Unequivocally, one of the most frustrating experiences in college is financial aid. Not only is it a stressful entity in itself, but paperwork is also due during the height of midterms. This is especially an issue for first-generation students, low-income students, and students without parental support. I fall under all three of these categories. Students like me not only have a very personal stake in getting financial aid, but we also often have to submit nontraditional documentation in addition to the FAFSA and CSS profile. Perhaps the most common, yet least known, example of this is the dependency override.
Most students know that they are “dependent” under their parents until they are 24, married, go into the armed forces, or other special cases, (as defined by the Department of Education). While you are dependent, you need to submit both of your parents’ documentation, as well as your own. Failure to do this within the application timeline results in your application getting denied and receiving $0 in financial aid.
What if you’re estranged from your parents and can’t get their tax information? That’s where dependency override comes in—to prematurely shift you to an “independent” status, thus getting you substantially more aid than if your application was denied. Usually.
One of the reasons why I decided to go to a community college before attending a four-year university was because I knew I would have to pay for college entirely by myself. My relationship with my parents has been estranged since I was 17, and there was no way that I could get information about their taxes. At community college, I took on paying for my first semester with no aid, busting my ass to make regular payments so I was eligible for registration for the next semester. However, I soon realized that working multiple jobs and putting myself on the trajectory for an elite university was unsustainable. After hours of Googling, I came across the prospect of dependency override. What ensued was many difficult meetings with financial aid officers where they told me a variety of things: I wasn’t eligible for the override and many students pay for college on their own. They asked questions like: Why hadn’t I taken my parents to court? And how about you take out a loan?
Finally, I weaseled the application process from the financial aid office. This information is not online and is somewhat unique to each school. At my community college, it consisted of a detailed, indefinitely paged essay outlining instances of abuse and abandonment, two letters verifying my abuse from “official” sources (in my case it was a high school teacher and counselor), and an in-person meeting where I summarized my abuse and why I thought I deserved the override.
Columbia’s process is similar to the process at my old school, except here I must submit a CSS waiver, and I don’t have to go through the interview. I am thankful that Columbia had the foresight to forgo an interview, as doing this initially (and then the following year to renew my override) was one of the most painful things I have ever experienced. My “story” was picked apart and questioned by a doubtful financial aid officer. That being said, the essay itself isn’t much easier. The guidelines are ambiguous, with no page limit and no explicit indication of what abuse can concretely certify you as independent. My essay ended up being 15 pages long, and I have never reread it.
There’s something so primitive about this process. Although we are in the infancy of cultivating a culture that believes survivors, the nature of this application is so obviously re-traumatizing, and yet it seems to be practically universally accepted by financial aid offices nationwide. The secrecy surrounding the application process along with the ridiculous amount of documentation it requires seems to suggest that financial aid offices believe the system will be exploited by students who want more financial aid. I guess the question then is: “What’s the alternative?” I don’t have a concise, perfect answer.
But, I know a couple of things. One, making this information elusive hurts far more than it protects. Second, I would much rather have a good relationship with my parents than have my tuition fully paid. I am grateful to have my tuition covered, but my living expenses have resulted in student loans all the same. Past the monetary stress of being independent, I lack a support system that goes beyond finances. Maybe it’s naivete, but I don’t think this system is exploited as much as is perceived by universities. I’m not suggesting eliminating an application, but there’s a balance between verification and constructing a path with deliberate obstacles.
What if I hadn’t hinted to a trusted teacher and counselor what was going on at home? The abuse and abandonment wouldn’t have been less real, but I would have no “proof,” at least in the way that these institutions define it. And I probably wouldn’t be in college—certainly not here.
Learning how to do the financial aid application properly on your own is a process that can take many hours, and even more if you’re in a complicated situation, as discussed here. Balancing this as a student with numerous other obligations is unethical, full stop. Asking the financial aid office for help feels humiliating when it should be an environment of support. The staff assumes a basic level of financial literacy which many students haven’t been exposed to, and if you’re poor, developing financial literacy is much more difficult.
Students on campus need help with taxes and other financial issues that Columbia has the infrastructure to support, but doesn’t. Public colleges often do. And when it comes to its most vulnerable students, Columbia leaves us floundering.
Columbia acknowledges some institutional barriers against the financially disadvantaged, evidenced by our “need-blind admissions,” deans’ fund, and subsidized health insurance for students in need. However, the stigma around poverty is tangible, despite the fact that most Americans cannot afford the roughly $73,000 per year price tag attached to Columbia. In many ways, I am reminded every day that this institution is not built for most Americans, further evidenced by the average income of the majority of the students that go here. An institution dedicated to fostering knowledge should not dissuade its students from asking for help. Columbia would be a much better place with this in mind.
Melissa is a junior in Columbia College currently experiencing anguish over needing to pay $800 in taxes because of her scholarship from Columbia. Commiseration is welcome and accepted at @cookmelissa98 on Venmo or @Makeshiftmelissa on Instagram.
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