I was able to go to college for two reasons. The first was that I happened to go right before the costs of attending college and university started ballooning in the United States, and the second is that I got a lot of financial aid, with a relatively low percentage of loans. The way I accessed that financial aid was through the dreaded Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which opens up all kinds of funding opportunities for people who might not be able to go to college otherwise.
I have a love-hate relationship with the FAFSA. The form drove me up the wall every year, as did getting audited every single time I filed because my application would inevitably get flagged, since the combination of my income and my father's income was so low that they thought we were lying in an attempt to get more money. The felony conviction exclusion is grossly unfair, and the structure of the system leaves the expected family contribution unreasonably high for many families -- especially working and middle class people who can't hide funds as effectively as upper-middle and upper class people.
But, on the other hand, I accessed tens of thousands of dollars in financial assistance through the FAFSA, and was able to attend and ultimately graduate from college thanks to that funding. I also had to work, and I graduated with some debt, but I had a fighting chance at educational opportunities and freedom from debt at some point after graduation, if I balanced my payments well and negotiated with my lender.
The generation of students going to college now, by contrast, are facing a high percentage of loans and increasing college costs, putting college beyond reach for some.
Like other government agencies, the Department of Education is trying to reach out through social media to help younger adults access funding and learn more about how to pay for college. It's a well-meaning effort, and an important one, in an era when youth are surrounded with reminders about the horrible economy they live in, the high cost of college, and the student loan bubble. Agencies like the DOE are running rap videos (of, uh, dubious quality) about paying for college, establishing Twitter accounts, and trying to get in with the kids.
But someone on the FAFSA Twitter took it too far with an attempt at a meme featuring a still of Kristin Wiig from "Bridesmaids" in an airplane and the caption "Help me. I'm poor." The staffer added: "If this is you, then you better fill out your FAFSA."
The Internet was not impressed.
FAFSA staffers deleted the evidence and issued an apology.
But the apology indicated that they didn't really understand what the problem with the initial Tweet was. It wasn't that it was humorless and kind of pointless -- it was that whoever made the meme seemed to think there was something funny about being poor. And that the FAFSA staffer apparently didn't understand that, thanks to the rising costs of college, you don't have to be "poor" to need financial assistance to go to college, which is a serious social issue.
Low-income people are often discouraged from considering college by the systems around them. Their schools tend to be of lower quality, and they can't rack up extracurriculars and honors, which makes it harder for them to have strong college applications. Meanwhile, they're acutely aware that college is extremely expensive, and they may not be able to access enough financial assistance to put it within reach. Even if the FAFSA spits out a relatively low family contribution, it can still be too much -- and a financial aid package may include a huge loan burden that isn't wise or feasible to take on.
Casual throwaways like this one may attempt to tap into the youthful hipster thing of declaring oneself "poor" when one is actually not, but they're really just a reinforcement of the idea that poverty is something to be mocked and turned into an object of humor. Poverty is nothing funny, as anyone who has endured it knows, and for the millions of children and teens living in poverty, this ad joins a body of media and pop culture that doesn't understand poverty and advances ridiculous stereotypes about it.
There's a difference between being poor and being broke, between not making very much money and actually living on the poverty line. Right now, people in both of these groups are having trouble affording college along with basic living expenses like rent, utilities, and food, and that's no laughing matter. The United States is falling apart at the seams and its persistent class problems are a significant social issue, not something to be memeified and jokingly posted on the FAFSA Twitter account.
If the FAFSA personnel are actually concerned about making college accessible to everyone, they could join efforts to crack down on for-profit colleges. They could promote student loan debt forgiveness and work with advocates who are fighting to reduce college costs to make college actually affordable. They could participate in job creation so that graduates can have an increased chance of obtaining employment.
In the short term, they could streamline and shorten the form to make it easier and more understandable to fill out. They could eliminate the drug conviction exclusion, which is racist and discriminatory. They could reform the expected family contribution formulas.
The intern who wrote that Tweet may or may not still have a job, but the attitude behind it persists, and until DOE and FAFSA personnel can rethink their attitudes about people who need financial assistance to go to college, snide comments like this will continue to be considered acceptable.