Brittney Flinn used to live part-time with her father. Until she asked him to fill out her FAFSA form to attend Temple University.
Flinn, a freshman biology major, filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form for the first time last year with the help of her mother TracyAnn Fleming in the kitchen of their Manchester, Maryland home. She had earlier approached her father to provide information for the form and received immediate pushback.
“I never asked him for money,” Flinn said. “I never asked him for help with college. I just asked that he fill out the forms.”
Her father didn’t share his tax information for the form, even after she explained to him that he wouldn’t have to pay anything. This sparked a massive conflict between the two, and she hasn’t lived with him since.
The FAFSA process can be a pathway or a barrier for students to afford college.
Students who file independently or parents who aren’t familiar with the FAFSA process often have difficulty completing it. Some are frustrated that their eligibility for financial aid is closely tied to their parent’s finances, even if they don’t receive financial help from them. For others, the process is a breeze when they have a lot of parental support. And at most times, the financial aid package determined by the FAFSA form doesn’t provide students with enough aid to cover the cost of college to make it affordable.
Almost all Temple students have financial need. Of 23,818 undergraduate students who filed the 2017-18 FAFSA, Student Financial Services awarded aid to about 20,700 of those students. Temple had 26,642 full-time undergraduates enrolled in Fall 2017 — meaning only about 6,000 students did not receive a form of financial aid last academic year.
For a university that is one of the highest recipients of Federal Pell Grants in Philadelphia, students have vastly different experiences when applying and receiving financial aid. How do students navigate the FAFSA, and how is the university trying to simplify an overwhelming process?
Sydney Rosebrough, a sophomore sport and recreation management major, didn’t re-qualify for a Temple University Grant because she filed the FAFSA after Temple’s March 1 priority-filing deadline. This deadline is nearly four months earlier than the federal deadline to file by June 30.
She lost a few thousand dollars from her financial aid package — money she had been counting on in her financial aid package.
If a student’s FAFSA is completed after March 1, Student Financial Services can’t give them priority consideration since “all funding sources may not be available,” according to the Undergraduate Admissions website. Students with priority status are considered for six different types of financial aid including the Pell Grant, work-study funds and, if they’re a resident, the Pennsylvania State Grant.
The FAFSA requires the about 20 million students who apply each year to report their parents’ names, date of birth, social security number and finances, like income and investments. Students must also provide their own personal and financial information.
Federal Student Aid uses the FAFSA and the Expected Family Contribution formula to calculate a student’s financial need, according to its website. Schools then use this to determine a student’s financial aid package.
For students like Christopher Castaneda, a freshman political science major, the process of filling out the FAFSA to receive financial aid is easy because his mother fills out the form.
But this isn’t the case for everyone. Many of the 20 students The Temple News spoke with said their parents helped them fill out the FAFSA. And some described the process as “stressful” and “excruciating.”
“It took a lot of planning and searching through things and just talking about what information we need,” said Bianca Van Cleef, a freshman early childhood-elementary education major. “Lots of stress and yelling on both sides from me and my parents.”
There wasn’t a pay-off afterward because the money offered in her financial aid package wasn’t satisfying, she added.
For other students, applying for financial aid is uncharted territory.
Lauren Butler, a senior environmental studies major and first-generation college student, said it was a nightmare filling out the FAFSA for the first time.
“Not only was FAFSA hard because I had to sort of figure it out on my own, but I also had to explain it to my mother,” Butler said.
First-generation students and their parents often face a learning curve when filing the FAFSA.
Butler’s mother, Ulrike Geib, moved to the U.S. from Germany in her 20s and wasn’t familiar with FAFSA. The pair argued about which tax form to use and the financial questions, Butler said.
In Fall 2016, about 15 percent of Temple’s incoming freshman and about 24 percent of transfer students had parents who didn’t attend college, according to the New Student Questionnaire.
Corine White, a senior early childhood-elementary education major and first-generation college student, said the form contained a lot of jargon she had to interpret. And financial literacy classes weren’t offered at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts in South Philadelphia.
