That a few extremely wealthy Americans bribed their children’s way into America’s elite undergraduate institutions—and got caught doing so—has been deemed our era’s “college-admissions scandal,” after revelations earlier this spring of charges that implicated a group of wealthy parents, including the actress Lori Loughlin.

At the same time, and with far less publicity, millions of potential students every year are unable to attend these same schools for reasons baked into the system itself: America’s financial-aid infrastructure is riddled with roadblocks for the most disadvantaged students. Ninety percent of students’ whose federal financial-aid applications require “verification,” an audit to prove their self-reported financial status, fall into the poorest income brackets, with finances that would qualify them for federal Pell grants. Over half of those students eventually lose access to grant money because they do not complete the arduous verification process.

While the scaffolding of financial aid in this country is supposedly intended to offer vulnerable students a ladder into the ivory tower, in reality it is usually impossible to climb.

I recently spoke to Claudia Buccino, a college counselor at a Title I public school in Brooklyn, about America’s real college-admissions scandal: the injustice embedded in the financial-aid application process.

Emmeline Clein

EC: Let’s start by talking about the students you work with. Can you detail the demographics of the student body at a Title I public school in Brooklyn?

CB: The school I work at is large by New York City standards and small by national standards. We have about 800 students. The school is Title I, meaning that the majority—at our school, it’s about 75 percent—of our students live below the federal poverty level, which, of course, means something drastically different in New York City. The majority of my students, regardless of income, are first generation, meaning they will be the first in their family to go to college. 

EC: How does your students’ socioeconomic status affect the amount of time you are able to spend counseling them on their college applications versus on their financial-aid paperwork?

CB: We spend an inordinate amount of time on financial aid. To put it plainly, the college counseling I am able to do is limited by the amount of financial counseling that is needed. First, I have learned that we cannot have any conversations about college, even with underclassmen, without talking about finances, because of the financial-aid process’s ability to curtail outcomes. I consider the applications themselves the easy part. This is the inverse of what I have heard from people in similar positions at private schools, for example, where students either don’t apply for financial aid at all, or do so at home, with parents or family members who have gone to college themselves. I think more of this happens in school than people understand. 

EC: What is one of the biggest points of divergence you see between the average perception of the financial-aid process and how it actually plays out in your students’ lives?

CB: For “traditional” families with one or two stable source(s) of income, the FAFSA is relatively easy to fill out. For people with any complicating factors—multiple jobs, public assistance, divorce, remarriage—these applications are enormously stressful, complex, and difficult to understand. They also do not end with the FAFSA; “unusual” circumstances and low reported income also open the students and families up to the verification process, which is even more invasive, and even less accessible, than the FAFSA itself. 

EC: Tell me what the verification process is like, and how common it is at your school.

CB: I can’t think of an instance in which the FAFSA of a Pell-eligible student I’ve worked with has not been selected for verification. Verification asks for information students never knew existed, in terms they are systematically ill-equipped to understand.

The verification process, at the very minimum, requires a tax-return transcript. This involves either weeks of waiting (as financial-aid dollars are dwindling, or opportunity program slots are being taken) or a trip to the IRS. Sometimes, it requires Social Security verification, too, which is even more arduous. If your financial-aid verification process requires only a trip to the IRS for a tax-return transcript, you got lucky. Divorced parents? We need separation paperwork. Deceased parent? You better have a death certificate handy! Hopefully you kept your SNAP/EBT documents from two years ago! Oh, you lost them—looks like you have to spend the day at the human-resources building, and we all know how damaging, in addition to simply inconvenient, that can be.

Again, low-income students being overrepresented in the FAFSA verification process highlights how much more time counselors and advocates at Title I schools spend on financial-aid support than other schools do, or on other things. 

EC: So these various federal, state, and private financial-aid processes are dizzyingly complex and incredibly opaque. Can you outline other types of disclosures required by FAFSA and private schools’ individual financial-aid applications that can be difficult for your students to answer?

