The Rachel Canning case has set off a social media shitstorm, to say the least. Yesterday morning, a judge denied the preliminary request made by the teenager who sued her parents for support, and most commenting on the case have made it clear that they think that she is a spoiled brat. One of the most common criticisms that I have seen levelled against the young woman is the idea that because she’s 18, she is an adult and therefore ought to be responsible for her own college tuition.
While I cannot speak to the details of the case, I can speak to one simple fact: In the United States, undergraduate college students in their early 20s are not treated as adults by the financial aid system.
All government-associated aid for American college students, no matter what their age, is handled through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. In order to file FAFSA, you need tax return information. If you are an undergraduate student under the age of 24 and are not legally emancipated, you must provide your guardian’s tax return information in order to apply for aid, even if they have thrown you out without contributing a penny towards your education. The only way to get around it is to either get emancipated or get an override, neither of which are easy tasks. If you forgo the option federal aid, your other option is to obtain private loans, loans that require either a co-signer or a decent credit history. Scholarships and grants can be an option for some students, but such awards often hardly make a dent in tuition costs, let alone cost of living, books, and so on.
I know this from personal experience. As a nineteen-year-old, I found my living situation with my parents to be unbearable, to put it delicately. I wanted to file FAFSA but my parents refused to share their tax information with me. The financial aid office asked me if I had police records or testimony from a religious community leader to prove that my situation had so deteriorated; I had neither (especially not the latter, since the reason I had issues were to do with my deconversion to atheism). I ended up unable to get aid through FAFSA — I could’t even file — and so I took out private loans. I was lucky in that I’d had a credit card since I had turned eighteen and thus had built up a credit history worthy of a private student loan. That single year of education set me back quite a bit and ensured that I began my professional life in serious, unsubsidized debt. My loans are considered “private” and thus are not be eligible for forgiveness or deferment of any kind, neither through becoming a teacher nor through the reforms passed by President Obama. At the same time, they are still considered “student loans” and thus cannot be forgiven even through the declaring of bankruptcy.
On the flip side, students whose guardians are willing to provide their tax information for FAFSA and get subsidized loans and aid, then, if they so choose, are able to go on to graduate school and get aid based on their own personal incomes, free of crushing private debt. I’ve known students who continue to live with wealthy parents through their postgraduate education but claim only their paltry personal undergraduate income on their grad school FAFSAs. I’ve known students who comes from wealth who traveled on their parents’ dime and worked low-wage jobs until they hit age 24, then applied to school using their low personal income to ensure that neither they nor their parents had to pay much, if at all, for school. It’s yet another perpetuator of the cycle of wealth and inequality.
If I could go back and do it over, I might’ve lived a little more frugally than I already had been, but I wouldn’t have dropped out. As hard as it was for me to get a job as a millennial in a recession, I wouldn’t have been able to eventually get the job that I have had I not had my degree. Without it, I might’ve ended up stuck living paycheck-to-paycheck in retail purgatory, unable to help my partner out of homelessness.
The way in which the post-secondary undergraduate student financial aid system is set up heavily disadvantages students who come from already-difficult backgrounds. It ensures that filial stability is rewarded financially. Those with less fraught family lives are able to continue having easier lives, while those with issues find their lives being made more difficult.