A Portraiture of Financial Aid

Rather than looking at America’s student loan debt crisis as a monolith, this story examines the almost unending crisis from the point of view of four people.

Kaylin Dodson
27 min readJan 4, 2021
Source: http://clipart-library.com/clipart/1070608.htm

One of the most known characterizations and similarities between Millennials and Generation Z is student loan debt. Where Millennials experienced the 2008 recession during the sunsets of their college experiences, pushing many of them to accrue more debt by applying for grad school, Generation Z is prepping for or just starting a future riddled with student loan debt in the hundreds of thousands.

However, the tectonic plates of financial aid and student loan debt don’t just rub against the current and prospective student.

Of the 25,00 people polled in CNN’s 2016 election exit polls, only 10% of the voters were in the 18–24 age range (Gen-Z) while 26% were in the 25–39 age range (Millennials). According to Pew Research Center’s 2019 data, only 2% of the actual voting population was a part of Generation Z and 23% were Millennials.

2016 marked the first time Generation Z entered into the voting populace as the older half of the generation was born in 1995 and only 17 during the 2012 election. 2016 also marked the first time that Millennials had an election that wasn’t Barack Obama vs a Republican politician. Due to a high possibility for democratic voters, two of the smallest voting demographics whose political liberalism and “wokeness” was perhaps taken for granted in 2016, became the stars of the 2020 democratic electoral race.

The latest hot topic for presidential prospects on the bluer side is an angle on student loan debt relief. With Elizabeth Warren’s “tax the rich” solution to eliminate student loan debt to Bernie Sanders’ solution to cancel all $1.6 trillion of student loan debt to Kamala Harris’ call for lower interest rates to Joe Biden’s proposal to modify student loan debt forgiveness, one can see that there’s an audience that this election is trying to pander to.

And the presidential elects aren’t the only ones offering solutions to the student loan crisis.

Dr. David Kirkland, Executive Director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools, suggests the idea of a free public higher education system that replicates the system used for the United States’ K-12 public school program. In Virginia, a bill was passed in 2017 to limit the percent a college or university could raise tuition year to year. In 2019, at Michigan State University, a flat-rate tuition model was implemented — a system where all students taking 12–18 credits would be charged the same 15-credit base tuition. However, with #Fixtheflatrate, MSU’s Black Student Alliance is currently lobbying to create a more equitable tuition solution where students who can’t take more than 12 credits per semester aren’t being charged for a 15-credit semester.

Despite these proposals and changes, the student loan debt crisis is still an unchanging monument. At this point, it’s inflating.

Stated in a recent NBC dataset, the number of people in their 60’s with student loan debt has doubled in the last decade.

The problem of financial aid and student loan debt is an ouroboros — a snake eating its own tail. It is something that stands infinite and unchanging until the entire system holding it together is reevaluated and reconstituted. The first step in trying to detangle the snake is recognizing who is affected by it.

So the question stands as who really is the face of student loan debt and the financial aid crises? The answer to that question isn’t a singular “who” or even a generational “who,” but rather a multitude of eclectic people and experiences connected only by their participation in a trillion-dollar debt farm. These are four portraits of these people.

David Green, 59

Center Director of FasTracKids JEI Learning Center, Syracuse University

On Broadway, a five-minute walk from Domino Park and the stormy, hypnotic views of the East River, David Green works as the Center Director of a FasTracKids/JEI Learning Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Green, at 59 years old, never expected to still be paying off student loans.

Green went to high school in Long Island with a predominantly white, middle-class student body. He received what he thought was a very good education there, took Kaplan classes and had access to a slew of AP and honors programs he participated in too. “I did reasonably well in high school,” he says, “My SATs were around 1300.”

When it came time for Green to make his college choice, he chose Syracuse University, a private university in Syracuse, New York. He chose the school because of its political science department, sports, and a great visit he had during his college tours. Green knew he wanted to be a lawyer at the time and Syracuse seemed like his best choice — “It was $5,000 a year and they allowed my parents to spread the cost out over 12 months. So my dad sent them a check for $500 a month. We did not have to get involved in financial aid.”

