Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Financial Aid and the Middle-Class

A friend of mine made a comment some time ago, when it had come time to fill out the FAFSA for the coming year:
It's so hard to find financial aid when you're a white male; it's all for women and minorities.
The paradox (and ignorance) made me stop and think. Has our college financial aid system gotten so obsessed with helping the oppressed that we forget about the privileged? I don't think so. And when I remembered the sort of family he comes from, it turns out that his comment is really not so one-dimensional.

For the record, he is a white, bisexual male coming from a middle-income, still intact (read: not divorced) family, and he has two colleged-aged brothers, one of which with ADHD. Compare to my situation: I am a white, bisexual female coming from a low-income, divorced family, and I have one college-aged sister, and no one in my family has any major health problems, mental or physical. When I asked my mother how we were going to pay for my college education - and wondered if we could afford for me to go at all - she said, "Don't worry about money, sweetheart. There's plenty of money out there." She was right. There is plenty of money for me as a poor girl with a 3.9 high school GPA and a 3.8 college GPA.

The problem here is not that my friend is a white male complaining from his high throne of privilege about minorities getting all the welfare money. It's not that simple.

There are a lot of flaws in the financial aid system, for everyone. The root cause of nearly all these flaws is simple: there is not enough money. Period. There is only enough money to help out the poor, minorities, and women, and only just. That means that there is very little money to go to the people that need it second most: the middle-class. I have met many, many students - of cultural privilege and average wealth - that struggle with paying bills. These students are getting all the money their parents can afford to give up, if any, and still don't have enough, because their school and their government can't afford to pitch in enough to fill the gap.

But there's more. If these students are not spectacular performers in school, they are probably missing out on merit-based aid too. Not to mention the fact that a large portion of merit-based aid is also need-based. And what if these students come from stingy parents?

"The rich stay rich by being cheap." Some parents simply refuse to invest their money in their children. Here's the major flaw in the system that can't be fixed by more funding: what do you do for kids who come from money, but their parents aren't willing to fork it over? You can't just add a checkbox that says, "Parents refuse to contribute money." I can't think of a safety mechanism for this, and I guess universities and the government hasn't either, because these kids get screwed over regularly. They can't get any need-based financial aid because - judging from their parents' tax returns - they don't need any money. But they don't get any money from their parents either. What can you do for them?

Like I said, I don't think it's a funding problem; I think this is a cultural problem. Our culture tells us that it's okay to be greedy - that's how you get and stay ahead in life. It's the American Dream. But there's a real problem when your greed prevents you from investing in your children's own American Dreams. And it's a real problem when the government refuses to invest in our country's children too.

There are obviously children getting left behind here, and it's not just the poor and the minorities and the oppressed. While these students are generously funded, there is a demographic that is left in the shadows. Just imagine what would happen if the government put that $700 billion into financial aid and public schooling. Our country would have more college graduates to fill skilled jobs that baby-boomers are supposed to be leaving open soon; we would regain the lead in science and technology around the world; we'll draw the world's smartest back into the country. But it looks like the economic meltdown has bought us (no pun intended) a little more time to figure all this out. It seems that the baby-boomers won't be retiring for quite a while yet.

1 comment:

Fairy said...

I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at