Students Struggling for Financial Independence Need Support

In the second semester of my senior year, I find myself in a position of no longer being able to afford attending Loyola University Chicago. My situation isn’t exactly ordinary, but it’s not totally unique either.

My problem is relatively simple. Although in my mind I am financially “independent” from my parents, I do not meet the technical, legal definition of “independent” that the government (and thus Loyola) requires students to meet before they can receive additional financial aid.

Despite government regulations, Loyola could be more accommodating to students like me — students who want to be more independent, who want to work their way through college like in “the good ol’ days” and who no longer want to have to ask their parents for money every month.

My situation more than likely mirrors the situations of many junior and senior students. They want to be independent, but they can’t. Loyola seems to go to great lengths to get students through its doors, but then it casts a blind eye when the needs of those students change later in their academic careers.

When I decided to come to Loyola, I was offered a financial aid package that included a Pell Grant, federal Perkins Loan and MAP grant, all of which are given to low-income students based on their Estimated Family Contribution or EFC (a number calculated when you fill out a FAFSA and apply for financial aid). I was also given a Loyola grant, which is designed to bridge the gap between the money the state and federal governments could offer me and what I would actually need to be able to attend school here. All of these — along with my federal Stafford loans and Damen Scholarship — made it so that my parents had to pay about $5,500 out of pocket each semester for my nearly $24,000/semester tuition, housing, meal plan, lab fees, etc.

My sophomore year, the federal Perkins Loan and Pell Grant were removed from my financial aid award due to an increase in my EFC (basically my mom started making a little more money that year, and the government assumes that any increase in income is an increase in amount you can pay out of pocket for college). My mom took out a $7,500 Parent PLUS Loan so that she and my dad could continue paying around $5,000 out of pocket per semester.

My junior year, I was able to get another scholarship through working at The PHOENIX, and my out-of-pocket balance for the entire year was only around $1,500.

That was also the year when I made the decision to become more independent. I moved into an off-campus apartment, for which I pay around $500 a month (depending on utilities) on my own. I paid the balance owed to Loyola on my own. I paid for all my own groceries, activities and any other daily necessities. I didn’t ask my parents for money, even if I needed it.

I was able to pay for all these things because I have worked two on-campus jobs since my freshman year at Loyola — one here at The PHOENIX and the other in the Office of the Bursar (ironic, right?).

My senior year, I decided to remove myself from the higher editor position at The PHOENIX in favor of a position that would allow me more time for my independent research, thus forfeiting my scholarship. I also lost my MAP grant, again due to an increase in my mom’s income and thus my EFC.

These changes left me with balance of about $11,000 owed to Loyola for my final year.

I know I’m not alone in my quest to pay for school, rent and general life expenses on my own, but I also know I am part of a smaller group. I work at the Bursar’s Office, remember? I know how many parents vs. how many students call into the office with questions. It always astounds me when the parents of my fellow upperclassmen call in to resolve their son or daughter’s finances. But then I remember this: Paying for college on your own as a student (even working the maximum number of hours possible at multiple on-campus jobs like I do) is simply impossible. Parent involvement is nothing short of a requirement.

I’ve talked with many financial aid advisors this semester, and they all advise me to have my mom apply for the PLUS Loan, knowing she will get approved, or to have my dad apply for the PLUS Loan, knowing he will get denied, so that I can receive additional Stafford loans. Neither of these options appeal to me as someone who doesn’t want my parents involved in my financial situation. The number of options I have if I want to keep my parents out of the situation is zero. I would even have to have one parent sign the “special circumstance” form in which I describe my situation that does not in any way involve them.

I recognize that, as far as federal loans and grants go, financial aid advisors’ hands are tied. They have to base award amounts on a students’ EFCs from their FAFSAs. I could tell that all the advisors I spoke with really wanted to help me somehow, but there’s just no current infrastructure to allow them to do that.

So what I’m proposing is that we build that infrastructure here at Loyola, in a way that doesn’t involve the federal or state government.

My college career has been a balancing act of working at on-campus jobs, volunteering at a hospital and doing independent biology research all the while maintaining my 3.7 GPA. If I’ve accomplished nothing else in college, I’ve certainly gained time management and budgeting skills and developed a strong work ethic.

These are things that Loyola should celebrate, but my struggles this year suggest that the school is doing anything but that.

I believe at least a portion of the scholarships that come from endowment funds should be re-designed with “independent” students in mind. These scholarships are traditionally given out to sophomores, juniors and seniors based on an application and their demonstrated financial need (which, again, comes from their EFC and is thus based on their parent’s income).

We are already singling out this group of upperclassmen to award scholarships to, but we are failing to consider one of the potentially biggest factors in their finances: their independence. It may be hard to regulate (people may lie about their parents not helping them in order to get more assistance), but it wouldn’t be impossible. In order to determine the “independence” of a student, one could examine their work history or ask for an essay describing why the student sees themselves as independent.

The days of working through college and emerging with no debt may be far gone, but the instillment of a good work ethic, exceptional time management skills and independence should not go with it. I don’t want to have to drag my parents into my finances any longer. They have their own debt and their own problems, and at 21 years old, I should be able to solve mine on my own. I just wish that was possible.

Ashley Iannantone is the assistant A&E editor.

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