How the College Financial Aid System Makes it Harder to Attend College

After high school, nearly 66.2 % of high school students in America immediately attend college, university, or some type of higher education. In recent years, prices of college tuition have skyrocketed making it increasingly difficult for students of low to middle-class families to afford. However, while college tuition prices continue to rise, financial aid available at the state and federal levels continue to stay the same or even decrease. This discrepancy in the system results in students not being able to attend colleges of their dreams or graduating with years of loans piled up.

For several years students have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to earn college aid which is based on several factors including parent’s income, student’s income, and assets. This form is the primary source for the government to issue scholarships and grants to students with a limited budget for college. However, over the years this system has proven to be very ineffective. This five-page and 127 question form “is slightly longer than the IRS Form 1040 and substantially longer than forms 1040EZ and 1040A” (Dynarski and Scott-Clayton, 109). For typical households, this form is extremely long and more complicated than federal tax returns. Complexity in this form has caused several students deserving of aid to forgo potential scholarships by not filling it out because they are not able to navigate the form. As shown by Jennie Crucet in Taking My Parents To College, first-generation students don’t have support from parents to fill out these forms and must navigate it themselves. 

The complexity in the FAFSA “arises from efforts to precisely measure a student’s ability to pay for college” (Dynarski and Scott-Clayton, 119). To determine if this was accurate Dynarski and Judith performed a study to determine the effectiveness of each section of the FAFSA by emitting sections of the profile and determining how that impacts the money granted to families. They were interested in seeing if the length of the form was truly beneficial in giving a proper in-depth analysis of a student’s financial situation. Using the National Postsecondary Student Aid, the authors studied 56,440 undergraduate federal aid applicants and computed student’s expected contribution with student’s adjusted gross income, other income, subtracting a few allowances, and applying a 50% assessment rate. These “predicted aid values were extremely close to their actual values” showing how the extra sections of the FAFSA form are not needed. (Dynarski and Scott-Clayton, 122) Through their research, they found that “only a handful [of questions] have any substantial effect on the distribution of student aid” (Dynarski and Scott-Clayton, 120).

Besides the complexity of the form, the percentage of students attending college increased, and thus as money is being spread over a wider range of people, fewer people are getting sufficient aids. While this is impacting several classes and ethnicities of people, students from middle-class families are taking a substantial amount of the impact. Since students from high-class families can cover most of the tuition from out-of-pocket money and students from low-class families are a priority in aid, it creates a system where students from middle-class families are not able to pay. They are told by the government they can afford college although, in reality, most middle-class students can not cover tuition for top-tier colleges with expensive tuition costs. In the article Trying to Climb a Broken Ladder, Clark describes how more students require financial aid as a result of skyrocketing tuition prices. Clark also discusses the “mysterious” way funds are distributed as there is no structure or conventional method. She specifically covers how students lucky enough to get acceptance into top-tier colleges must give up their seats as the government overestimates what their family can pay as a result of insufficient funds.

Federal aid and grants hold several disadvantages for middle-class families. The middle class takes up nearly half of the American population while some are on the border of the low-middle class. While grants and aids were created to help lower-income families send their children to college, they often neglect families on the other side of the cut-off line. Zaloom describes how this system is creating a barbell structure where lower-income families receive aid and upper-income families can cover costs from their own pockets leaving middle-class families too rich for aid and too poor to afford college. Currently, the FAFSA is ineffective but the system can be fixed by shortening the FAFSA and redesigning the questions to be concise and effective. While these are only the initial issues of college tuition and funding, they are necessary problems to fix to allow more middle-class students to go to college without excessive financial troubles.


Dynarski, Susan M., and Judith E. Scott-Clayton. “Complexity and Targeting in Federal Student Aid: A Quantitative Analysis.” NBER/Tax Policy & the Economy (University of Chicago Press), vol. 22, July 2008, pp. 109–150. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1086/651217.

Clark, Kim. “Trying to Climb a Broken Ladder.” U.S. News & World Report, vol. 145, no. 6, Sept. 2008, pp. 65–74. EBSCOhost,,shib&db=bth&AN=34274790&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Caitlin Zaloom. Indebted : How Families Make College Work at Any Cost. Princeton University Press, 2019. EBSCOhost,,shib&db=nlebk&AN=2043376&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Crucet, Jennine Capó. “Taking My Parents to College.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Aug. 2015,


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