or college-bound students, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) provides an introductory glimpse into the labyrinthine financial reporting nightmares you’ll inevitably face in your adult life. Its mysterious black box calculations can make or break your financial future, cause you to rack up astronomical debt, and may even jeopardize the possibility of your getting a degree at all. For me, it opened up a loophole so wide that my only hope — my hard-earned scholarships — fell right in.
I was a poor college student
For me, “FAFSA” may as well have been Greek for without this, your broke ass has zero chance of going to college. I was seventeen. I had just enrolled in community college — then just $11 per unit. I lived at home with my parents who, for all their merits, wanted me to go on to university about as much as they were able to pay for it, which was not at all.
It seemed pure fantasy that one day I would move away and get a four-year degree. But a couple of professors put the idea in my head, insisting that it was possible—if not through loans, then through scholarships. After a few months of attending class in a vague performance art kind of way — a hapless dance to ward off a future of imagined drudgery — I was desperate to believe them. I spent the remainder of my time at community college working my ass off. I did everything I could to make myself deserving of scholarships and along the way applied to every scholarship I could find.
Some were need-based; some were merit-based. Some were memorial scholarships set aside by the families of former alumni. Some were for Latinas, some were for those who’d be the first in their families to go to college. Many required five-page forms, ten-page essays. I researched and applied for the big, the bad, and the obscure, and spent the better part of a year shoehorning myself into any scholarship I remotely qualified for. I treated it like a job, and it paid off. By the end I had amassed a small treasure: thousands of dollars in scholarships I’d painstakingly won. I started to feel rich enough to believe I could afford a university degree.
Of course, scholarships are really just IOUs that you hope to cash in once school starts. But I felt confident. I’d received the fancy letters, attended the awards ceremonies, and even shook hands with a widower who’d chosen me to attend college in his departed wife’s name. It was incredible to me that real people were forking out real money to help me and my family succeed. I hadn’t even enrolled in classes yet but I already felt reason to be proud of my industriousness. When the time came I filled out the FAFSA forms in full, neatly spelling out each of the scholarships’ names and amounts.