Green went on to attend Syracuse University from September 1978 to May 1987 for his undergraduate, graduate, and law school education. During his years of education, Syracuse’s tuition including room and board was between $4,000 in 1978 and $8,000 in 1987.

Despite spending nearly 10 years in college, Green graduated with zero student loan debt. So where did his loans come from?

“My children,” he chuckled, his smile was a little pained but not regretful. Green, who had attained the enviable debt-free diploma in the late 80’s still hadn’t managed to escape the loan vacuum.

His eldest daughter went to Rutgers University, a public university in New Jersey, and due to her academic scholarship supplementing parts of the tuition, Green, who was working as a lawyer at the time, and his wife, a consultant, were able to pay for their eldest’s education out of pocket.

“That part was good,” he said. “ But that’s the end of the good part of the story.”

The problem came when his son and youngest daughter both decided they wanted to go to Syracuse University. Due to the siblings being relatively close in age “there was about a six-year period of time that the kids went to Syracuse.”

According to an archived Daily Orange clip from January 1989, the 1986–87 school year’s tuition was $8,140. In a more recent report from May 2015, the tuition in 2006 was $28,820, an increase of about $20,000 in about 20 years.

Green and his wife had to figure out how to pay nearly $60,000 a year for their children’s combined education.

“So even though my wife and I were working full time, there was no way we could afford this out of pocket completely,” he said. According to Green, Syracuse was generous in their children’s financial aid awards however, the awards didn’t cover enough for them to be able to pay out of pocket.

Green and his children all took out federal loans. His son Ben and daughter Rachel both graduated with about $30,000 in loans. “And I graduated,” Green chuckled, “with about 40 or 50 thousand in loans after all the six years were up.”

According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student loan debt amongst adults 50–59 more than doubled from 2.4 million in 2005 to 5.2 million in 2015. For adults 60 and older, it went from 0.7 million to 2.8 million in 2015. These are people who either struggled to pay off their own debt or took on loans for their children or grandchildren.

“They weren’t completely on their own,” Green said, “my wife and I thought it was our responsibility to help them pay for school.”

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that the average of all 4-year institutions’ tuitions were about $22k/yr in the 2006–07 schoolyear and about $27k/yr in the 2016–17 year, meaning that total cost of attendance would be around $88,000 in 2006–07 and around $108,000 in the 2016–17 year.

However, when looking at the cost of attendance for private institutions these numbers almost double. The cost of attendance at a private 4-year institution was around $34k/yr and $136,000 in total during the 2006–07 year while the cost of attendance in 2016–2017 was around $41k/yr and $164,000 in total.

These numbers do not add in the total debt one would be in if they were to take out loans for all four years without any help from grants and scholarships.

Green described going through the FAFSA portal as something easy and relatively painless. The part he thinks is unfair is that the universities have “gamed the system.”

“The fact that you can go on the computer and get unlimited money is something that the schools have taken advantage of by raising their tuition so drastically,” Green exclaims, “There is nothing going on in Syracuse that was going on in the 2000s that was different than what was going on when I was there, that tuition should go up by a factor of ten. One of the things that have taken the sting out of it a bit is that under the Obama Administration, they passed a law where the payback of the loans is tied to your income.”

The law Green is talking about is the Federal Pay As You Earn (PAYE) program which decrees, according to College Investor, that “Under Obama’s PAYE plan, your student loan payment will not exceed 10% of your discretionary income.” However, this is only for federal student loans and it is something that has to be applied and qualified for through StudentLoans.gov.

“The payout is a very long time,” Green continued, “I’m gonna be 60 next year, god willing, and I thought student loan payments were behind me.”

