What Students From Low-Income Households Don’t Know About Financial Aid

I didn’t know how college worked when I was in high school.

I didn’t know how financial aid worked for college, I just knew that I didn’t have $5,000 for tuition that first semester and I knew that my grandmother didn’t. There may be some people who don’t know how financial aid works in college, so I wanted to put this out there.

I’m a non-traditional student. I started my undergrad when I was 25 and finished when I was 30. I’m in a masters program now. When I was in high school, I was in a low-income household. I lived with my grandmother and cousins. We moved around a lot and there wasn’t a lot of talk about college other than “I’m sure you’ll get a scholarship” because I was smart or some other blanket statement like that. I actually enrolled at a university when I was 18, but I didn’t go because I still owed about $3,000 tuition after scholarships and got a job back home instead.

Money shouldn’t be a barrier to education.

This is slightly embarrassing of me to admit, I suppose. It’s super easy to get student loans if finances are a barrier. But, when you’re in a low-income household, words like “loans” have a very negative connotation and you learn not to like that. Now they have things like “entrance counseling” when you get loans to help you and your parents better understand student loans. Some people may laugh at the idea of clicking through the entrance counseling sessions when they enroll, but entrance counseling is definitely there for a reason.

Now listen up, fellow low-income households, because this is important. If you really don’t have the money for tuition and you really can’t get it any other way, check the student loans box on your FAFSA. In this blog post, I’m going to walk you through the process of getting student loans. While some of those other people who had parents who were in a financial place to understand college and student loans, and to put their kids in proper learning situations about it, we’re not in that place and that’s okay.

(I’m not a financial aid counselor or financial advisor – this is all based on my personal experience with college and student loans. Different universities may do things differently from what I experienced.)

BA degree from UofL on a wall

How Financial Aid Works

First, let me say that I assume things because I was in a low-income household and these were my assumptions. I’m a white cis male. I’m gay, but I don’t know what that would’ve changed about my financial situation growing up. I was a relatively good student, I got As and Bs, I was in band and other extracurricular programs, and I had access to the internet. Despite those things, I still didn’t understand how to pay for college. While there are probably (hopefully) students in low-income households that do have an understanding of how financial aid works, there still may be students that don’t. Even with guidance counselors calling them into their office every 5 minutes coaching them on the subject, or guidance counselors reaching out about financial aid at universities on behalf of the student like mine did, some students still may not understand.

Loans are scary and carry a negative connotation.

If you’re in a low-income household, your understanding of loans is probably influenced by assumptions of high interest rates, picky banks and financial managers, and late payment worries. You’re also probably worried about credit and your parents credit scores.

You’ll be happy to know that federal student loans do not depend on, nor do they even look at you or your parents’ credit scores. If you want them, you will get them. Federal student loans also have a relatively low interest rate compared to standard loans. While this doesn’t much ease the worry of having to pay the student loans back after graduating, having to pay student loans isn’t the end of the world. There are income-driven repayment plans, and law-makers are currently talking about and looking into higher education financial reform.

If you really don’t have the money for tuition and you really can’t get it any other way, check the student loans box on your FAFSA.

Dependent Students

If you are under the age of 24, you are an dependent student and the income information you provide will be your parents’ income information when you or your parents fill out the FAFSA. This doesn’t mean that the government scrutinizes your parents for their past credit history or current net-worth. It’s also important to note that the federal student loans are your loans, not your parents loans. However, your parents will be able file them with their taxes and claim any tax credits and deduct student loan interest on their taxes.

Your parents may be able to take out a Parent Plus Loan, which is not the same thing as your federal student loans. Parents are responsible for Parent Plus Loans, and the student is responsible for federal student loans. It’s between you and your parents to decide if it’s better for you or them to take out loans. Sometimes a combination of both is needed.

Independent Students

If you are over the age of 24, you are an independent student when you fill out the FAFSA. The loans are in your name and you are responsible for the loans. As an independent student, you are also eligible for more grants. Grants are money that you do not have to pay back. It’s not impossible for dependent students to qualify for some grants. However, they generally won’t qualify for as many as independent students. Students under 24 tend to at least get some support from their parents.