White’s mother, Sharla White, suggested what to put down. But both of them were unsure what some questions meant, Corine White said.
“I wasn’t sure how much FAFSA was actually going to help being that we didn’t know if we were filling out this information correctly or not,” Corine White added.
Rachel Albert, a senior recreational therapy major and first-generation college student, said she never understood the form’s questions.
“I just have so much trouble filling it out,” she said. “And then I think it’s done and Temple tells me it’s incomplete or filled it out wrong.”
After all that work and stress, students aren’t guaranteed any or enough money to cover the costs of college.
Student financial situations are becoming more complex, but funding for SFS meant to help students is limited, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a higher education professor and founder of The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.
“We deserve more support from the state and from donors so that we can do this better,” she said. “… Financial aid officers essentially are being asked to act like social workers. You’re being asked to sit there and do this counseling about really complicated situations.”
Jasmine McNeil, a junior psychology major, transferred to Temple in Fall 2018 from Rowan College at Burlington County, a New Jersey community college. It was her first time filing a FAFSA and the questions had her mind going in circles, she said.
“I was putting down exactly what was on my mom’s tax return and it was saying things didn’t add up,” said McNeil, a first-generation college student.
After receiving financial aid, McNeil owed about $5,000. She couldn’t get a loan, and couldn’t attend Temple this semester, she said. She plans to return in Fall 2019 after she saves up enough money.
About 3.9 million students dropped out of college with federal student loan debt in fiscal years 2015 and 2016, according to The Hechinger Report, a news outlet focusing on inequality in education.
“If I knew what I know now, I would have saved probably $5,000 before I even went to school,” McNeil added.
For students who do not receive any financial support from the parents, navigating the FAFSA can be a different and sometimes daunting task.
A student’s dependency status determines whether or not their parent’s information is required to complete the FAFSA, according to the Federal Student Aid website. These questions help schools identify independent students.
Emily Satifka, a 2014 political science alumna, said at first she wasn’t sure how to fill out her FAFSA because she was in the foster care system and emancipated from her parents. The Achieving Independence Center, a nonprofit in North Philadelphia that serves foster care youth, told Satifka about the dependency question for students who were in foster care.
In the 2019-20 FAFSA, there are 10 dependency questions for students who are experiencing homelessness, emancipated minors, veterans of the U.S. armed forces and more. Students who are 24 years old and up as of Dec. 31 are also considered independent.
Students can request a change to their dependency status through their school’s financial aid office.
Sandra Mejia, the associate director of SFS, leads a team that handles dependency override cases for students who can’t provide parent information. Estranged parents don’t qualify a student as independent, so those students can only receive unsubsidized loans from FAFSA that are not need-based, Mejia said.
Goldrick-Rab said a number of students, especially LGBTQ students, don’t receive financial support from their parents.
“If you have an assumption in the financial aid system that parents are paying for their so-called children, and they’re in fact not, then these are adults who are very much on their own when paying for school,” she said.
SEEKING HELP AND RESOURCES
Students commonly file incorrect tax information, don’t include the all necessary information or use the wrong income tax return, Mejia said. Income tax returns from 2017, the prior-prior year, are required for the 2019-20 FAFSA, which former President Barack Obama started in 2016.
“The whole thought behind that is that we know in January people didn’t file their current tax returns. So right now, you could do your FAFSA because it’s based on an older tax return,” Mejia said.
To reduce FAFSA filing woes, the form should be completed early to meet school and state deadlines, and students should start applying for scholarships now, Mejia added.
Students can use iGrad, a financial resource located in TUportal’s Costs and Aid tab, to find scholarships and directions for filing the FAFSA.
The SFS office is hosting a walk-in workshop to help students file the 2019-20 FAFSA on Feb. 7 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Carnell Hall. But the office always allows students to walk in with questions, Mejia said.
“It doesn’t matter what your question is,” Mejia said. “You can always come in and speak to somebody.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the date of Student Financial Services’ filing workshop. It is on Feb. 7.