Every year, most students who attend or plan to attend college will fill out their FAFSA form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Almost all students are eligible for some sort of aid, and 85% of students in four-year programs receive it. According to the US Department of Education, almost 20 million students applied for aid for the 2015-16 education cycle.
The aid mainly comes in the forms of need-based Pell Grants (non-loan aid of almost $6,000 per year), Stafford or Perkins loans (which charge interest of 4-5%), or supplemental wages for school work-study programs.
Because of Pell and other direct grants, there is, for some students, free money available: about $40 billion of grants were awarded last year. But by far, most FAFSA applicants become borrowers, because about 70% of Federal aid is distributed in the form of loans ($95 billion last year). The application itself is free, but the loans certainly are not.
Typically, media reports announce annually that some eligible students did in fact leave grant money on the table. For example, Nerd Wallet calculated that in 2017, “Students missed out on $2.3 billion in free college aid.” The reason? Some students weren’t aware of the available aid, or they didn’t adhere properly to application processes and deadlines.
Accordingly, each year, counselors, admissions reps, and various government agencies try to get the word out to college-age students, making sure they know of the available resources. Search on any phrase associated with the topic of student aid, and you’ll see the same messages abound: assistance is available, there’s a way to make college affordable, and everybody should do it. Apply today!
Often, the message is accompanied by earnest-looking models:
Of course, the Department of Education has an obligation to inform the public about financial aid options and all of the details relating to FAFSA application processes. We recognize the good intentions of those who want to make sure students know what’s available. Also, we understand it may be challenging to get the attention of teenagers and convey financial information effectively.
But given all of that, we’re still disturbed by an indisputable fact: the government markets financial aid like a beer commercial.
As a case in point, consider the whimsical Twitter feed of the FAFSA department, where silly GIF’s and memes drive home the message: Sign up for debt!
Like so many other marketing departments, the FAFSA office tries to tie-in its promotions to national holidays or events. Groundhog Day, the Superbowl, Black Friday: all are occasions to remind you to hurry and fill out that FAFSA. You’ll be praised for it.
Recall that most of this federal aid will come in the form of loans, not grants. And while the FAFSA Twitter feed does offer some information on debt payback obligations and processes, its prevailing message pressures students to take on debt to attend school.
We offer these recommendations to students: by all means, gather information about available resources and application processes. Don’t leave free money on the table. But also be very aware that taking on years of debt is far more serious than dancing groundhogs or dudes with horse heads.
And if you feel a need to counter the influence of the government’s marketing, consider the alternative memes offered by those graduates who resent their debt, such as these images from the studentloandefaulters reddit site: