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OPINION: With financial aid processes more broken than ever, here’s what families can do

March 26, 2024
By Jonathan Lewis

OPINION: With financial aid processes more broken than ever, here’s what families can do

The federal government’s financial aid application, known as the FAFSA, has been plagued with problems since its new version launched December 30, three months late. This is a major problem for the more than 70 percent of undergraduates who rely on some type of financial aid to pay for their education, because they’ll have less time than ever to make a decision about one of the biggest expenses of their lives.

What can parents do? The best first step is one that’s often the hardest for parents: Start a conversation about what you can afford. Research has shown that middle-class families rarely discuss the trade-offs and uncertainties related to paying for college, even though an honest conversation may prevent future financial headaches and relational heartache. The biggest reason? Parents may not want to burden their children with financial worries.

As a researcher at uAspire, a nonprofit that tries to help students learn about and access financial aid, I find that concerning. But I know how hard these discussions can be.

My own family didn’t talk about how we’d pay for college more than 25 years ago. I remember when the promissory notes arrived at my house, on green postcards, written in a tiny font size. I didn’t ask a single person what they meant, and no one in my family explained them to me — I just signed and mailed them back. Loans appeared to offer a bridge from my high school reality to an independent, adult life far from home. What I didn’t realize is how many of my future choices would be limited for the next 21 years, until those loans were finally paid off. Making room in my postcollege budget for loan payments affected where I could afford to live, how many hours I had to work, how often I could eat out, whether I could afford to travel to a friend’s wedding and whether I could donate to charities, among other choices.

Of course, the amount of financial damage I could do to myself back then was more limited than it would be now. Tuition charges alone have more than tripled at my alma mater, Northwestern University, since I was a student, rising from less than $20,000 a year in 1998 to nearly $65,000 this past fall.

To muster the bravery for a financial talk, it may help parents to know that this process is complicated for every family. The FAFSA — the first step in a lengthy process to unlock grants, loans, work-study and other forms of financial aid — has been imperfect since its inception in 1992. This new version promises to be simpler and award Pell Grants to over 600,000 more students from low-income families — major policy wins. Yet families largely have not found FAFSA to be simpler. It’s improving, but the growing pains are being felt by students and parents everywhere.

That’s why it is so imperative for families to talk now, while there is still time to listen, share and make a plan, before placing a deposit somewhere.

Once you do start talking, the conversation with your child should cover a few things: What can our family afford to pay up front to start college? What sources — savings, or a part-time job, for example — can your child rely on for day-to-day expenses during college? And what can they comfortably pay back later based on their expected employment earnings?

There are other things you can do, too. First, complete the FAFSA as soon as possible. Second, review the financial aid offers once they arrive — even though they will likely arrive later than usual this year — and make sure you understand the different types of aid being offered.

My organization offers a free tool — a college cost calculator — to compare notoriously confusing aid offers. Since fewer than half of the students who begin a bachelor’s degree will graduate within four years, choose an institution with the most sustainable financing plan, one you could manage for up to six years. Browse government websites like Federal Student Aid and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or industry sites like NerdWallet, to learn about the pros and cons of different types of education loans before accepting any. The Institute of Student Loan Advisors can offer advice if you have questions about loan repayment, including forgiveness and consolidation. Appeal your aid offer if your financial situation has changed dramatically since what was captured by your 2022 tax return; resources on the SwiftStudent website can help you get started.

Of course, these are all individual actions to mitigate the effects of our broken system. Until there’s true change in how we pay for college, students and their families must be vigilant and proactive — starting now.

​​​​​​Jonathan Lewis is the senior director of research at uAspire, a nonprofit group that works to ensure students have the necessary financial information and resources to complete college.

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