During your first two weeks of school, you didn’t think you would survive the semester. You’d decided to attend one of the largest universities in the country because it offered a strong alumni network, and incredible undergraduate research opportunities. Also, it didn’t hurt that palm trees lined the footpaths between the dorms and classrooms. While the warm breeze, endless sun, and campus dining options had surpassed your expectations, you felt insignificant and nameless among the student masses that filled your lecture halls. Moreover, though you met people at parties, you hadn’t made any real friends who shared your interests. Then, in freshman English Composition, you were assigned to a work group with G, the smiley girl who lived down the hall from you. By the end of the semester, you were best friends. Not only did she share your interests and major, she was also cool and inspiring. After graduating high school, she hadn’t gone straight to the university. Her parents had forced her to stay local with the threat that they wouldn’t financially support her at all if she left. Yet, because she wanted so badly to attend your school and study your major, she worked part-time, saved for two years, and then took out student loans to cross the country and enroll at your university. Her life experience and academic focus served as your compass, guiding you through freshman year.
Now, right before finals and your English Comp team debate, your lives are being upended. G’s financial aid hasn’t been processed for next semester, yet the university is demanding she pay immediately for her spring semester enrollment. While your team is meeting with your professor to discuss debate strategies and evaluate evidence, G keeps stepping outside to plead with people over the phone. Eventually, your professor asks G what’s going on. G bursts into tears in front of everyone. Her life’s falling apart – she can’t focus on finals or the debate project, her parents won’t give her any financial assistance, and neither the loan people nor the registrars seem to understand her situation.
“A cut to Student Aid Administration could affect the processing of the Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSAs), which millions of students and families use to apply for postsecondary student financial assistance. Our student aid contractors would likely have to lay off or furlough many of the contract employees who work for the Department in States with contractor facilities—such as Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, New Mexico, and New York—that provide customer services to students and borrowers. This could mean that many students would not receive financial aid determinations and awards in time to make enrollment decisions. In addition, students who do enroll could experience delays in the processing and origination of Federal student loans…”
On reading these words in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s statement about the possible impact of sequestration on fiscal year 2013 funds, under the Budget Control Act, I immediately thought of my former students. While teaching freshman English and Composition at Arizona State University, I met many inspiring students who relied on Federal Student Aid. A close version of the situation I outlined above did in fact occur while I helped a student group prepare for their end of semester debate project. It was heartbreaking. The real “G” had determinedly overcome many obstacles, more than I implied above; her presence contributed in the best possible way to the diversity of stories in our classroom. Other students, even the financially independent, needed her. Over the course of five years, I have seen many “G’s” enrich the lives of their fellow students. Nearly all of my colleagues have their own “G” stories. This is unsurprising given the statistics:
Less than $25k – Private colleges: 22 percent; Public colleges: 26 percent
$25k $ to 49k – Private colleges: 19 percent; Public colleges: 20 percent
$50k $ to 74k – Private colleges: 16 percent; Public colleges: 17 percent
$75k $ to 99k – Private colleges: 15 percent; Public colleges: 14 percent
$100k and higher – Private colleges: 29 percent; Public colleges: 24 percent
“Sequestration” has been the political buzzword of the new year. Before the recent talk of federal deficits, the word “sequestration” most frequently described the action of isolating a jury during a trial. Should blind budget cuts ever come to pass, isolation in American colleges and universities, too, will result. Students like “G” – hypothetically 41-46 % of students currently attending college – will find it much more difficult to enroll, and to reach graduation. Their presence, stories, and examples, will be lost to those who remain. How many green, financially independent, students will gain less from college as a result?
Behind the astronomical numbers and displays congressional malfeasance are countless stories of individuals who depend on government support. Many of these folks embody American self-determination, a desire and drive to be more than the product of their environment. If the day comes when they lose government support, the rich character of our American University system will be whitewashed.