Given the impending budget cuts set to decimate school budgets across the country, many students are worried about their financial aid opportunities. Last week, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) released an especially timely report on the perilous current state of financial aid. Among its many policy considerations, NASFAA suggested the following changes to the financial aid system:
- Use financial aid funds “as a lever to change institutional and student behavior” by offering “Super Pell” grants to encourage students to take more credit hours per semester and using funds to “incentivize schools to create an environment that fosters better-than-predicted student outcomes.”
- Reform student loans by helping underprepared students stay in school and avoid defaults by implementing a “Student Loan Eligibility Index” to “shield academically-unprepared students from loan indebtedness.”
- Educate students about their projected incomes and then guarantee Income-Based Repayment plans for all student loan borrowers.
- “Rethink entitlement and professional judgment” by giving colleges and universities “the authority to limit borrowing for groups of students while still allowing – on a case-by-case basis – students to borrow up to the federal annual loan limit.”
Some of these may be very effective. They certainly would constitute an enormous change to the way our current financial aid system works. For the most part, just about anyone is eligible for financial aid. The Federal Student Aid Office of the U.S. Department of Education offers a useful infographic that explains who is eligible for aid, but its website also pretty well sums it up in the statement, “Most people are eligible for financial aid for college or career school.” Only a few groups are automatically barred from receiving financial aid, such as those convicted of certain drug offenses. However, situation can be complicated, so the Federal Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA) even offers a Drug Conviction Worksheet for those who need to determine if their pot bust will prevent them from getting student loans.
The Doorway to Discrimination?
If NASFAA has its way, broad eligibility for student loans could disappear. Some of the proposals have me worried—and should create concerns for students. Specifically, I question NASFAA’s suggestion that financial aid administrators at individual schools be given “authority to limit borrowing” for any number of students, including those in specific programs and those who have been in school for lengthy periods. NASFAA’s brief ends with the statement:
“We affirm that the primary role of student aid is to ensure that no qualified student be denied access to a postsecondary education; and the goal of the institution is to create an environment where every qualified student has the tools, environment, and information needed to succeed.
However, I can envision plenty of scenarios in which schools or individual financial aid officials make decisions about an individual student’s financial aid eligibility that are more than a little tainted by personal beliefs or ideologies. For example, yesterday I heard one lawyer I know state that a law student who described himself as a “crypto-anarchist” in the PBS documentary After Newtown: Guns in America “shouldn’t be allowed to go to law school” because of his political beliefs. Similarly, in December I wrote about Florida governor Rick Scott’s belief that liberal arts students should pay more tuition, because those majors are not “job friendly.”
But whose decision should that be? The suggestion that it be up to financial aid administrators would create too much potential for inequality, discrimination, and even corruption.
What Do Students Think?
Interestingly, students themselves are divided on the issue. The question “should everyone get financial aid?” has led to a lively—and lengthy–dialogue on CollegeNet.com for several years now. Some students wrote that they don’t think that all students should be eligible, because they see or know students who are gaming the system or don’t appreciate what they have. One student wrote in 2009, “I see students instead of attending classes chilling with their friends, smoking outside, or taking a long break. While there are many students who are very serious about their education but don’t receive financial aid to cover for anything thing.” In 2012, another chimed in that financial aid should be merit-based, and if a student doesn’t maintain a specific level of academic performance (i.e., specific grade point average), they should lose aid. Yet some argue that you cannot shut off someone’s aid if they have a bad semester, and that it’s impossible to predict how a student will do in the future based on past performance.
Ultimately, that’s what I think is the most important point. If we begin to make decisions based on speculative predictions, we may shut more doors than we open—the exact opposite of the promise of opportunity represented by financial aid.
What do you think? Should some students be denied financial aid?