Last week, the country’s most popular governor voiced his support for free community college for Marylanders making less than $90,000 annually or Maryland families making less than $125,000 in one household, and plans to sign a bill passed in the General Assembly within the next week. The bill appropriates up to $15 million for the next fiscal year to help the next generation of students get to class and earn an associate’s degree or certification. While this is a major step forward in America to help prospering students achieve a cost effective education, it leaves behind groups of people who aren’t in the window proposed by the bill, and that would be people in my shoes.
As a graduating senior from a public school in Maryland, my plans are to go to my local community college here in my county and save money to transfer to a 4-year college in-state to achieve a bachelor’s degree in public policy and economics. My parents have a comfortable income in comparison to most Americans and we live on the water in a very wealthy state, with the highest household median income level in America. But I’m not privileged like some students to have parents that can afford the luxuries of waterfront houses and a free ride to university for all of their children. Granted, I didn’t expect help and no graduate should, but I’m lucky enough to have parents kind enough to allow me to stay rent-free while I’m still in college full time. They’ve paid hundreds of dollars as of today for AP and college exams, which has given me over 20 credits towards my degree and I’m overwhelmingly grateful for their investment in my future. However, they cannot handle the price tag of $2,500 for a full semester at my local community college. Despite their income, they have my brother still to care for, a retirement of their own to save for, health/car/life insurance to pay for, utilities to pay for, taxes and other lively expenses. As expected, the cost of living in Maryland is far from cheap in comparison to states like Texas. The median cost of a home per square foot in Houston is $163, which is almost $20 cheaper than Baltimore, which has a substantially smaller population as well. To add on, Marylanders are subject to an income tax, unlike Texans. In summary, my family cannot afford to pitch in regardless of our high household income.
So with my dilemma explained, you’re probably wondering why is this happening in the first place. Why is a student like me at a disadvantage? Ladies and gentlemen, and those who have yet to make up their mind, may I present to you the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). My state, just like others in the nation, require you to fill out this application before attending college for various reasons. This form helps colleges get the public funding they need in order to keep doors open and also helps student obtain Pell Grants to subset the cost of education. Several need-based aid programs and scholarships also require the form to score you on your need. The catch though, is that this only applies to the person claiming dependency on the student, which for most is the parent, and not the student themselves, and makes no exception to who is actually paying the bill.
To this day, I do not understand why legislators of all levels of government think this is a brilliant system for students, because it hurts those just beginning at the bottom of the income bracket by working part time or full time minimum wage jobs while also attending college to advance themselves. At the moment, I’m responsible for all costs associated with my car with the part time job I have making $8.54 per hour after taxes. And on my 18th birthday, I’ll then be responsible for the tab for college, my phone bill and various bills my parents might request I pay as my ‘rent.’ I will not be able to afford a $2,500 bill out of pocket on a job that pays less than $10 per hour after taxes, even after the $10.10 per hour wage boost set in July and will result to me taking out a loan and relying on any future scholarships I might be awarded in the next few months.
As an honor roll student running for Democratic Central Committee in my local jurisdiction, I think it’s justified to say I’ve worked really hard to get where I’m at today. But when legislators run on the slogan of “debt-free tuition” or “free college,” what does that even mean? Why is the household income of my parents holding me hostage of need-based aid when they’re not pitching in to pay? This soon-to-be-signed bill I would argue is a 2 steps forward, 1 step back approach to the Bernie-esque policy of free college. As a proponent of Sen. Sanders’s proposal, I wish to see the end of FAFSA as soon as possible and any school or scholarship award using it must use a new model of judging a student’s ability to pay, and not the parent’s.
My proposed revamp of FAFSA is simple: ask the student who’s paying and where the money comes from. If a student says it’s coming from a loan in their name because their parents can’t afford to help and they don’t have money up front to spend on classes, then they become first priority for who to allocate funds to. If a student has a parent or parents willing to spend up to $100,000 on their college, then they become last on the list of receivers. Students with a minimum wage job and no aid from family who wish to go to community college first and then transfer are awarded immediately because they’ve made the wise decision to either take their classes locally or online, saving the state money. If the student is awarded a scholarship, then the state doesn’t have to pay the original figure and can pay the difference if the scholarship doesn’t cover the whole cost. Judging the student’s source of income and aid is the best method of helping needy families because no student like me should have to move out and file for Section 8 housing, subsidized energy and food stamps just to be able to claim dependency on themselves in order to get something to go to college.
The current system is intentionally setting students up to become users of welfare just to be able to go to class and seek a better future for themselves. Taking out a loan should be a last resort. Going to an Ivy League school isn’t necessary in order to obtain the essential knowledge of knowing a job skill, it’s simply a luxury. All I’m asking for is $2,500 for one semester, not a full ride to UCLA. If progressives and Larry Hogan are serious about implementing a publicly subsidized system of higher education for people to achieve their associate’s degree or certification, then let’s start paying attention to the student, which is what we’re talking about here, and not their parents.
Photo: Baltimore Sun