Navigating the College Financial Aid Process: Unique Challenges for First-Generation Students

04/12/2016 05:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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By Robin Levi, Advisor
Students Rising Above

The words "filling out financial aid documents" strike fear into the minds of most parents. The endless questions, filing taxes months early, the search for documents you didn't even know you had. The whole process is designed to give even the toughest person a stomach ache. Now imagine that you are a high school senior trying to make sense and fill out these financial aid forms, in addition to searching for and obtaining the required back-up documentation. That is what more than 100 Students Rising Above (SRA) high school seniors do every year to achieve their dream of becoming a first-generation college student.

Our students realize that they are requesting support worth as much as a quarter of a million dollars, so they complete all of these forms willingly and without complaint. But that doesn't make the process any easier. Moreover, first-generation students often encounter additional challenges when it comes to completing the already complex assortment of financial aid documents, which may include the following:

Obtaining Key Financial Information
The first and biggest hurdle that many of our students face is explaining to their parents the importance of providing the necessary financial information to complete the financial aid forms. When money is tight, finances become an even more painful topic than they are otherwise. In many cases, the conversation makes the parent feel like a child and the child feel like a parent.

Meeting Tax Filing Deadlines
In some cases, it is particularly difficult to get parents to file taxes early or even on time. This puts a lot of stress on the parent-child relationship. In addition, many parents do not have a traditional single job- they will work several jobs with the accompanying multiple W-2s, 1099s, etc. Some parents have jobs, for example, in construction or even in recycling cans and bottles that sometimes do not provide income verification. Finally, students often have to initiate the gathering of government assistance documentation, which can sometimes be overwhelming and typically is difficult to discuss.

Guiding Undocumented Parents
Another challenge is when a parent files taxes, but does not have a Social Security number because they are undocumented. It used to be that you could just say the Social Security number is 000-00-0000, but a change to this year's Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has made that impossible. Consequently, students whose parents diligently pay taxes to the United States every year via an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) found their FAFSA applications getting rejected because of their parent's lack of a Social Security number.

Deciphering the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE
Required by most private colleges, the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE (PROFILE) is known to make even grown adults who work in financial services cower. The PROFILE enables students to apply online for non-federal financial aid from hundreds of colleges and scholarship programs, but involves multiple pages requesting extremely complicated financial information- little of which is typically relevant to incoming first-generation students. Of course, in many ways it is easier for our students to type zero multiple times, than for those people who do need to supply all of that complicated financial information, but no less stressful. Moreover, the PROFILE balks at the realities common among low-income students: The house is worth less than their parents paid, or everyone has the same amount in their bank account (because it's the minimum). Consequently, students need to use an override method that one can only learn about by calling the company.

Involving Non-Custodial Parents
Another challenge is the requirement that the non-custodial parent also fill out the PROFILE. Commonly, non-custodial parents have never provided any financial support and are unwilling to fill out this form. In many cases, students do not even know where to find their non-custodial parent. This means that a waiver must be obtained to complete the financial aid application. While SRA has never had a non-custodial waiver denied, every single school has its own waiver policy, usually involving a form which needs to be downloaded from their website, or in some cases requested via email. Each school typically requests at least one letter from a non-related, third party documenting the fact that the non-custodial parent will not fill out the form. Finally, these documents need to be signed by the student and parent and mailed off to the schools. Sometimes the custodial parent may balk at having to fill out these forms or provide additional information.

Determining Dependency Status
In some instances, there is no parent to provide any financial information. This is where things can get very complicated. For students in foster care, it requires jumping through some extra hoops, but the process, at least, is straightforward. However, in many cases, it isn't clear-cut. For example, there are many times when a student is living with another relative or adult, but that individual does not have legal custody or guardianship. The question arises about whose financial information should the student provide. Sometimes the person without physical custody claims the student on their taxes. The whole situation forces to students to wade into the very murky waters of their legal status.

In addition, the federal government and colleges have a very high standard for independent students. The schools require that students fill out forms establishing their independent status. Similar to non-custodial waivers, each school has its own form. The verification process for proving foster care and guardianship is incredibly arduous. In contrast to non-custodial waivers, SRA students have not always had independent status granted. There have been many situations when we are requested to provide financial information from people our student has not seen for years, and who will never provide any financial support.

Mentoring to Ensure Success

Our students jump through all these hoops and more because they deeply want a college education, and understand that they cannot achieve that dream without first securing financial support. While SRA Advisors are there to guide them through every step, the process remains a deeply daunting one. We remain committed to our students throughout their collegiate experience and provide ongoing mentoring, access to our online College2Careers Hub, and job preparation and counseling. We do that to ensure our students will graduate from college and find meaningful jobs in their communities. Providing the necessary guidance to successfully navigate through these initial financial aid hurdles is the first step to making the dream of a college education a reality.

Robin Levi graduated from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and Stanford Law School. She joined Students Rising Above in 2012 as a College Outreach Coordinator, and provides ongoing mentorship to SRA's low-income, first-generation college students from college admissions through entering the workforce.