Green doesn’t know what a solution to financial aid and student loan debt could be. He was between understanding that “if you tighten up the loan requirements, you’ll be hurting the people that least have the ability to help themselves to begin with. There is no doubt that the free availability of student loans has helped a lot of kids go to college” and understanding that “no one put a gun to our head and said, your kids have to go to a private school.”

But he was sure of one thing — “The fact that a college education costs 50, 60 thousand a year before you pick up a pencil, there’s an inherent inequity to that.”

Ariana Holley, 21

Peer Health Educator, The New School, Hunter College

“The fact that I was encouraged to look through rose-colored lenses did not help either,” Ariana Holley, 21, confessed over the phone. In Fall 2018, Holley left her “dream school,” The New School, a private university in Lower Manhattan, due to tuition increases and transferred to Hunter College, a public City University of New York (CUNY) in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Holley and her family were able to pay for The New School in the beginning, but it got to the point where they just couldn’t pay for it anymore.

Ariana Holley represents the students who despite traversing the terrain of financial aid lingo and FAFSA applications, managed to get the money to go to school but still ended up having to leave school due to an incapacity to afford it.

Holley was born in Long Island, New York, but grew up in North Carolina. As a first-generation student and one attending college out of state, accessing financial aid was different for her because most of her classmates were staying in-state for college. “So there were a lot more resources for North Carolinian colleges and how to get funding for those versus someone who were to go out of state,” she explained. Due to this, she remembered having to deal with many of her college and financial aid decisions by herself or by teaching her parents the things she was learning along the way.

Holley and her father traveled from school to school, visiting financial aid offices and she remembered feeling “overwhelmed because there was a lot of jargon and numbers and percentages” that she didn’t understand but knew that there was a time-crunch for her to make her college decision as soon as possible because she had to go to college.

According to Dr. Kirkland, the idea of college “was about creating leaders and giving people an opportunity to, you know, find enlightenment and imagination.” However, this culture shifted in the 1950s with the United States’ space race with Soviet Russia. The federal government “saw education as a way to create national defense for the United States,” Dr. Kirkland continued, “This is the first time we begin to transition from an agrarian or an industrial society to one that was about information production and information making. It becomes a society that now it’s dependent upon the ideas, the ingenuity of individuals.”

This is the beginning of the social construct that Ariana Holley references when she says she had to go to college.

With the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 being passed right after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “education becomes less about,” Dr. Kirkland says, “preparing people to participate in a multicultural democracy and more about social mobility. It becomes more about socio efficiency. It’s about jobs. It’s about sorting people into their work arrangements. Everybody has to go to school if you want to get a job. And not only if you want to get a job, if you want to get a job that’s decent and support a family.”

This race to understand everything and get college applications finished so one can start school “on time” and finish “on time” is something heavily ingrained in United States education culture. The phenomenon Holley describes is not a one-off bout of anxiety.

“I had to take a semester off. Not because I wanted to but because I just didn’t have the money.”

Holley chose The New School originally because it was a school that could provide for her something different than “the typical college experience” and because the school offered her the most money out of all the New York schools she was accepted to. “It was like a half scholarship,” she said in reference to the Dean’s Academic Scholarship that the school awards students that maintain qualifying grades in high school and later in college. However, the scholarship didn’t cover enough of the tuition. Holley and her parents still had to take out a Parent PLUS Loan with FAFSA.

“It caused a lot of anxiety because my parents wanted to make sure that I was happy and that I went to the school that I wanted to go to because I did work so hard when I was in high school,” she began, “But there was still that price.”

So from Fall 2016, her freshman year, until Fall 2018, the year she transferred, Holley’s parents took out about 20k a year in Parent PLUS Loans, accruing about $40,000 in debt.

According to NCES data on The New School, the tuition in 2016 was $45,440. The tuition for the 2018–2019 school year, according to The New School’s website went up to about $47,000.

