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College students are changing, FAFSA needs to too

Alexis Rapoza, Asst. Opinions Editor

For most of us, it is hard to imagine a time when most college students did not work at least part-time on top of their academic course load. In fact, according to a 2015 study released by Georgetown University, over the past 25 years, the number of college students simultaneously employed while in school has leaped to over 70%. As the price of tuition and books increases that number does as well. 
In 2018, the average price of tuition, room, board and books at a public institution clocks in at about $19,000 a year, which is $3,000 more than the average annual salary of a student working full time at the federal minimum wage. While the federal minimum wage has been resting comfortably at $7.25 an hour since 2009, tuition rises an average of 8% a year. So how do students cover the gap between their earned wages and the cost of tuition? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) is usually the first responder for financial aid. 
FAFSA is a free application students fill out annually to determine individual eligibility for federal aid. In order to receive any sort of federal aid, students must be a high school graduate, a U.S. citizen, maintain satisfactory academic performance and not be convicted of possessing or selling drugs. Sounds simple right? It’s not. 
According to FASFA, there are two classifications of students: independent or dependent students. In order to obtain independent status, the student must either be above 24 years old, married, have a child, be a veteran, emancipated, a ward of the state or homeless. If you don’t fall into any of these categories you are automatically determined “dependent”. What this means is that FASFA will use your parent’s income, as well as yours, to determine your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). In other words, FASFA will make assumptions on your family’s willingness and ability to pay out of pocket for tuition based on your combined incomes. 
Not only is this unrealistic, it's also forcing students and families to take out large sums of money in the form of federal and private loans in order to just cover the basic necessities. Because of the increase in the cost of living, families are struggling. Less than 30% of families are able to cover students’ college expenses leaving the responsibility to the student. Financially independent students should not be penalized and restricted access to federal grants solely based on their parents’ income. 
Higher education, as an institution, is inherently elitist. For decades, the prospect of education after high school has been only for the rich and high achieving. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which, getting a well-paying job is nearly impossible without a degree. FASFA and scholarship programs have allowed higher education to, thankfully, became more accessible;  tuition continues to climb, however. Because of this, the word “student” has slowly become synonymous with “waitress,” “sales associate” and “fast-food worker.” So, while what it means to be a student changes, FASFA needs to as well. Financial aid needs to be more available to students who need it in order to combat the United States’ $1.56 trillion in student loan debt.