Spotlight- Student Loan Crisis- meet John

Friday, January 25, 2013
Some people find it easier to relate to a person rather than a concept- so I want to start this out by having you meet "John". I have changed his name and some minor details to make it hard to figure out who he is, but all of his story is absolutely true. Some things you just can't make up.

John was a very, very bright young man. A senior in High School, he had turned 18 during his senior year, during the holidays. John was also a free thinker in many ways. It will help if you understand that Wyoming, as a state, is not progressive about almost anything except not being progressive.

John smoked pot recreationally. He hadn't been in trouble, wasn't stealing for it or enticing small children to join him. He smoked in his room, at home. John lived in a blended household- a mother, step father and younger sibling. He did not have a good relationship with the step father. Sometime around his 18th birthday, the step father convinced John's mother they would be 'doing him a favor' by turning him into the police for possession, which they did.

I met John in jail. He was serving a few months time in our local jail and I worked with him to complete his G.E.D., which he did with ease. He was very motivated, had plans for college and anxious to move on with his life. So I began working with him to get him enrolled in college, where he could attend with his peers. The Judge allowed me to take him out of jail to take his ACT test, which he did well on. My grant paid the application fee to apply to college. He was accepted.

And then- we hit a road block. John's step-father was self-employed and preferred not to file taxes. He never did them on time and made sure he just complied. So when it came time to file for financial aid for John to go to college- his step father said no. No, he would not get his taxes done, no he would not help. He did not feel responsible for John and let's face it, why should he? John's mother was more than willing to provide her income to the school. But the school won't process applications for financial aid without a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). That requires current household taxes to have been filed on time.

We appealed this directly to the school- and were told no. We appealed again. No. I did everything I could think of to help John, and I actually have at least some knowledge of how to do that. But we ran into one roadblock after another- all tied to the financial aid system.

In the U.S. you are considered 'dependent' until you are married, declared to be not so by a court, or have completed a bachelor's degree. The financial aid officer said that the assumption is the parent's at least claim the child on their taxes, so that makes them liable to provide support. But we no longer live in the kind of world where every kid coming out of high school has a supportive family at home. We no longer live in the kind of world where every parent wants to help their child once they reach 18.

John's story isn't unique. I have had this happen over and over with my 'kids' here. The last time I spoke to his mother she said he had moved to Oregon, ended up on the streets, and was in some kind of shelter. For a kid who thought his future lay before him full of possibilities, he must have felt he was thrown under a bus. And he was.

Our financial aid system is archaic and needs to be revised. It is not that difficult, in the digital age, to find out what a family's true financial situation is. If we want to level the playing field here- and allow everyone an equal opportunity to attend college, we need to fix this system.

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