Holley ended up taking time off from school to work to save money to pay off her outstanding balance. However, despite attending another semester and enjoying her time there, with her financial aid staying the same and the school’s tuition rising, Holley said “in the back of my mind I knew that I had to transfer because, with my longterm goals as in what I want to be and the career that I want, I’m already going to be in school for a long time. And I was just thinking about how I was already hanging by a thread being at The New School because I could barely afford it and that I didn’t have enough time.”

Dr. Kirkland says that this idea of an “arbitrary time limit in terms of college” has always existed. “We think about the BA degree as a four-year degree, well in actuality it is probably a five-year degree. And for some people is a 5.5 year degree,” he says. Its an “issue of exploitation” in Dr. Kirkland’s words. The longer students stay in school, the fewer people are being put into the workforce to make gainful employment. “So the longer people are in college, the more it costs.” Universities and colleges market themselves as being able to get students out and into the working world in four to six years and if it takes longer than that it’s labeled as a crisis.

Holley mentioned that she did have a hold on her account during her freshman year, but the amount wasn’t too bad. It only required a slight rise in the amount of her loan request. However, with the next hold she had, she owed more than what she and her parents could comfortably take out in PLUS Loans. This led Holley to her scholarship hunt.

She went straight to the financial aid office. “I was as proactive as I could be from my knowledge, but they weren’t very helpful. And in terms of that, I didn’t know their full potential of what they could do and I still kind of don’t, but they were pretty dismissive and had this attitude as if like, well, you couldn’t afford to go here. So like that’s on you.”

On the other side of the coin, Julie Dobrow, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Columbia Graduate School of the Arts, says “don’t be scared of us. A huge part of our job anyway is to help students navigate the financial aid process.” Dobrow is speaking from the point of view of an office that, of 2018, only has 877 graduate students to oversee due to each school in Columbia having individual financial aid offices compared to The New School who, as of the 2015–16 almanac, has nearly 10,000 undergraduates in admittance and one financial aid office to oversee them all.

Dobrow recognizes this when she says “I’m fortunate that I work for a small school. The School of the Arts is one of the smaller schools within Columbia but we’re still a three-person financial aid office. And any student that wants to meet one on one with us, we will meet with them. So, you know, you don’t ever have to feel that your problem is not large enough or that you’re in a position where you’re not able to get access to us in our office.”

The issue when it comes to the accessibility of student aid is not just one of financial equity and availability but one of socio-personal capacity. If there are not nearly enough people in the office for the sheer volume of students admitted, to reference Holley’s claim, how can a student not feel ignored by their office of financial aid?

“And then the advice I would get was like,” Holley pitches her voice to intimidate the voices of the Financial Aid Office, “Oh, well Scholly has scholarships or look at Fastweb.” Holley continued to describe those scholarship applications as “crapshoots” where she would put her all into making essays and getting nothing in return. “Not even a response,” she said. “I would rather at least get a response saying that I didn’t get it. So I was just waiting around for nothing.”

To Ariana Holley’s defense, there is a popular belief that these scholarship websites like Scholarships.Com (1999), Scholly (2013), and Fastweb (1995) are just “scholarship holes” where one sends essays to die but there are entire Reddit threads and a page on Fastweb itself dedicated to people who have actually won these scholarships. Perhaps this is a problem of oversaturation rather than legitimacy. Fastweb boasts having “over 1.5 million scholarships” on their website at a time.

For Ariana Holley though it still hurts to put her all into those essays and get nothing back. “Not even a response. I would rather at least get a response saying that I didn’t get it,” she says.

Holley did manage to raise enough money to attend her next, and what would be her final, semester at The New School, however, it was from the help of a professor that offered her a research assistant job rather than the help of the Financial Aid Office.

Hindsight is 20/20. Holley looks back on her high school self and thinks “Hmm, I could have been a little more realistic in terms of pricing and everything. But at the time I was like, well, I’ve been wanting to go to school and I earned it and I just want to go here.” She remembered being encouraged to look through rose-colored lenses by her high school guidance counselors and other adults and being told not to worry because the money and scholarships would come to her.

