Making College Accessible for All

Increasing access to all public benefits programs—including college aid—is possible with the right strategies in place.

By Elle Meyers

In the fall of 2019, Crowley High School Salutatorian Lupita Rueda* walked into my office, ready for her first meeting with her college adviser. She walked in armed with a list of 10 schools to apply to, the first draft of her personal statement essay, and was already working on the essay supplements that some schools required of aspiring engineering students. She had also taken the SAT over the past summer and was registered to retake the exam that Saturday. 


The meeting was going well until I broached the subject of financial aid. Lupita looked surreptitiously around to make sure no one was in earshot before confessing that her parents were undocumented and she didn’t know what that meant in terms of submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). 


I offered what I hoped was a reassuring smile and promised that her parents’ immigration status would not impede her ability to receive the financial aid she qualified for. She smiled tentatively and, a few minutes later, walked out with a checklist of documents she would need to bring to her next appointment with me.


I worked at Crowley High School from 2018 to 2021 as part of the College Advising Corps, a national nonprofit whose mission was to increase the number of low-income, first-generation college and racially underrepresented students pursuing and achieving higher education. Lupita was neither the first nor the last student I worked with who had undocumented parents, so when she returned to her next appointment with her parents in tow, I was ready to walk them through the infamously arduous FAFSA application. 


We clicked through the application slowly as I first translated the complexly-worded questions into plain language for Lupita, who then translated them into Spanish for her parents. As always, this was a time-consuming process, made longer by the extra barriers needed to overcome for students with undocumented parents.


When the “Congratulations!” screen loaded at the end of the process, the Rueda family laughed and sighed with relief. Meanwhile, I dreaded voicing news that would undoubtedly wipe the smiles off their faces.


“As I said earlier, Lupita will be able to receive the full amount of money she qualifies for even though you do not have Social Security numbers,” I paused. “But, because you could not use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, you will be selected for a process called verification, which means that you will need to provide your full tax return transcript—not just the form 1040—and some other documents to support what you reported on the FAFSA.”


A quick discussion in Spanish ensued, followed by a question: “Like an audit?” Lupita asked.


I cringed. I avoided using the word “audit” on purpose, but I couldn’t lie. “Yes,” I confirmed finally. “Like an audit.”


The three broke out into a rapid and heated conversation. Lupita sounded hesitant, her father sounded scared, but her mom’s tone was firm. Abruptly, the conversation stopped. “For Lupita,” her mom said slowly and haltingly in English, “we will do whatever it takes.”


Lupita would receive a full financial aid package and an academic scholarship that covered the entirety of her expenses at the University of Texas at Austin. She is now well on her way to achieving her dream of becoming an electrical engineer. However, without the need-based government grants she received, the cost of higher education would have made it much more difficult for her to achieve that dream. 


Creating Space for Every Student

The FAFSA is the vehicle through which students receive aid, but it is often just as much of a hindrance as it is helpful. 


In my time working as a student analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, I have seen how the kinds of barriers that made it difficult for students like Lupita to receive the financial aid she needed stand similarly in the way of U.S. residents applying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Medicaid, and other social safety net benefits. However, while many of my college access days were often defined by my frustration at the system, my days working on the Digital Benefits Network have been defined by hope.


In the last year, I have been fortunate enough to work with practitioners who have dedicated their lives to increasing the accessibility of public assistance programs. The work that they have produced has significantly lowered barriers for benefits seekers, and I am inspired by the possibilities that could be reached if we expanded them to other safety net benefits.


In December 2020, the United States Congress passed the FUTURE Act and the FAFSA Simplification Act, two pieces of legislation aimed at making higher education financing more accessible. In anticipation of the fully revised application rolling out this year, I have compiled a brief analysis of both bills, including specific problems that were—and were not —addressed in the 2022-2023 FAFSA revision. The analysis also includes details about what I hope the 2023-2024 FAFSA application will look like, applying the principles and best practices developed by the Digital Benefits Network.


These recommendations have the potential to significantly improve the functionality and accessibility of the FAFSA for students like Lupita and countless others, but they are just the beginning. It is my sincere hope that the new and improved FAFSA contains many of these improvements and that we never stop working to make sure higher education is affordable and accessible to all U.S. residents.


*Name changed for privacy

Elle Meyers is an MPP candidate at Georgetown Unversity’s McCourt School of Public Policy. She was a student analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation with the Digital Benefits Network.