When You Can't Afford College Tuition, But Don't Qualify For Financial Aid

by Annie Reneau
Originally Published: 
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We recently filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA) for our daughter’s first year of college. Talk about a daunting moment in parenting.

When the response to our application arrived, however, all of my nostalgic, how-did-we-get-here-so quickly thoughts were quickly replaced with, “Uhhh, they think we can pay WHAT?!”

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Our EFC—“Expected Family Contribution” that the FAFSA tells us we should be able to pay out of pocket after all of the federal loans we qualify for is accounted for—is $9,000.

Nine. Thousand. Dollars. During one school year.

My husband and I sit solidly in the middle of middle class. My husband has worked full-time throughout our marriage, while I’ve maintained part-time work since we started our family. We’ve never made anywhere close to six figures, and have lived in areas with a variety of costs-of-living.

We’ve always made enough to pay our bills with a little leftover. In the past few years, we have paid off our ten-year-old cars. We have no credit card debt, thankfully. We have put a modest amount into my husband’s 401K, but we don’t have as much built up as financial experts advise.

We have virtually no college savings for our three kids. We paid off my husband’s school loans a few years ago, but I still have tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt of my own to pay off.

I would love for the FAFSA folks to come to my house, look through our budget, and tell me where they can find an extra $9,000.

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This scenario is familiar to a lot of middle class families. In fact, it was familiar to me, as my parents went through the same thing twenty years ago. (Which is how I ended up with so much student loan debt.)

When I was young, my mom was a stay-at-home mom running a daycare out of our home, and my dad was a social worker—not a high-income situation. My mom started nursing school at age 36, and by the time I was in high school, she was working as a labor and delivery nurse. We became a dual-income family just in time for me to apply for financial aid for college.

I’ll admit up front that we made some naive mistakes when it came to college. I opted to go to a small, private college that was far away. I had always been a great student and my parents wanted me to be able to go to school where I wanted. We knew college was expensive, but didn’t research the differences in costs between schools very thoroughly. That was our first mistake.

Because my parents hadn’t made much money while I was growing up (I remember eating government cheese at one point), they didn’t have any college savings for us kids. And because they were making a solid middle class income by the time I graduated, we didn’t qualify for a whole lot of financial aid.

I got some scholarships, a couple of small grants, and some federal loans, but it still wasn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of tuition, room and board, and travel halfway across the country. So we took out private loans. That was our second mistake.

I graduated with honors and became . . . wait for it . . . a teacher. Third mistake. At that time, the starting salary for a teacher in the small town in Iowa where I did my student teaching was $19,000 a year. My student loan payment was going to be $400 a month. There was no way for that math to work out, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it at that point.

Twenty years later, I’m married with three children. I’ve worked part-time as a teacher, tutor, or writer ever since our kids were babies. And I’m still not even close to paying off my student loans.

Like my parents, my husband and I just started making a little more money in the last year or two, just in time for us to fill in the FAFSA for our daughter. And even though I know so much more now and can avoid many of the mistakes my parents and I made, it still feels frustrating to be at this in-between space.

The FAFSA’s Expected Family Contribution doesn’t take into consideration the headgear and braces my youngest has to start this year to correct his wicked crossbite. It doesn’t take into account the years when we weren’t making as much and couldn’t save a lot. It doesn’t consider that one of our two paid-off cars needs thousands of dollars in repairs or it’s going to die soon.

If we were much worse off, we’d quality for grants. If we were much better off, we’d be able to pay for school out of pocket or with 529 savings. Instead, we’re stuck in the middle with some financial aid algorithm that assumes we have thousands of dollars that we don’t actually have.

Our daughter will be attending a state school, so we’re not even looking at outrageous tuition. But college costs are high, even at public universities. Books alone are ridiculously expensive, as we’ve learned from the community college classes she’s taken during high school. (Side rant: Why does a basic college algebra textbook with an online code cost $200, when basic algebra hasn’t changed in hundreds of years and Khan academy has online algebra classes for free? It’s maddening.)

I don’t mean to sound like I’m unhappy about being middle class. I’m grateful that my husband and I are both able to work and we don’t struggle to afford the basics. Yes, we can scrimp and save here and there, and we will. Yes, my daughter can work, and she will. She’s an accomplished violinist, so we’re counting on some scholarship money there. We’ll figure it out somehow, but the whole thing is far more financially daunting than it should be.

I can’t help but look at countries around the world where higher education is offered to all citizens at much lower costs than here—or is fully funded through taxes, like our public elementary and secondary schools—and feel frustrated that college here means drowning in debt for so many bright, dedicated Americans.

If people want to look into why the American middle class is disappearing, maybe start with the financial aid office.

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