“I was already naive,” Holley continued, “and I wanted to go to school so badly that I listened to them because it was kind of what I wanted to hear and not I couldn’t really afford to go to this school.”

Holley originally studied Interdisciplinary Science then Psychology in The New School. She is currently finishing her undergrad degree in Health Psychology at Hunter College. “I mostly went to Hunter for practical reasons,” she says, as opposed to the dream school aesthetic and mindset she approached her decision to go to The New School with. Also, at this time, she was 19 going on 20 making these decisions rather than a starry-eyed teen straight out of high school.

Despite her trials, Holley still remained dedicated to her pursuit of an education. She grew up in a household where education was always a priority and her own drive to attain a college degree is to “break a cycle.” Holley grew up in a low-income household and “just always had this idea or mentality that education is a way out of that and to be able to live a better lifestyle.” But also she wants education because, in her words, “I just like to learn. Why not go to school and experience things that I wouldn’t have been able to experience without an education?”

Holley’s proposal to “fix” financial aid is to “definitely put a cap on the cost of attendance. That’s the first thing that I would do so that financial aid can actually accommodate the costs better because the prices are rising, college is already expensive.”

This proposal echoes the same Virginian bill mentioned before.

“And the second thing I would do is,” Holley continues, “I would definitely advocate more for internal scholarships or at least find a way to weed out or teach students how to weed out dead scholarships from scholarships that are legitimate.” For Holley, the scholarships that have worked best for her have been the internal ones offered by the schools.

Dobrow’s advice for students trying to navigate financial aid is to go directly to the schools you’re interested in. “I think the federal websites tend to be fairly good in terms of at least their term definitions,” she began, “so for instance, all of these various repayment options exist on federal websites. The loan services are supposed to be good at explaining the differences to students, but they’re not always so helpful. But I think the entry point is going to be at the individual school financial aid office because they have a connection to an individual student in a way that a loan servicer in an office 3000 miles away is not going to.”

Leo Sherman, 21

Artist, Parsons School of Design, California College of the Arts

“I just want to go to school. So I was like, ‘what the fuck am I doing?’” The trains in the background had been muffling Leo’s Bay Area accent for much of his phone call, but this line rang clear.

Leo Sherman, a San Francisco native, came to New York City in 2016 for a change of scene. To describe his first summer in NYC he said “Jesus Christ! I was 17, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.”

In high school, Sherman was in the group of seniors who went around the school teaching all the other students how to use FAFSA. “I had everything done, like by October,” he said. FAFSA for the academic year becomes available October 1st and the deadline is June 1st of that academic year, however, it is generally understood that a prospective student should do their application as soon as possible.

Sherman’s school problems, however, didn’t start with FAFSA. “It’s not FAFSA that’s the problem. It’s the institutions,” he said.

Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) is the amount your family is expected to pay to help you in school. This amount is calculated using a multitude of factors including family income, size of the family, and the number of dependent children currently enrolled in school along with other factors.

“So for me,” Sherman began, “I’ve always had zero EFC but The New School [was] charging $30,000 a semester to go there.”

“Now I didn’t know shit about New York and I didn’t have the money to go traveling there,” Sherman says, but he wanted a fresh start, “a leap to change my life around,” he describes it. Almost immediately after his orientation week, however, Leo Sherman began having problems with The New School’s financial aid office.

David Kirp, the author of The College Dropout Scandal, writes that many students “depart because the institution hasn’t give[n] them the we-have-your-back support they need.”

Sherman can attest to this. “They were misgendering me every time I went to the office to talk to them,” he began. “I was being manipulated by the counselors who were misgendering me and misnaming me constantly. I never once got named or gendered correctly in the offices by anyone,” Sherman continued.

Misgendering is the act of referring to a trans person by a word, normally a pronoun or name, that doesn’t reflect the gender with which they identify. According to Healthline, misgendering is a refutation and devaluation of a transperson’s identity and, quite frankly, an act of psychological violence.

