U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. met with Undergraduate Student Government Senator Paul Samaha, along with six other student leaders, last Wednesday in Washington, D.C. to discuss the issue of college affordability.
Samaha was chosen for the meeting through the National Campus Leadership Council, a network of student leaders, based on his history of advocacy work for tuition relief and transparency at USC.
The Department of Education arranged the meeting to hear from students about their experiences with the financial aid process and obtain feedback on recent changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The 2017-2018 FAFSA will be released on Oct. 1, three months earlier than usual, simplifying the process by allowing families to use their earlier tax information rather than estimating their taxes. The change will also make families aware of their financial aid options earlier, allowing them to make more informed decisions about where to apply.
The meeting explored many issues, including financial aid for the middle class and King’s efforts to make the FAFSA more accessible to undocumented students.
“Clearly so many families fall into the gap that can’t attend college because they don’t qualify for aid, especially at USC, where tuition continues to go up around $2,000 every year,” Samaha said to King. “What can we as students do, and what can you do through the Department of Education to make middle-class education more accessible?”
According to Samaha, King said the Department needs to continue simplifying the FAFSA application process. The Secretary said he realized that while the upper class may have the financial and tax literacy needed to navigate a complex form, those skills are not as common among the middle and lower class.
“We’re making progress, but we’ve got more to do,” King said.
King said that the rising cost of tuition stems from states underinvesting in higher education. In response, Samaha challenged King to be more outspoken on the issue of tuition hikes.
“While I know that you can’t control or put an end to tuition hikes on your end, your voice is powerful, and I would love for you to make a statement regarding increased tuition,” Samaha said to King. “Even though you can’t change USC’s tuition, your voice is powerful.”
To prepare for the meeting, Samaha consulted with students in USG and reached out to other students through a Facebook post. Students told him about their experiences with the FAFSA not taking into account emergency hospital bills or decreasing aid for students who work over the summer to pay off their loans. Through his discussion with the Secretary, Samaha was able to bring those issues to King’s attention as well as learn from the experiences of other students who were there.
“I would say I was one of the more privileged students there, because I was using a lot of USC students’ stories, not necessarily my own. I was there listening to so many first-generation students who said they didn’t even think college was an option for them until they either submitted the FAFSA for themselves, or someone in their community filled it out for them,” Samaha said. “Hearing these students’ stories and how they were first-generation and how much they relied on that need-based aid was very inspiring for me.”
Samaha hopes the discussion will spur the Secretary to do more to help those who are overlooked by the current financial aid system.
“I think the meeting helped reassure him he was going in the right direction. It also helped him realize there’s still more that needs to be done,” Samaha said. “I think this will allow him to reconsider how they can do more, like for the middle- and lower-class students who aren’t getting a ton of aid from FAFSA or their school, but are still expected to cash out $70,000 a year in tuition.”
Though he was impressed by the Secretary’s focus on college affordability, Samaha said much of the work of tuition relief requires the schools themselves to cooperate.
“I’m very grateful that the Secretary of Education is addressing these concerns, and I hope that our school can soon follow, because I think they have ignored the problem for too long now,” Samaha said. “In many ways, the Department of Education is years ahead of USC when it comes to college affordability and making sure every student has the opportunity to go to school.”