One day last year I skipped school to wait for acceptances from colleges. It was the final day that letters or e-mails were supposed to be sent out.
I sat in front of my laptop by the front door for at least three hours, listening for the mailman while eagerly pressing the refresh button on my inbox. I admit, at one point, I checked my neighbor’s mail. Getting my house skipped on the mail route was one of the less crazy hypotheticals I imagined while waiting.
The college responses I had already received were pinned up on a cork board in the hallway so everyone in my family would pass by them on the way to the bathroom.
After my 300th click I finally got it; my rejection e-mail. It was just 2 paragraphs: we’re very sorry, such-and-such many applicants, etc. etc. Sure, I was upset. But, I thought, at least I still have the other schools on that corkboard.
A few weeks later, I got my federal financial aid notice or FAFSA. It estimates what your family can pay for college, and how much federal aid you can get. I knew the minute I saw those little black numbers it wouldn’t be enough. My mom was still paying off her college loans and I had already spent more than I could afford on high school transcripts, applications, and the ACT test. Tuition at my top school was 30 thousand dollars a year and I was going to be on the hook for two-thirds of it.
The same night I got my FAFSA, I got an e-mail from a college site I subscribed to. The subject line read: “Can you Really Afford College?” For the first time, I was seeing the price tag of my dream and realizing it was way out of my budget.
I had spent months telling my friends about my plans for the next school year: Journalism and Anthropology classes on the East Coast, taking the subway, and going to poetry readings. That all changed after the financial aid letters. Now I’m attending community college, working two jobs and I’m still trying to figure out next year, and how much debt my college dreams are worth.
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Robyn Gee on Thursday, Sep. 15th
The recent Census Bureau data on poverty is staggering: the number of people living below 50 percent of the poverty level is the highest it’s been since 1975, according to Mother Jones. President Obama and presidential candidates are putting jobs plans at the top of their lists to respond to this crisis.
One sector that noticed the increase in people affected by poverty is college financial aid. We spoke with Peter Coe, Financial Aid Specialist at City College of San Francisco, whose job only gets harder when people don’t have enough money.
Students applying for aid complete the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) and are allocated funds based on this document. Parents usually document their previous year’s income on their financial aid application. “I’ve definitely seen more application changes based on loss of income than in the past,” said Coe. If a parent or guardian has lost a job, then the student might be eligible for more financial aid.
Making these changes takes time. Coe said he sits down with each student individually to work through the documentation. “With this many people out of work it’s definitely a challenge to serve students,” said Coe. “It’s impacting the office… When there’s more work, there’s delays in getting money out, and the quality of service goes down,” said Coe.
A huge indicator of more financial need for Coe is the number of Pell Grants awarded every year. The Pell Grant is a federal grant of $5,500 that does not need to be repaid. It is based on financial need, the cost of attending school, and your status as a student. The more Pell awards the school gives out, means the more students are eligible for aid. Coe said the number of Pell Grants he’s awarded has increased dramatically over the last three years. “We’re approaching 11,000 Pell awards, that’s a 3,000 plus jump from the previous school year,” said Coe.
In addition to parents losing income, Coe said he sees many students losing their jobs as well, and therefore making more appeals for aid. What happens if there’s no more aid available? “Student retention is always an issue with financial aid. Of course students need to drop out all the time – financial aid – that’s always a piece of the equation,” said Coe.
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Sara Schultz on Wednesday, May. 25th
Telling people I am going to seminary to become a pastor elicits a variety of reactions. In addition to the encouragement I receive from the people in my life who know me well, I get my fair share of thinly veiled negative responses. Like the laughter that turned to an embarrassed look of disbelief when I encountered an old high school classmate on BART– “Oh, you’re serious- I’m sorry.” Or the look of confusion and then a swift change of subject when I share that my end goal is to be a pastor and not a professor.
Those kinds of reactions don’t phase me that much- I could care less that the guy I haven’t seen since I was 16 thinks my future plans are a joke. But the response that always manages to shake me is “Wow, is there even any money in that? How much does that kind of schooling cost? Are you going to be in debt for the rest of your life?”
That’s because that last question is a tough one to answer, and as much as I try to muster my faith that “God will provide” (I should believe that after all), I am absolutely terrified. Next year I will attend Union Theological Seminary, which is connected to Columbia University in New York. The prospect of graduating with loans greater than my yearly starting salary is daunting. And yet, it’s what I have very consciously decided to do. I’m not going into this with my eyes closed; I won’t finish school and be shocked at my $50,000 educational debt (which will ultimately be amplified to a great degree by interest).
Rather, I’ve thought about it intensely, I’ve made budget after meager living budget for myself to whittle down that big number, I’ve calculated what I’ll need to pay back, how much my minimum monthly payments will be (and how much of those will be purely interest), and just what all this might mean for the way I will live most of my adult life- what kind of living situation I’ll be able to afford, how often I’ll be able to visit friends and family who live far away, when and whether or not I’ll be able to buy a car.
Most of the time, this post-school, young pastor lifestyle that I imagine seems doable and even exciting. Who cares if I’ll never be able to afford a big fancy house if I’m able to do what I love everyday? So when I’m at my best, I am confident in the life I’ve chosen and I feel ready to go, loans and all, come August when I’ll move to New York to start my Masters of Divinity Program. Really, I can imagine no better way to spend my time than studying theologies of liberation and entering into mutually vulnerable conversations about how to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.”
But then I have to fill out my financial aid forms, and it all falls apart. I stare at the numbers, the ones I’ve spent so much time with, and I wonder if it’s worth it. Someone mentions the news that student debt has outpaced credit card debt, or rattles off a statistic about the median starting salary for religious studies majors – a whopping 38K. Or, it’s been a tough month and I have a hard time getting my current undergrad loan payments in on my non-profit salary. That’s when the fears start to creep in. What if I have children and I can’t put away any money for their education or support them in the way my parents have so lovingly provided for me? Should I listen to the financial aid experts who say that you should never take out more than you expect to make in your first year of work post-school?
It was somehow easier to make the decision to major in Religious Studies and Music. I was less aware of what my end undergrad debt would be, and the recession hadn’t hit yet. It wasn’t hard in 2007 or 2008 to tell people that I was majoring in what I loved, and then give a light-hearted laugh about what that might mean for my future employment options. People weren’t so concerned about educational debt then, and it seemed like my liberal arts education was a solid investment for whatever it would be that I decided to do.
The decision to pursue this low income-generating passion further and take out more loans in this economic climate was an infinitely harder one, and continues to be difficult to explain. But when the money anxieties subside, I know deep down that I am making the only choice I can make if I want to live authentically into what I feel called to do. Not everyone understands that, and on my bad days, neither do I. However, the good days far outweigh the bad. So I’m jumping in, eyes wide open, to a beautiful and terrifying unknown, one that will surely include incredible learning experiences, in addition to a steady subsistence diet of rice and beans.
Sara Schultz graduated from Macalester College in 2009 with degrees in Music and Religious Studies. She currently works as the Operations Manager at SHARE El Salvador in Berkeley, CA, a non-profit that supports the empowerment of historically marginalized Salvadoran communities. She hopes to one day be an ordained minister in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).
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