I left a small town and a damaged family when I moved away to college. Despite the chaos at home, I was able to graduate from high school in three years and finish a year of community college by the time I turned 18. I was motivated to leave the chaos of my family life behind and start anew in another city, with dreams of graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in political science and eventually becoming an attorney or a professor.
During the spring of my sophomore year in college, I was 19 years old and attending a state university full time while also working a full-time retail job as a means to support myself. My boyfriend, Kyle, and I were living together in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, and we managed to scrape by living paycheck to paycheck.
Things back home were not going well. After I moved out of my parents’ house, I didn’t return because of the destructive environment I had left behind. After one particularly big fight, they declared they were “cutting me off,” and since they weren’t paying for anything, they took away the one thing they knew they had control over: my financial aid eligibility.
At that point in the semester, I needed to fill out my Free Application for Federal Student Aid to secure funding for the next academic year. For previous semesters, I paid my tuition using direct loans from the federal government from my financial aid package, as it was the only way I could afford the thousands of dollars in tuition and fees. I was almost halfway finished with my bachelor’s degree when it became a real possibility that I would not be able to fund the rest of my education.
In nearly all cases, you must submit your parents’ income information to file your FAFSA. The Department of Education then determines your eligibility for need-based aid and how much your aid package should be by using a calculation called your expected family contribution, or EFC. For the semesters prior, because of my parents’ middle-class income and my inflated EFC, I was only awarded unsubsidized federal direct loans even though in reality I was paying for everything by myself.
“Since [my parents] weren't paying for anything, they took away the one thing they knew they had control over: my financial aid eligibility.”
Although my parents were not contributing to my living expenses or tuition, I was still required to submit their income information whenever I filed a new FAFSA. Even today, the StudentAid.ed.gov website states: “You can’t be considered independent of your parents just because they refuse to help you with this process. If you do not provide their information on the FAFSA form, the application will be considered ‘rejected,’ and you might not be able to receive any federal student aid.” So when they refused to continue to provide their income information for my application, I was screwed.
I called the financial aid office at my school in distress. They told me that they had no way to circumvent the Department of Education’s policies on parental income information, and if I were to submit an incomplete student aid application, it would be rejected. They did offer an appeals process option, but they warned me that it was nearly impossible to be granted a change in dependency status. If I were to be approved for this change in status, they warned that it was also likely that I would not receive enough aid to cover the entirety of my tuition since I would not have an EFC, which is required for most need-based aid.
Although I was supporting myself financially and living independently of my parents, I did not meet any of the strict criteria set forth by the Department of Education that would have qualified me as an “independent student.” Thus, I was still required to provide parental income information by supplying their tax documents, which — given the state of relations between us — was impossible.
I browsed the internet for weeks, trying to find a loophole. The StudentAid.ed.gov website echoed what the financial aid office told me, and every online search yielded inconclusive results. It seemed as though my parents had figured this out as well, because once they were no longer able to control my life in other ways, the financial aid documents became their last stranglehold on me.
My tuition bill came out to almost $4,000. I applied for private student loans, but I had no credit and no cosigner, so my application was denied. I was living paycheck to paycheck, I had no savings, and I was barely making rent with the retail job I had, so coming up with the money myself was inconceivable. I racked my brain for weeks and called the financial aid office over and over again, trying to figure out how I was going to afford to go back to school the next semester.
It was one of the lowest points in my life. I had this dream of graduating from college and making something of myself, and suddenly I wasn’t sure how I was going to make that happen ― or if I even could.
When I got off the phone with the financial aid office for the last time, I was sitting next to Kyle, my face covered in tears. As I sobbed into his shoulder, I wondered if this was how my dream was going to die. After I stopped crying, I wiped my face with the sleeve of my shirt and took a deep breath. Kyle looked at me and said, “Let’s get married,” as plainly as if he were telling me about the weather.
I laughed because I thought he was kidding, until I looked up at his face and saw that he certainly was not.
“I’m serious. Let’s get married,” Kyle said. “You’ll get all the financial aid you’ll need to finish school.”
He was right. During my extensive research, I found that marriage automatically bestows a student with an “independent,” rather than “dependent,” status, which meant I wouldn’t need my parent’s income information to complete my financial aid application. As a result, I would qualify for financial aid based solely on my boyfriend’s and my income.
We were only 19 at the time, and Kyle was my first boyfriend after high school. We had been living together for less than a year, and I knew that getting married was one of the biggest decisions I would make in my lifetime. Despite Kyle’s seemingly spur-of-the-moment proposal, marriage was not something either of us took lightly, and we spent a lot of time and tears after that first proposal weighing our options. I went back and forth between anger and sadness, as it felt like a major moment in my life was being stolen from me because of this looming decision. During the weeks that followed, I kept thinking, “My wedding shouldn’t have to be like this.”
One day in June, after two months of debating our options, Kyle and I decided to secretly elope. We didn’t tell anyone about our plans ― not even his parents or our closest friends. We drove to the next county over to ensure that no one would find out what we were doing. There were no big dresses, no flowers, no rings and no witnesses. We were married at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday in a courthouse that looked eerily like a jail.
Our first stop after our morning courtroom ceremony was to the financial aid office at my school. I gave them a copy of our marriage certificate, and I filed my FAFSA as an independent student. What should have been the most romantic day of my life ended with us sitting in that office, filling out paperwork.
“I would never advise a 19-year-old student to get married for financial aid purposes. The fact that I made such a desperate decision speaks to the kind of reform we need within the federal financial aid program.”
However, my story does have a happy ending: I am now an educator and instructional designer with a bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s degree, and I am still married to the same wonderful man who sat in the financial aid office with me on our wedding day five years ago.
What I learned through this experience is that the parental support measures on the federal student aid application are antiquated. This especially affects first-generation students, such as myself, who lack the resources to fund their education through other means. With tuition reaching astronomical heights, even if these students worked full-time jobs like I did, they would never be able to afford rent, utilities, food or tuition at even a moderately priced state school, such as the one I attended.
Years after I got married, I found myself in graduate school working with undergraduate students who were enduring the same financial aid struggles. Whether they were estranged from their parents like I was or their parents were middle-income and “made too much” for these students to be considered for any financial aid, there are too people who have to make the same types of drastic decisions that I did to finish their education.
I would never advise a 19-year-old student to get married for financial aid purposes. The fact that I made such a desperate decision speaks to the kind of reform we need within the federal financial aid program. Students are struggling to find ways to fund their education, and we are denying them the chance to get an education that could create real economic opportunities in their lives. Unless your parents have put away money for your tuition, there is a strong possibility that you may end up without any means of funding at all.
In my case, I would have never been able to leave the toxic environment I came from had it not been for my education. My education provided me with every opportunity I’ve had in my adult life, which gave me the freedom to choose a career I love and develop myself as a writer and educator.
As American citizens, we are responsible for voicing the change we want to see. In the 2020 election cycle, vote for politicians who want to reform the student aid process. In the meantime, lobby our politicians currently in office to create change in the student aid process. Through legislative changes in our system, we can continue to empower and uplift more first-generation college students through education.