December 2021

Person filling out paperwork

At the Intersection of Federal Policy and Direct Service: the FAFSA

A large part of my Fellowship has been working with students to complete the Federal Application For Student Aid or the FAFSA. Each year, students come to FAFSA sessions with dozens of questions about how to complete one of the most daunting forms of the college process. Most often these are students with unique family circumstances such as those with appointed guardians, fellow dependents that aren’t siblings, and parents who they may not have contact with. There is space in the form to explain these circumstances but it’s easy to miss, and a misclick can force a student to have to submit a correction, which can cause hiccups in aid.

As I’ve learned more about the FAFSA, I’ve learned about how it has changed over the years. In response to a lot of activism and legislative action, the form itself has become more streamlined and user friendly for both students and colleges. However, there is still a lot of work to be done surrounding the federal aid that is offered to students. Most recently, there has been a push by a coalition of higher education organizations–known as the Pell Alliance–to double one of the most important aspects of the federal student aid: the Pell Grant.

As I watch the students I serve apply to and progress through college, it becomes more and more clear to me that one of the biggest barriers to college access is figuring out how to pay the bill, rather than acceptance itself.

The Pell Grant can currently give up to $6,495 of aid, which does not have to be paid back, to low income college students. For some, this is a major part of their financial aid package, if not their only source of grant aid. Any change in the grant would need to go through federal legislative bodies to be included in the higher education budget. If included in the funding plans for federal higher education programs, doubling the Pell would bring the maximum grant awarded to $13,000. Additionally, the Pell Alliance is asking for the program to be extended to DREAMers and restore lifetime eligibility to 18 semesters of aid, rather than the 12 currently allowed. These changes would effectively extend the reach of the program, providing students who would normally have to take on many loans the chance to graduate with little to no debt.  

As I watch the students I serve apply to and progress through college, it becomes more and more clear to me that one of the biggest barriers to college access is figuring out how to pay the bill, rather than acceptance itself. Doubling the Pell Grant would allow so many students I serve access to the funds they need and allow them to focus on school rather than finances. Additionally, $6,500 more could be the difference between graduating with or without debt. Being student-centered is one of the most important values at Breakthrough Greater Boston, and a change like this could vastly improve the lives of our students. This work has added so much passion behind a monotonous task like filling out the FAFSA, and given me opportunities to learn about and understand my work more deeply. 

 A lot of my learning as a Fellow has been practical, developing key skills that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. However, staying up to date on federal and state trends has taught me that college access work extends beyond what I do at the office. The educators, counselors, and supporters of the Double Pell movement are going beyond direct service, to address root causes of student barriers. Following the activism of the Pell Alliance has shown me the role that the federal government can play in educating the youth of our nation, and I will continue to support the progress of the Double Pell change as it moves through the legislative process. 

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Serena Salgao

Serena Salgao

Serena Salgado (she/her) is the College Success and Alumni Support FAO Schwarz Fellow at Breakthrough Greater Boston in Boston, MA.

Photo by Romain Dancre on Unsplash.

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