According to the essay “Where Did They Go: Retention Rates for Students of

Color at Predominantly White Institutions,” there are five components that lead to negative retention for students of color in Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). One of these components is the psychological climate of the institution and offices making it up, further defined as “how each member perceives and experiences an institution, its mission, and its racial climate varies based on the individual and their position within the college.”

There was an inherent disconnect between Leo Sherman, an eighteen-year-old low income, black, trans student, and the multimillion-dollar educational institution he was facing. He was a young adult in a completely new city where the people who were supposed to help him constantly misgendered and, according to Sherman, manipulated him into accepting loans he didn’t understand.

“I didn’t know what was going on and they wouldn’t explain to me shit.”

The loans Sherman is talking about are the subsidized and unsubsidized loans that schools offer in financial aid packages. For The New School, they are around $3000 to $5000. Both loans accrue interest over time but the unsubsidized one begins accruing interest from the first day the student receives it.

Throughout all of this, Sherman lost his housing. He originally lived in Loeb Hall, one of the university dorms, but left due to his room being ransacked over the winter break with no investigation or repercussion after he reported the incident. Afterward, he lived with an acquaintance who kicked him out due to wanting to live in a bigger apartment by themselves. Sherman finally ended up living in the University Center, the 24-hr main building of The New School.

He tried getting support from Student Crisis Management but was denied emergency funds.

Sherman left The New School after being unable to afford the 2017–2018 school year and after one of his favorite teachers was fired. “I was raised to try and get through with it. I was trying to make it to senior year,” Sherman’s voice gets quiet as he says this. After describing a hard winter where he lost many of his friends and was ousted from his community in New York, Sherman decided to go back home.

Because he owed the school money, Sherman couldn’t get his official transcripts from The New School. That’s when California College of the Arts, a small private art school based in the Bay Area, came into play.

“CCA took my unofficial transcripts and so I was like, ‘oh, okay, I’m outta here.’ I’m just going to go home and go to school and I’m going to fucking not deal with this shit no more. So I did that. I applied, I got my shit together, I got a fucking PLUS loan.”

At CCA, which offered an animation program, something that peaked Sherman’s interests, Sherman focused entirely on school — “Didn’t really make no fucking friends. I just slept and animated my ass off.”

Despite having a more calm atmosphere at CCA, Sherman still didn’t have the funds to continue at the nearly $53,000/yr school. “My package was pretty shit,” he says in reference to his financial aid award. In the end, Sherman was only able to attend CCA for a semester before having to take another leave.

“I’m trying to go back to school,” Sherman says, “I’m trying to figure out how I can do that cause I don’t have $30,000. You know what I mean? I work a minimum wage job.”

Currently, Sherman works as a barista and a janitor. He also does tattoos as another source of income. He spends the rest of his time in his apartment creating art and spending time with his partner. Sherman is also returning to CCA for the Spring 2020 semester on a payment plan of $500 a month.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in the 2016–2017 year, only 54% of students at private for-profit universities at all acceptance rates retain attendance for four years. The number drops to a mere 21% for students who graduate within six years in a private, for-profit university.

The retention rates are so low not only because students cannot afford to maintain retention, but because the institutions themselves are ill-equipped to handle and support their students with care.

“They’re just classist. Institutions that privatize at the root are classist,” Sherman says.

Kirp continues in his novel, “Many of them,” prospective, current, and ex-college students, “are actually worse off economically than if they hadn’t started college. While they earn a little more than those who never went beyond high school, they leave college with a pile of debt.” He continues, “dropouts are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as college grads, and they are four times more likely to default on student loans, thus wrecking their credit and shrinking their career options.”

In response to paying back his loans, Sherman is over them. “I’m tired of it,” he begins, “I don’t want to pay no fucking loans. I don’t want to pay them based on my income. I don’t want to pay them at all. Fuck the government, man, you don’t need my money.” His voice is tired but impassioned as he says this.