CB: I have seen many schools—city, state, private, two- and four-year colleges alike—send out “itemization” worksheets. These state, basically, that the family’s income was unusually or unbelievably low and ask students to “explain” how their entire household accounted for expenses—down to clothing and food budgets—from two years prior.

One elite New York school asks if either parent (regardless of whether the student indicates they have contact with the noncustodial parent or not) owns or leases a car, and, if so, what are the make, model, and year of that car.

[Verification] forms ask families to explain themselves—which also connotes explain yourselves truthfully, we didn’t believe you the first time—after they’ve already made the institution privy to the most sensitive material in their lives, their finances. I understand that everyone gets audited, and at the end of the day it’s either the school or the government that’s going to pay these expenses. But the way these forms are worded and delivered to students who have, again, been systematically unprepared to understand them, makes it seem as though they simply want to dehumanize people. 

EC: What specific barriers do homeless students who want to apply for financial aid face?

CB: I think the hardest piece is proving homelessness, especially in New York. As the crisis of homelessness accelerates and intensifies in the city (there were more than 26,000 homeless NYC high-school students last year), we see fewer students in shelters and more students in “doubled up” living situations (when one family moves in with relatives due to losing their housing). These are extremely difficult, and disheartening, situations to verify. Many students in temporary housing are not even aware that their status is technically homeless or, if they are, have fought hard to keep this a secret. Producing the documents required to verify this special designation can expose students to feelings of vulnerability they have been deliberately shielded, or shielded themselves, from.

Another frustration my students face is that, after going through all of the trouble to “prove” their homelessness, there are virtually no supports in place to help them find permanency in college. 

EC: What about students who are themselves undocumented or whose parents are undocumented?

CB: If a student themself is undocumented, they are not eligible for any need-based or governmental financial aid. All that is available to undocumented New York State residents now are private scholarships, which all have extensive writing requirements, and some of which have “community service”/“internship” (read: unpaid labor) requirements.

The process is easier with undocumented parents. These students can at least complete FAFSA and TAP, although the process is much slower as it requires processing via snail-mail and, almost automatically, verification. Not to mention the emotional toll this takes on families. Filling out government paperwork with zeroes in the place of a Social Security number is not something an undocumented person takes lightly—it’s really scary! Furthermore, we have to provide notarized letters from their employers, who may not even know their status. It is a scary and stressful process for families in this situation. 

EC: So, it seems like these financial-aid programs that are predicated on the idea of accounting for structural disadvantages actually end up preying on these disadvantages by asking students questions they do not have the institutional knowledge to answer. Similarly, programs overtly dedicated to righting historical wrongs sound like they end up entrenching them. In an ideal world, what types of reforms would you like to see to federal financial-aid policies?

CB:  Exactly, it’s the most difficult for the least equipped. And the kids feel it too, that there’s always more lurking around the next corner, even if you present them with one application at a time. I call it “paperwork paralysis;” it’s literally crippling. They bury these kids in paperwork. It forms a wall, a systematic barrier. At the same time, I acknowledge that, to a certain extent, verification is required to maintain the integrity of the financial-aid process. I just feel the extent to which low-income families have to grapple with verification is extreme.

One helpful reform would be accepting a signed 1040 form instead of requiring the tax-return transcript. This is sometimes implemented as an exception, like when the government was shut down, or in cases where a parent “tried and failed to obtain a tax return transcript from the IRS.”

Another huge relief would be eliminating IRS verification of [income tax] nonfiling entirely. Parents that do not file are usually not working for a reason, like retirement and disability. This makes traveling to the IRS, or even chasing down paperwork remotely, that much more difficult. 

EC: Finally, what questions do you have for the elite schools your students jump through all these hoops to get into?

CB: As my students and I fill out the CSS profile [the College Board’s official financial-status profile], I have to constantly remind them (and myself) that this process is more demanding because these schools have more money to give. And I mean I have to do this on every page: “I know, it’s a lot, it’s crazy, but we gotta pay to play…” Helping my students fight frustration with the process is my job, which I should say that I love. However, it does beg the question: If these private, CSS-profile-participating schools have so much to give, and give so generously, why is the process so punishing?