For aid, FAFSA neglects students’ special financial circumstances

Last year, 658 University of Minnesota students appealed their financial aid awards.

Jill Jensen

Students cut off financially by their parents can slip through the cracks when the University of Minnesota awards financial aid.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid  calculates parents’ estimated financial contribution, which is then used to award aid for tuition. It’s based on the principle that the family has the primary responsibility to pay for their child’s education, as opposed to other taxpayers, financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz said.

But that structure doesn’t address a problem in its financial aid policy — students whose parents don’t support them through college.

Kantrowitz said the majority of emails he receives are from students whose parents refuse to pay for college because they disagree with their sexual or religious orientation.

“It’s clear that this is a very serious issue,” said Kantrowitz, the publisher of fastweb.com and finaid.org, which help students understand and find financial aid.

The federal government specifically states that a college cannot issue additional financial aid to students whose parents refuse to pay for college or who are financially self-sufficient.

Of 2010-11 University undergraduates, about 23,000 completed the FAFSA and received student aid, according to the school’s data.

FAFSA became available on Jan. 1 and needs to be completed by April 15 for returning students to receive “priority,” an increased likelihood of getting more scholarships and grants that don’t have to be repaid.

While the initial process is a hassle-free 20 minutes for most students filling out the application, students with special circumstances might have to appeal for additional aid.

Aid for special circumstances

Students who are financially self-sufficient are still classified as a dependent student until age 24, except for special circumstances like being married or a military veteran.

That means that although some parents cut off their students, aid is still based on their parents’ paycheck.

Effective since 1993, Kantrowitz said the policy changed because it was “abuse-prone” — families were creating bogus situations so the government would pay for their child’s education.

“There’s no way to distinguish a student who has a very difficult family situation from one where the parents are trying to simply game the system.”

But there are options for students who just can’t pay the bill.

University students can appeal their financial aid award because of special circumstances.

Increased financial need during the recession pushed the number of students appealing because of special circumstances up to 777 appeals in 2009-10, said Deb Pusari, associate director of loan and undergraduate services in the Office of Student Finance.

The following year it dropped to 658, and she said it looks to be about the same for the 2011-12 year.

Both dependent and independent students can fill out an online application to receive additional financial aid funds if their families have had a significant decline in income because of job loss, divorce, death or others.

“We do have a way to deal with that,” Pusari said.

If students are removed from an unsafe house or abandoned by their parents, they can also appeal the dependency classification, she said, but that is rare.

“It’s for those very special circumstances.”

There are also situations the federal government doesn’t take into account, so the University provides support for students who, for example, used up all their loan money.

For students who have high need and absolutely no other options, there is a fund to help them out — the University Trust Fund Loan, which generally awards $2,000. But these are limited, Pusari said, and the Office of Student Finance usually tries “to give them federal money first.”

Students whose parents were denied a PLUS loan also qualify for an extra $2,000 in unsubsidized loans.

Students need to consult with a financial aid counselor at One Stop Student Services to find out their options.

“[We] try to work with them on an individual basis based on their situation,” Pusari said.