When asked what his idea of a solution to the United States’ financial aid issue, Sherman said “We should just use taxes to pay for shit. I don’t think that people should individually have to think about expenses for school. It doesn’t make any sense. Does it matter? Like what your financial situation is? It doesn’t make any sense to associate money with education.”

Mariah Cardi, 21

Student Intern at I Have A Dream Foundation, LIM College

Mariah Cardi is a Fashion and Media junior at LIM College, an approximately $26,000/yr private college in Midtown Manhattan whose slogan is “Where Business Meets Fashion.”

She knows she loves her major and the work she does because if she didn’t, she confessed: “I might not be going to college at all.” Cardi continued, “I just felt like I needed a degree more than anything. They make you feel that way. Like when you’re in high school, like, ‘Oh, make sure you go to college, cause when you get a bachelor’s degree, you’re going to get a better job than the people who don’t go to college.’ That’s just what I thought.”

Mariah Cardi is another student, like many others, who fell into the cultural paradigm of feeling like they had to go to college. And like those other students, Cardi is another one with ballooning student loan debt.

A Tampa, Florida native, Cardi grew up with an esthetician/makeup artist mother. With FAFSA, Cardi said, “me and my mom just had to figure it all out because my mom went to college, but she went to trade school so she didn’t have to do FAFSA and all of that. So when it was time for me, and I go to a private school, it was really confusing.” Cardi and her mother did at least have the support and help of Cardi’s teachers at school.

Prior to her in-person interview, Cardi mentioned having a loan that skyrocketed from about $3,000 in her freshman year to $14,000 in her junior year. In-person, Cardi pulled out a thick manila folder nearly bursting at the seams that made an audible plop when she placed it on the table. It was filled with financial information.

The loan that was ballooning was an unsubsidized federal loan. As mentioned earlier, unsubsidized loans start to accrue interest from the day the student receives the loan. This accumulation does not stop until the loan is paid back in full. The interest fluctuates as federal economic markets fluctuate. In 2017, when Mariah first received the loan, the interest rate was 4.75%. On a $3,500 loan, that’s an added $166.25 per billing period on the loan. In 2018, it was 5.5%, an added $192.50. Currently, the interest rate on federal unsubsidized loans is 4.53%, adding $158.55 to Cardi’s loan every billing period.

Subsidized and unsubsidized loans are optional, however, for many students, the option isn’t really an option. Cardi got a Pell grant, a federal grant given to low-income students to help them finance college, and she received scholarships from the school and a Hillsborough County, her home, scholarship, “but it still was not covering a couple thousand dollars.” Cardi’s EFC, calculated by FAFSA, was zero but she and her mom knew they could afford a few hundred dollars out of pocket to finance her education.

“So with that in mind,” Cardi began, “we were trying to get all of the aid we could. Since there was only a few thousand left, I saw that it was an option to take the loans.”

At the time when she accepted the loan, Cardi confessed to not really knowing anything about the loan. She didn’t know that it would keep surging and adding interest up until she graduated. She worries about her credit score as she accrues more debt and tries her best to pay off the interest while in school.

On top of her loan woes, Cardi lost her Hillsborough County scholarship for the 2019–2020 academic year.

The scholarship was one based on income and it financed $5,000 of Cardi’s tuition. “Since I’m in New York and the scholarship comes from Tampa, I always have to email the person my application and do all my communication through email,” Cardi explained. But prior to the start of the semester, when Cardi sent out her email before the deadline like usual, she didn’t hear anything back. In July she called and learned that her application was never even received.

Cardi impersonates the woman on the phone, “We actually didn’t get your application because the person who was in charge of the scholarships left and she didn’t forward me your information so I don’t have you in the system.” Cardi continued, “And I was like, well, can I just send it to you? And she was like, unfortunately, no, because the period is already over.”

