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Isabel’s Fight List: The FAFSA And CSS Profile

I wish my family was as well-off as Columbia thinks it is.

Events Editor Isabel Sepúlveda has been filling out her own financial aid forms for a while now. In honor of the FAFSA and CSS Profile opening for business at the beginning of October, she’s shared some of her thoughts about this ridiculous process.

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for the 2019-2020 school year opened on October 1, a fact that most of us are going to promptly forget until three days before Columbia’s May 5, 2019 deadline. But since my sisters are high school seniors who are better than me in almost every way possible, they’ve already been texting me with questions (or, more often, answers to questions I’ll be asking on May 3rd) about the process for filing their various financial aid forms. Somehow, I managed to forget how ridiculous this process is in the 4 months since I turned in those sweet, sweet W-2s.

The FAFSA itself isn’t…awful. Don’t get me wrong; I hate it with basically my whole soul and I still mourn the death of the IRS Retrieval Tool, which allowed you to pull information from tax returns you or your guardians already filed. But, if you have your returns and the tax filing statuses of you and your guardians aren’t even a little bit strange (which are two big and important ifs), you get walked through the process relatively painlessly. Of course, you get maybe $3 from the federal government in return for your labor, less than that if you or your parents paid more than $5 for anything they’ve ever purchased. Okay, the more I think about this, the more awful it sounds. And this is the easy part; feel free to join me in my weeping now.

For all you lucky folks who have never had to fill out a financial aid application, follow me to the 9th Circle of Hell, where the CSS Profile chews on the souls of all us poor souls unfortunate enough to cross its path. Administered by College Board, of SAT and AP testing fame, the CSS Profile is “an online non-federal financial aid application” used by over 400 colleges and universities around the country, including Columbia and Barnard.  It’s supposed to give colleges a more comprehensive look at your family’s finances, including retirement savings, mortgage information, and other expenses. Because you know, if your mom somehow scraped together enough money to pay for your brother’s braces, do you really need that $3 anyway?

It’s complex, confusing, and doesn’t actually understand what being a low-income student is like (it didn’t let me enter that my family owed more on our home than we paid for it, for instance.) I’ve cried in sheer frustration literally every time I’ve filled it out.

But the absolute worst part of this application for need-based financial aid is that you have to spend money in order to access it. At least the F in FAFSA stands for free. Those who fill out the CSS Profile pay $25 for the first college to which they send it and $16 for every additional school thereafter. And while there are fee waivers for incoming students (up to 6), those who apply to many schools, who don’t have assistance from someone who understands the system pretty well, or who plain don’t qualify but still would struggle are pretty much out of luck. And current low-income students for whom the cost might mean skipping on meals or otherwise struggling are also stuck; neither Columbia nor College Board offers fee waivers to continuing students. And yes, we do have to fill it out every year.

Columbia can claim to support FGLI students all they want, but adding the CSS Profile on top of the increasingly confusing FAFSA process shows that when it comes down it, you can’t just open the FLIP Library and call it a day. Until Columbia puts its money where its mouth is, and actually takes steps to make the financial aid process simpler for all students, or until College Board decides to stop milking desperate high school seniors for all their babysitting money, I’ll be here helping my sisters read my mom’s 1040 and hoping that none of us get audited in the next decade.

Could I beat them in a fight?: I have the force of millions of bitter high school seniors who didn’t get the AP or SAT scores they wanted and loan-laden graduates to back me up but College Board’s “non-profit” system has survived for this long. Still, I’d say we underdogs have something of a fighting chance.

Self-defense tip: If you ever find yourself in need to throw a punch to the face to escape an attacker (please avoid though; your hand is very delicate) aiming for the nose is not actually your smartest route. Instead, aim for the area between the nose and the mouth, your philtrum for the anatomy nerds out there. (Note: Bwog does not condone violence, and these tips are not a replacement for a self-defense class taught by a professional or assistance by the proper authorities.) 

gotta get that cash money via Columbia SFS

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