A Student’s Poignant Realization: There IS a Way to Make College Work

By: Lara Fox | Friday, February 24, 2017


“Really? You know the color of your dad’s first car?” I asked with surprise.

A grin shot across Ignacio’s face. “Yeah. It was a ’57 yellow Chevy. I know because it’s where I used to sleep.”

He said it like it was an off-hand fact, turning back immediately to the Federal Student Aid website on which he was creating an FSA ID—the secure log-in key that, as of last year, all students and their parents each have to create to complete the FASFA—for his dad. His father didn’t have an email address, so Ignacio had made one for him. Now he was thinking of security questions for his dad, just as he had for himself, since most of those pre-built into the site didn’t resonate with him.

The whole process of creating Ignacio’s and his father’s FSA IDs took a little over 20 minutes. As he clicked the Save button, Ignacio pushed his chair back from the desk and turned to his uAspire College Affordability Advisor, Carmen, to ask if that was it for the FAFSA.

“No!” She laughed, with a bit of a grimace. “That was just to set up your log-in. Now we have to sign into the actual form.”

Ignacio’s face, for the slightest moment, showed surprise—and then he rolled back toward the laptop, his fingers already flying as he signed into the FAFSA.gov website that Carmen had opened.

Ignacio is a good-natured young man, and he was excited to complete the FAFSA, despite not knowing what it entailed. The last time he’d met with Carmen, he’d told her that he assumed his family earned too much money for him to get financial aid. She’d pointed to a printed chart she’d tacked to the wall that shows the family income cut-offs for the Cal Grant A and B—two of the state’s need-based grants, established to ensure that low-income students can access higher education—and highlighted for him that, with his 3.4 GPA, he qualified both academically and financially for the Cal Grant A. With relief, he had then signed up for this advising session to get to work on the financial aid application process.

As Carmen guided Ignacio through entering the information from his parents’ tax form into the FAFSA, I did the math in my head. Their family income—including $2,000 that Ignacio had earned through his jobs as a busser at a restaurant and as a mechanic—was $91,000. I understood why to Ignacio this sounded high; we work with students whose family incomes are $30,000 or $10,000 annually. But with a family size of seven, and in the city of San Francisco—which has one of the highest Area Median Incomes in the country—Ignacio’s family income falls squarely in the middle of the “low-income” range. That is, for a family of seven in San Francisco in 2016, an income up to $122,000—80% of Area Median Income—would be considered low-income.

Despite that, as Ignacio finished his FAFSA and Carmen began to review with him the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) that the subsequent Student Aid Report spit out, she had to gently explain that he would not be getting a federal Pell grant. Ignacio’s EFC was just $200 above the Pell cut-off—an income limit set identically across each state, no matter the severe difference in cost of living in a city like San Francisco and a town in the Central Valley.

Carmen explained that there was a way to make this work. With the Cal Grant A covering his tuition at any public college in California, Ignacio could cut the cost of room and board entirely by living at home and attending SF State. He’d just have to come up with funds to cover books and fees—but that would be doable with his earnings from jobs, for example. So he could go to four-year college, which he’d never, before working with Carmen, imagined would be an option.

Ignacio smiled reassuringly at Carmen and me. “I have to live at home anyway—for personal reasons.”

I felt two things at that moment. On the one hand, tremendous relief that uAspire had just helped a young man with an incredible work ethic and character find out that he can achieve something he never thought would be financially available to him. On the other, I understood the adult life that Ignacio is already leading. He works to help cover family expenses. He will live at home, no doubt, to help care for his four younger siblings while his parents are at work. That subject had come up earlier. Carmen had a question for his parents but he hadn’t wanted to call them—at 10:30 a.m.—because he didn’t want to wake them up. I’d asked if they work late, and he’d nodded, explaining that he picks them up every night at midnight.

I admire Ignacio’s commitment is to his family, and to himself. I am so grateful that Carmen could help him uphold both. Ignacio was fundamentally happy at the end of the session—his future clear to him, and fuller with opportunity than he’d ever expected.