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Thursday, May 6, 2021

Senator calls for financial aid stories

Washington State Sen. Patty Murray wants to hear from families about the difficulties that come with paying for college, and a new comment form on her website gives students and parents a way to tell her those stories directly.

Murray’s online comment form provides an opportunity for families to voice their concerns about federal financial aid programs and the cost of education. Those stories will then be relayed across the country to other lawmakers as congress works through the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act before the end of this legislative session.

“I want to hear the stories, priorities and ideas of  Western Washington University students,” Murray said in an email. “I’m going to make sure your voices are heard loud and clear back in the other Washington.”

In the course of the reauthorization, Murray hopes to improve not only affordability, but also accessibility. Students apply for aid every year through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and for many, the experience wasn’t easy.

Murray’s website reports more than 40 million American citizens owe a total of $1.3 trillion in student loan debt.  Seven out of 10 seniors will graduate with $28,950 in debt according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

“As someone who relied on Pell grants to get through school, I understand how important this is for middle class families,” Murray said in an email. “I am going to continue to fight to make college more affordable and make sure students can graduate without the crushing burden of student debt.”

The act was originally passed in 1965 and covers everything from policies related to drugs and alcohol on college campuses to instructor evaluations and financial aid. With the online tool, Murray is working specifically to address the part of the bill that outlines federal financial aid including loans and Pell grants.

According to her website, Murray’s main goal for the new act is to make college more affordable for students in Washington and around the country.

John Ezekwugo is a Western senior who finances his education independently. For the most part Ezekwugo hasn’t had troubles with the FAFSA, but his experience with the loan program isn’t without its complications.

In Spring of 2014, Ezekwugo was awarded a financial aid scholarship.  That fall he realized the money hadn’t come. Neither had any information.

“I had to go to the financial aid office, call them a bunch trying to figure out where my money was,” Ezekwugo said. “They didn’t really know.”

The scholarship eventually came in, after he had to present evidence proving he had been awarded it. Ezekwugo also mentioned having difficulties during the application process, which he said was complicated and required a multitude of forms, some requiring parental assistance.

The application is ‘free and quick,’ according to the FAFSA’s website. The PDF version is a 10 page document with seven steps. Step number one is similar to a job application: Name, address, social security number. After that the document dives into taxes, income calculations and financial jargon, all accompanied by notes directing back to the help sheet.

According to Murray’s office, she worked hard last year to make the direct importation of tax information easier for families and students.

“It’s not really something that a student could do by themselves,” Ezekwugo said.

According to a 2005 National Center for Education Statistics report, first-generation college students, who tended to be low-income, were less likely to apply for college immediately after graduation than those whose parents have a bachelor’s degree or higher.  

Luckily Ezekwugo was in the fraction that completed the application and received aid.  He plans to graduate this spring.

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