If you are really struggling and you find that enrolling in college right after high school isn’t a good fit for you, it may be easier to wait until you are 24. You still may need some loans depending on your income status by then. However, you will usually get more grants with your financial aid package that you won’t have to pay back. (Now, in 2020, these loans are called Pell Grants. Higher Education is always changing. The exact grants may be something different by the time you are 24, or they may not exist.)

What Age To Go To College

The longer you wait to go to college, the more you will not feel like going to college in general. And, hey, sometimes, if you end up in a good job and have a lot of interesting things going on, you may not need college. But, despite what some say about college not being indicative of actual skill, education does put you in a better position in some organizations when management is considering current employees during succession planning and promotions. Knowledge is also an important factor in the concept of while-brain learning. Whole-brain learning is a framework for describing what happens with experienced employees and managers vs knowledgeable employees and managers for given situations that arise during the work day. (More on this in another blog post a little later.)

I waited until I was 25 years old to start college. Looking back, I would have rather gone to college when I was 18. I would have had an easier time socially. There wouldn’t have been so much on my plate as an adult student. I might not have struggled financially as much.

“If you are really struggling and you find that enrolling in college right after high school isn’t a good fit for you, it may be easier to wait until you are 24.”

What Is The FAFSA?

The FAFSA is the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid. It’s found at https://www.studentaid.gov, and is a part of the US Department of Education. The FAFSA is free to fill out. Do not let anyone charge you money for filling it out. Be mindful and careful of the website you are on when filling it out. If it’s not a government extension (.gov), you are in the wrong place. Colleges and universities require all students (or their parents) submit the FAFSA. On the FAFSA, you or your parents provide income and tax information, demographic information, interests in types of aid (including grants, work study, and student loans), and what your housing plans are, and which colleges/universities you are interested in.

The year you’re starting school is important for determining which FAFSA application to fill out. Generally speaking, the FAFSA becomes available to fill out around October this year for the next school year. School years are generally August-July. So, in October of 2020, you’ll fill out the FAFSA for 2021-2022 if you’re starting college in August of 2021. If you need to start in August of 2020, you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA for 2019-2020.

What Tax Information Do I Use For the FAFSA?

The financial information that you or your parents provide will be based on the income taxes from the prior-prior year. So for the 2021-2022 FAFSA (those starting college in August of 2021), you will use the tax information from you or your parents 2019 taxes.

It’s important to add the universities you’re interested in onto the FAFSA, even if they’re a long-shot. After filling out the FAFSA, you’ll still need to apply to the universities that you want to go to via that university’s website to get admitted to the university, however you don’t have to get admitted just to see how much aid you’ll receive.

What Happens with Financial Aid Behind The Scenes?

Now, here’s where many low-income households lose sight of what happens next. The universities will look at the income from you or your parents’ tax information. The college will compare it to their own tuition costs, room and board costs, and fees. You will receive an offer of financial aid packages from the universities that you’re interested in. This award offer will be based on how much it costs to attend. How much it costs to attend includes tuition, rent for the semester on or off campus, meal plans, and books.

Your financial aid package award offer could be a mixture of grants, student loans, scholarships, and other financial sources. Generally, the student loan amounts that you’ll be eligible for will depend on what other financial aid you have and how much you still need to cover that university’s estimated cost of attendance. If you do not take out student loans, you will need to pay out of pocket for the parts of tuition, rent, books, and equipment that the grants or scholarships didn’t pay.

When Do You Get Your Financial Aid Money?

Another important thing to remember is that the universities will receive that grants, scholarships, and student loan money first. This process is pretty automated from the perspective of the student. The student or parent doesn’t do much except declare how many loans to take out and complete entrance counseling. Once your tuition and other fees are paid after the university receives the loans and scholarships, you or your parents will receive what financial aid is left over in a reimbursement check or deposit. You will then have that money to keep to pay for things like food, rent, and other necessities.

The FAFSA is free to fill out. Do not let anyone charge you money for filling it out. Be mindful and careful of the website you are on when filling it out.