Cardi and her mother, for this semester, had to scramble to find the money to pay out of pocket. Before, they’d only paid a few hundred dollars, but this time “it was the first time I had to pay more than $2,000,” Cardi said. Cardi’s mother kept paying the original out of pocket money while the $2,500 difference came from Cardi’s savings.

Mariah Cardi’s idea to fix the United States’ financial aid system is to make the system more clear and comprehensive. “My mom is going to college. She’s going to get her master makeup artists degree and it’s like she’s a grown woman and she’s confused about what an unsubsidized loan and subsidized loan is.”

Throughout all of this, Cardi maintains the sentiment that if things had been made more clear to her and her mother, she wouldn’t be in the situation she’s currently in.


Universities are held accountable for federal compliance, a term as defined by Megan Walter, Policy Analyst for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), “means the institution’s requirement to adhere to laws put forward by Congress, or regulations and guidelines created by the Department of Education. For institutions who do not follow or meet those requirements, they can be penalized by the loss of accreditation status, or the loss of the ability to disburse Title IV federal aid (Federal Pell Grants, Federal Direct Loans, etc.) to their student population.”

This, in relation to one’s financial aid, means that the school cannot award a student more in their aid award package than what is allowed to be awarded to that student as per federal guidelines.

This is part of the root of the ouroboros problem.

Financial aid departments are small and school populations are vast. Each financial aid officer or director can have hundreds of cases assigned to them at a time. This means that schools constantly have to have accounts audited for people who slip through compliancy cracks.

Compliancy cracks can be getting federal work-study when your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) is higher than the amount eligible for work-study. EFC is calculated by the federal government when a student completes and submits their FAFSA application. The school, by allowing you to participate in federal work-study and allowing you federal work-study funds, now falls out of compliance with federal guidelines. Lack of compliance means that the school can get in trouble with the federal government.

This is terrifying to schools because, according to NASFAA, “When the federal government conducts a program review, it must publicly disclose the outcomes of that evaluation, including any areas where the school did not comply with established rules, and the corresponding financial liabilities and fines.” This “small” mistake can be one in a pile of bigger mistakes that can turn into expensive, bad publicity for the school.

Walter continued in her email, “Institutions of higher education need to meet quite a few regulations to stay federally compliant as it relates to federal financial aid. Some of these topics include contracts with third-party servicers, verification of FAFSA data, student eligibility, cohort default rate, entrance and exit counseling, and annual data reporting for various programs. A big example of a school that wasn’t compliant and closed because of it, was ITT Technical Institute. ITT Tech was found to have engaged in reckless and/or predatory practices like deceptive recruiting, inadequate educational program quality, and questionable financial aid practices. The Department of Education barred ITT Tech from distributing Title IV aid, which ultimately led to the company declaring bankruptcy and closing all 130+ locations.”

Students who graduated this now a non-accredited university with tens of thousands in debt wonder if their degrees are worthless and echo these concerns on blogs and reddit threads. There’s also the question of where has all the money gone and will it come back.

In June 2019, Letitia James, New York Attorney General, announced that “her office obtained an agreement to provide $2.58 million in debt relief to 288 former ITT Tech (“ITT”) students in New York as part of a settlement with 44 State Attorneys General.”

Again, this is a snake eating its own tail problem.

Universities are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They cannot provide “more” for their students without risk of losing accreditation and students can’t survive in higher education without some access to more money.

All of this exists in the roots of the ouroboros — a snake that traps people like David, Leo, Mariah, Ariana, people with almost no ties to each other, in the unending, unyielding miasma of student loan debt.

The snake cannot gorge itself on its own tail for too long before regurgitating it all or collapsing out of existence. We need to fix the financial aid system and the student loan debt crisis before that happens.

The only way to fix it is to destroy it and rebuild a system that not only supports the institutions but the individuals involved.

This story was originally written in the Fall of 2020



Kaylin Dodson

journalist. artist. she/her. The New School Journalism+Design 2020