THE BLOG
10/15/2014 11:53 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

No Aid Left for You

Middle class families are often forgotten, when it comes to scholarships, grants and financial aid. As the costs for housing, food, gas, books and tuition rise, more students are drowning in debt than ever before. Seventy-one percent of college students graduate with debt, according to a 2012 study from the Project on Student Debt report from the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

During the fall, families, like my own, are scrambling to find a way to pay for college. We are desperately searching for scholarships to help cover the cost of my private tuition, but many times we hit a huge roadblock. A large amount of grants and scholarships are need-based and designated for families with low income who are struggling to make ends meet. Students who come from poor backgrounds excel despite the odds and deserve every bit of financial aid.

But students from middle class families are also feeling the pinch. We find ourselves hanging in limbo, often times frustrated. By state standards, our parents make too much for financial aid but not enough to foot the entire bill for tuition. Many of us don't qualify for work-study programs either, and must search for jobs that fit in our schedule or internships that pay.

Some universities in California have tried to bridge that gap. The state has funded a new middle class scholarship to be given to students from families with incomes up to $150,000 a year. Even though thousands of state school students will get an extra boost of aid, many say it's still not enough. Jena Pruitt, a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, says "despite the middle class scholarship, there are not enough scholarships and funds available to middle class families."

Similar to hundreds of other students, Pruitt and her family had trouble finding enough funds to send two kids to college.

"Even though I am a part of the middle class, my mother didn't go to college so throughout the duration of my four years in college, we struggled with the FASA application and struggled to get enough aid for me and my brother, who is also in college," said Pruitt.

"Often times we are not qualified for funds. Not Hispanic enough, make too much, not 'low-income' enough," she continued. Most of the difficulty lies in the financial aid application, says Pruitt.

"[They] are skewed toward the specifics in an application that make you seem not qualified enough or overqualified for funding."

To make it through college, she picked up a job to help with extra finances and applied for outside funding and scholarships. She found small ways to save like buying used books and budgeting her money. Despite the weight of tuition and books, she never let the cost deter her from achieving her dreams. She excelled beyond measure, studying abroad, working in nation's capital and becoming a leader in student government on her campus. With the help of outside scholarships, her mother's support and some extra cash in her savings account, she was able to check things off her college bucket list, one by one. The financial burden was stressful, but luckily, she was able to manage.

Other students aren't so fortunate. There are thousands who have big dreams but are set back because of the costs of tuition, books and rent. They are among the brightest students in the nation but are forced to let go of their aspirations because the dollar isn't stretching far enough.

I, too, have been affected by the cost of college. As a student at a private university, I enjoy the luxury of getting most of the classes I need, sitting in on great lectures and being able to enjoy great facilities, faculty and resources. Yet, when I'm attending career workshops, job interviews, or even class -- I can't help but think of the amount of debt that's piling up behind each day, each week, each semester and every single school year. While most advisors urge students and parents to start paying off their interest now, it's not all that easy. To avoid having to take out a second loan, many of us are working on paying rent, having some cash for transportation and filling up our fridges with food (believe it or not, I've run out of good recipes to spice up Top Ramen). With all of this on our plates, paying down my interest is a little out of reach.

Freshmen and sophomores don't always realize the impact of student loans. But as juniors and seniors inch closer and closer to graduation day, we can't help but think of how we will ever pay off our loans. As of 2012, the average student loan debt hovered around $30,000 nationwide, according to TICAS. California fell below the national average at about $20,000. Yet 52 percent of all college seniors are graduating with that much debt. Debt at graduation for both federal and private loans has increased six percent each year and is still on the rise.

The cost haunts young adults for years to come, a reminder of one the greatest yet most expensive times of their lives. Getting into your dream school may not be all it's cracked up to be after all. The truth is, it's hard enough getting into college but it's even harder to get out of it.