Surviving On Financial Aid

You probably won’t be able to live off of just your financial aid reimbursement comfortably. I recommend getting a job on campus, in addition to a part-time job off campus a few days a week. This way, you don’t have to completely rely on your financial aid money. Your on-campus job will provide you with only a small amount of income. But, you’ll be allowed to work on school work in your downtime. When job hunting, you should take into account the time you will need to study and complete your particular program. Studying time will cut into your time for other sources of income, so plan accordingly.

Also, a lot of universities require students to buy a meal plan. They usually list this as a fee with your tuition and charges and charge it with tuition. Some universities will waive the meal plan requirement for independent students, or only require a smaller meal plan for those students. Either way, fighting it is mostly useless. Most of the time, meal plan funds have an expiration date. Sometimes the meal plan money on your account will roll over from fall to spring, but expire after the spring. Keep this in mind when budgeting food and expenses.

What About the Summer Months?

Your financial aid is not really designed to support you during the summer. The aid refund you receive will only be enough to help support you for the months you are having classes. If you have to pay rent, you will need income at least for the summer. You can try save for it throughout the fall and spring, or you can get a summer job. I recommend a job off campus for the summer, even if you keep working on campus during the summer.

You will also need food for the summer and you probably won’t have a meal plan. I also recommend buying a lot of tuna and spaghetti. You can also make a lot of stuff with eggs, bread, and milk.

Decide Early If You Will Live With Your Parents or By Yourself in the Summer

Just remember that you will have to budget for the summer months. This income could be from a summer job, income from a blog or internet venture, or from driving for Uber. If you can’t find summer income, you may need to go back home and live with your parents. For some in low-income families, this is an issue. You may not have a good life back home and not want to go back. This is something that will be on many financial aid counselors radars. Something else to keep in mind is the education gap when you return home. Communication can be more difficult. Your education is a career in thinking critically. Sometimes people back home find this threatening. Try not to start arguments.

Paying Back Your Loans

A few months after receiving your first student loan, you’ll hear from a student loan servicer. A student loan servicer is a company that buys your student loans from the government.

This is the tricky part because this is technically the phase I’m in right now. After 6 months of being unenrolled less than part-time, you will enter repayment on your student loans. There’s no real guaranteed way around it except staying in college. If you take a break for 6 months or more, you will have to start paying back student loans. If you graduate with your bachelors and wait longer than 6 months to enroll in a graduate program, you will have to start paying back your student loans.

I’m in grad school 3 years after graduating with my undergraduate degree. 6 months after I graduated with my BA, I started having to make payments. My income is low so I have one of the income-driven repayment plans.

Student Loan Servicers Have Different Policies When It Comes To Going Back To College

Now that I’m in graduate school, my student loan servicer stopped requiring payments. This was a surprise. Even though I was able to stop payments by enrolling in grad school, starting grad school once in repayment is not a guaranteed way to get out repayment. It completely depends on your particular student loan servicer and their policies. There’s no law that says they have to stop forcing you make payments once you enter repayment. Again, laws and circumstances are always changing. Who knows what the future will be like, especially if higher education reform does take place soon.

If I didn’t take out student loans, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college.

So, that’s the basics of financial aid. This is all based on my experience as a student. I don’t work for the US department of education. I’m not a financial advisor or a financial aid advisor for any university. There are things that I didn’t discuss, like some degrees and jobs after college making you eligible for student loan forgiveness. I didn’t go that route so I’m not as familiar with those situations. I just wanted to make people aware of the possibilities of being able to afford college, especially for those in low-income households. If I didn’t take out student loans, I would not have been able to go to college. This post may evolve over time as I learn more specific information, or as higher education reform takes place.

Comment and Let Me Know If This Helped

Leave a comment below if this was helpful to you at all. Were you ruling college out because of your family’s income situation? Don’t. Education is not prioritized enough. In my particular state, Kentucky, the low education rankings are really starting to show in politics and in our leadership. I know everyone says this, but it’s true; you’re education is an investment in your future. It’s also an investment in everyone else’s future. I’ll be blogging a bit more about college in the future. I believe education is important. I’ll also be sharing tips and info about college life, especially as an adult student. I’m also in the Amazon Associate Program so I figure that’s how I’ll monetize some of these blogs. I’ll recommend products that may help out new students. I earn from qualifying purchases with the ads affiliate links that I include in my posts.

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