Evanson: The Pell Grant Debacle


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When there are billions of dollars left unclaimed on the financial aid table, you have a big problem. The financial struggle that college students go through is nothing new — college kids have been broke for years. It is ironic then that the money designed to help thousands of students isn’t used, not because it is not being available but because of bureaucratic processes and submitting FAFSA paperwork.

Nearly $225 million in Pell Grant money went unclaimed in 2014 alone, as reported in the March 24 edition of The Daily Iowan. This isn’t loan money to be repaid again in the future. Nor is this money in the form of a scholarship that is only awarded to select students. This is federal Pell Grant money, given to any undergraduate student who applies. As long as you aren’t in prison or facing impending incarceration, you are eligible to receive the grant to cover the expenses of attending an undergraduate college.

More than 6,000 students in Iowa qualified for Pell Grants last year but didn’t receive the money they were due because of one little thing: They didn’t submit a FAFSA.

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) consists of a series of forms that are filled out to streamline the process of determining the amount of aid that are prospective students are eligible to receive. It sounds like an easy enough process, right?

It’s not easy for everyone. Thousands of students didn’t fill one out and I refuse to believe that it was because they didn’t want to be given thousands of dollars in grants to attend the college of their choice. It comes down to high-school students being educated on what exactly a FAFSA is and to further provide them with support to have the resources to fill one out. A FAFSA form will feel like a straightforward process to a student who has the guidance from a mother and father who both graduated from college.

If your parents happen to be separated, there’s even more scrambling to find the numbers necessary to complete the forms. Some parents aren’t supportive or as available as others to help guide potential students to reach their dreams of college. I am aware that the purposes of the exhaustive hoops that are to be jumped through by the prospective student are in place for a reason. There needs to be some sort of valuation to determine how much Pell Grant money one deserves in accordance with their own financial needs in relation to their parent’s income.

But my fear is those who deserve it most, the students with parents who don’t have college degrees or who don’t make much money to pay for their child’s education, are the exact ones who don’t even apply.

FAFSA has its particular process and does not try to purposely increase the associated “costs” to prevent students from applying and receiving the millions of financial aid left on the table. The problem can be solved by better educating college bound students in high school. It’s key to identify potential students who might have a tougher time working through the forms and to explain to them what it is for and what they’ll need to complete it. All high schools embrace the idea that obtaining a college education is important. Few schools pragmatically help students get one.

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