Free Application: All It Costs You Is Your Sanity Plus Interest

Like any good parents of a college bound child, we completed our FAFSA so our son would be eligible, in theory, for financial aid. The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, ironically named since our tax dollars paid both to create the form and for the agency that collects the forms but I guess “free” is a relative term to the government. There’s is a world, remember, where the Internal Revenue Service exists only because of all the External Revenue it collects.

I’ll willingly admit that I’m no genius and my greatest math triumphs where in 8th grade UIL competitions. I’m happy these days to let my wife do the economic gymnastics of robbing Peter to pay Paul with our family finances. But, I do complete our 1040 tax form myself, I can balance a checkbook if a gun is at my head, and I average my students’ grades every semester without much difficulty.

For the most part, I am capable of following directions and completing forms.

So, when I saw all those flyers and emails from my son’s school offering “Help With the FAFSA”, I pretty much ignored them. How complicated can it be?


I forgot it was a government form.

If President Obama is reading this blog (and if you are you should probably be focused on Syria or North Korea right now), perhaps the signature domestic goal of your second term could be revising the FAFSA and the process of federal financial aid. Want to stop terrorism: tell them we’ll leave the middle East if they successfully complete the FAFSA without any mistakes.

When I was a kid, we lived in town where the streets radiating from downtown ended in the word Way: This Way, That Way, Winding Way, Circle Way–you get the idea. You could meet your friends at the intersection of This Way and That Way.

Clearly, the architects of the streets were also hired to help write government forms.

When my son finally decided to attend the state university of his choice, we were immediately told to complete the FAFSA  by the end of January. Except the FAFSA wants us to enter our tax information, tax information we don’t have yet. That’s okay, though, we can fill it out for real later! This information debt, by the way, is a running theme throughout the whole financial aid process.

In the meantime, the government, based on incomplete information about our income and tax estimates and based on the tuition costs of the school he plans to attend (tuition that could increase after the legislative session) generate what they call an estimated family contribution. The EFC is a percentage of the tuition we can pay. The government, then, authorizes aid to make up the rest. For now. Because remember that all the numbers could change in April or May.

Think about that for a minute. The amount of money my son might get from the government is directly related to the potential cost of the university he will attend. Does it take a rocket scientist to see where this is headed? If you are a university and you want to maximize the federal dollars you can get . . .

At least I think that’s how it works. I know I went this way and then that way, but I’m fairly certain I simply circled the entire way. I think I ended up at the intersection of Which Way and What the Heck Did I just Sign Way.

Fortunately, the government isn’t just handing out dollar bills willy-nilly: They have a formula! Unfortunately, the formula was developed by three guys who regularly attend the 4/20 celebration in Colorado. (If you don’t get the reference, click the link and let wikipedia explain.)

Either way, according to our federal financial aid brain trust our estimated family contribution is $15,000.

If I had $15,000 sitting around the house I wouldn’t need any damn financial aid.

Somehow, the government imagines that I have $1250 per month extra. That’s almost twice my house payment.

The good news, of course, is that the government is more than happy to subsidize a loan to cover the remaining college costs (minus the $15000 I will contribute). The bad news is that rising tuition, confusing formulas, and unclear costs create a vicious cycle that hides and obscures the actual costs of a university education.

The school my son will attend costs about $19000 a year for tuition (15 hours), room, and board. Just by applying to school and getting accepted, they gave him $10,000 in merit based aide. In order to give him a discount, someone else has to pay more.  In the long run, though, I will end up paying more because to generate the funding to give my son the discount tuition has to keep rising (remember they set aside 10% each time for scholarships) but my family contribution will remain absurdly high.

In other words, the funding makes absolutely no sense. It’s a shell game that rivals a trip to the hospital in its complexity and duplicity.

Only in America is the government’s basic plan for higher education dependent on burying students and families in debt.

Like health care and taxes, we have created an unnecessarily complex system of financial aid and higher ed costs that are linked in a way that increases costs and decreases aid.

As a population, we have a vested interest in helping people go to college and in creating an accessible system of higher education. I accept that ours is a system that reflects our American values. We expect participants will invest and pay, believing doing so adds value and desire. But we have moved beyond asking people to pay their fair share and have created a system where each person pays a different share.

If we aren’t careful we will have a system where potential college students meet at the intersection of “That Way” and “No Way,” leaving them few options regarding the right way.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Free Application: All It Costs You Is Your Sanity Plus Interest

  1. klyse3 says:

    I’ve filled out a FAFSA twice now…the thing that amuses me the most is that they assume my family is contributing at all!

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