When a Struggling Family is “Too Rich” for Financial Aid

Sophomore Estrella (Star) Gonzalez left Colorado College during Block 1 due to her ability to pay tuition. Currently, she works as an Events Assistant at the Office of Advancement. According to Gonzalez, her parents’ incomes were considered too high for additional financial assistance, but in reality, not enough to fund her education. To pay for her payment plan, Gonzalez had to work an average of 35 hours a week, which caused strain to her mental health along with physical and emotional exhaustion.

A student worker stocks the shelves in the C-Store. Photo by Sam Wang

Earlier this year, Gonzalez’s parents were denied the parent loan. Two summers ago, Gonzalez’s parents had a bad car accident, which resulted in substantial medical bills. Since Gonzalez’s parents were not at fault for the accident, the responsibility for the medical bills fell to the others involved. However, the bill significantly impacted Gonzalez’s parents’ credibility for loan status.

“Without that parent loan, I cannot afford to pay that amount out-of-pocket. I thought I might be able to by doing the payment plan myself,” said Gonzalez. During Block 1, Gonzalez worked as both a Residential Advisor and an Events Intern for the Advancement Office. “By having the RA job, I was able to work after hours and the events job during the day. I worked almost 35 hours a week on top of the Block Plan,” continued Gonzalez.

After working long hours, Gonzalez was not getting enough sleep and had trouble paying attention in class. Gonzalez said, “That was the only way that I could pay for CC.” As a result, Gonzalez began to question, “Is it really worth it to work ten times as hard as everyone else going to school here, just so that I can only do half as well in all my classes.”

Although neither of Gonzalez’s parents has a bachelor’s degree, Gonzalez stated that she was not qualified for work-study because her father earns too much. Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) uses an Estimated Financial Contribution (EFC) number to determine how much a family should contribute to its children’s education. For Gonzalez, this number is $24,000. “The Financial Aid Office took out this number and said that my parents should be able to pay $24,000 a year for me to go to college. But this number does not take into account their four children, the debt they are in, etc.,” said Gonzalez.

According to Shannon Amundson, the Director of Financial Aid Office, CC has a very generous financial aid policy compared to most other universities. “CC meets 100 percent of students’ needs, [which] is a rare thing in the financial aid world. In my experience in my time here, I have not had tons of students who came to me and said that they cannot make their packages work based on the aid they have.”

“Gonzalez’s situation is an outlier…My experience as far as CC students, the amount of work required for them to do outside of school to pay the expense is not like this on average,” said the Associate Director of Financial Aid, Erica Shafer.

Amundson said that the only way to ensure the fairness in Financial Aid evaluation is to treat every student the same under similar conditions. “As a national issue, ability and willingness [to pay for children’s education] are two different things.”

A student worker prepares a pizza. Photo by Sam Wang

Amundson explained that Financial Aid looks at the total income and assets of each family; Under similar conditions, a family’s “choices, ” such as a more expensive house or a luxury car, are not taken into consideration when under review for Financial Aid. For example, if two families both make around $100,000 a year, the one who has a mortgage of an expensive house is considered to be the exactly same as another one who has a reasonable mortgage.

In addition, the Department of Education does not consider these four circumstances to qualify a student to declare themselves as an independent of their parents:

1. Parents refusing to contribute to the student’s education;

2. Parents unwilling to provide information on the application or for verification;

3. Parents not claiming the students as a dependent for income tax purposes;

4. Student demonstrating total self-sufficiency.

Gonzalez’s family meets three of the above circumstances (1, 3, and 4). Therefore, Gonzalez is considered a dependent of her parents and will receive limited Financial Aid from any institution within the nation.

Based on FAFSA’s determination, Gonzalez was offered the option to pay tuition in small increments throughout the year (payment plan) or to try to appeal the decision of her parent loan, which she needs to pay back herself after graduation. There was no other additional aid option offered.

Gonzalez added, “It is hard for me to see people, people that can just hang out on the quad all day and not have to worry about anything but classes. I never really had that experience here. For me, even last year (before the denial of the parent loan), I was not the type of person that could just focus on school.” 

She continued, “I had support in my decision of leaving. Because it was not just a money thing, but also a mental health thing. I began to recognize that I could not go to a place like CC because I did not fit in. I have always worked for everything that I have ever had in my life despite my parents made $100,000 per year.”

Gonzalez said that she has been used to always working for everything in life. Therefore, going to a school and working so much was not a problem for her at first, until it began to affect both her mental health and work ethics.

“[CC is] a school where a lot of students are very privileged because they can just go to classes. I wasn’t one of these students, despite what the Financial Aid Office has seen my financial circumstances as,” Gonzalez added.

As for the future, Gonzalez has enrolled in an online sociology program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs next semester and will continue to work full time as President’s Events Assistant at CC. 

Shiying Cheng

Shiying Cheng

Website Editor & News Reporter
Website Editor and Staff Writer for the News Section at the Catalyst. Shiying Cheng joined The Catalyst in March 2016. Cheng is also a contributor for Insights Section of Asia Times. As a student, Cheng is double majoring in Political Science and Computer Science, with minors in Journalism and History. She is passionate about data, coding, and story-telling, and wants to impact the surrounding communities through the power of journalism.

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