016. It’s being republished as part of NACAC’s Best of the Blog series.

Getting into college is only half the battle for teens living in poverty.

To prove eligibility for financial aid, many colleges ask low-income students to submit a mountain of paperwork — going beyond what is required of their middle- and upper-income peers, NACAC member Joshua Steckel wrote in a 2016 opinion column published by The Boston Globe.

The process is burdensome, he noted. Worst of all, it can discourage talented students from accessing the financial support they need to attend college.

One reason applying for aid is different for low-income teens? In order to qualify, America’s neediest students are routinely asked to submit a supplemental form, often called an income-expense report.

“Students from families with very low income need to explain how it is possible to live on such a small amount of money,” explains Steckel, a former New York City public school counselor who now works as  a senior college and career planning manager with the city’s  Office of Postsecondary Readiness.

In the column, Steckel tells the story of one of his former students who was required to gather benefit statements from multiple government agencies in order to record the amount of money her family received through food stamps, heating assistance, rental assistance, and cash benefits.

The student was also tasked with itemizing annual expenses related to “clothes for the family, subway fares not covered by school, the cost of maintaining her and her parent’s cell phone lines, and all household supplies,” writes Steckel.

Steckel — whose book, Hold Fast to Dreams, was a #NACACreads selection — used the column to call for changes to the financial aid application process.

“We ask the most of the students who have the least,” Steckel writes. “…If we truly aspire to a system in which higher education functions as an engine of equity and mobility, then what we’re working with currently is very poorly conceived.”

Read the full op-ed.

Admitted writer/editor Mary Stegmeir welcomes additional comments and story ideas at mstegmeir@nacacnet.org.

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