Show Me the Money

Andy and Carlos scramble to get their financial aid forms completed on time - and then to make sense of the results.

Andy sits down with his mother to fill out the financial aid form.

The microwave beeps and Mom gets her mug, drops in a tea bag, and then sits down. She’s in her pink robe and has some cream on her face that makes her skin all shiny.

Andy fills out the FAFSA.

“Okay, baby, what do you need me to do?” She yawns so big I can see all her fillings.

Mom works two jobs. During the day, she’s a receptionist at the hospital, and then four nights a week she cleans offices. That just kills her, her feet and back always hurt. Tonight’s her night off and she usually just kicks back and watches TV.

“I need you to help me fill out this form.” She raises an eyebrow at me. I almost never ask her for help with school stuff. “It’s for financial aid. Money for school.”

She smiles big when I say that. All my life she’s always told me that education is important. She saves all my report cards, and organizes all my awards in this display box she keeps in the living room. She’s already planning the party for when I graduate.

“You’re gonna get a scholarship, you know that,” she says.

“Maybe. But I gotta fill out this form anyway.” I fan the pages in front of me, all six of them. This isn’t even the real thing, just some pre-application stuff. I’ve filled in as many blanks as I can, but I don’t have mom’s tax information and most of the questions don’t even make sense to me. Like, whoever’s heard of an earned income tax credit?

“I don’t know where all that stuff is, Andy!” she says when I show her all the blanks that are still empty. She gets up and grabs this big box from the top shelf of her closet and sets it on the kitchen table. She starts pulling out her pay stubs and looking for her tax form from last year. She tosses a rubber-band wrapped pile of papers to me. “Here. I think you can find last year’s pay stubs in here.”

I look through it, and I get mad. Mom’s worked at the hospital for years, as long as I can remember. And she’s getting paid nothing. She says she works there for the benefits, but I wonder if it’s worth it. Mom guesses what I’m feeling, and she puts her hand on my arm. “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay.”

“You work harder than anyone I know, Mom,” I say. “It’s just not right.” I hesitate, and then add, “Maybe I should just get a job, help you out.”

She looks at me hard, my mom, who is always soft. “You already got a job. School.”

I’m glad she says that. Much as I want to help out, I want to go to college. I start copying the information from the pay stubs onto the financial aid form, and mom looks over the list of documents we need.

“I haven’t done my taxes yet,” she sighs. “Guess I gotta get started on that, huh?”

“I can help,” I say, and she smiles a bit.

But then she says, “I’ll do it. It’s just gonna take me a few days to get the forms and get them all filled out.”

I hate to bug her, but I need this info. “When?” I blurt. “I mean, can we do it fast, if I help?” She shrugs, and just like that, I’m irritated. “The earlier I get this in, the better.”

All she says is, “I said I’d do it. Now leave it alone.”

But I can’t. I look at all the blanks still left on the worksheet. “Mom, I need this money. Do you know how much it costs to go to college?”

And now she’s mad, too. “Why you think I’m working two jobs?” and just like that she wins the argument.

Andy’s over at Carlos’ when he learns how much financial aid he qualifies for.

Carlos has been Andy’s best friend since elementary school.

Carlos and I are chilling, like we always do, down in his basement where the TV is – and far from his mom. She’s okay, I guess, but she’s definitely got an edge. I think she wants Carlos to hang out with the rich kids, but we go way back.

It’s right after school, so we’ve got a bag of chips and two huge sandwiches we’re scarfing down. Carlos turns on the computer. “What’re you doing, man?” I ask him.

“I got an email. My financial aid report is ready.” He clicks a few keys, and in a minute says, “Here it is.” He reaches over to the printer to pick up the pages he’s printed out. He looks at them for a second, and then tosses the papers to me. “What’s this mean?” he asks.

The papers scatter, and I gather them up. And I can’t help it. I see how much money Carlos’ family has. I can’t believe it. What’s he got to worry about?

“You’re the one who’s been to Ms. Lopez,” I snap. “You figure it out.”

Carlos gives me a look, but he just asks, “You wanna check yours?”

Not in front of him, I don’t. “I won’t look,” he says.

Andy gets his SAR online.

So it’s my turn in front of the computer. I enter my PIN and click on “view and print your SAR report.” My palms are sweaty all of a sudden. I’m nervous. So much depends on the number that gets spewed out. And there it is. Top right-hand corner. Estimated family contribution. And I can’t help it, I smile and high-five Carlos. It’s never felt so good to be poor! I should be getting all kinds of aid.

I thought about what the tour guide when I visited JMU, Raphael, said about his experiences with finding the money for school. In a way, I was lucky, being so poor – the money is out there – but I knew I’d have to work hard to find it.

Raphael explains how he found the money to attend JMU. (dialup  OR broadband)

Andy gets accepted everywhere he applies, but each school offers him a very different aid package.

Andy is perplexed by the different financial aid offers he receives.

Most of my friends are sweatin’ getting into college. That’s not my problem. My counselor told me last year, “dream big.” She wanted me to think about Ivy League schools, but that didn’t feel right to me. I’m smart, but Ivy League? That’s just not me. The only private school I applied to was Morehouse College, but I’m lookin at the price tag and I just don’t see it happening. State school is just so much cheaper.

I wasn’t too surprised I got in everywhere I applied, but from my mom’s reaction, you’d think I’d won a Nobel prize. She’s been braggin on me to everyone.

For me, the hard part is figuring out where to go – and how to pay for it. I thought when I got my student aid report that every school would just give me the same amount of money, and then I’d go where I really want. But they all say different things. I’m not sure how to choose, which offer is better.

Julia, the girl I met on the JMU tour, has as little money as me. When she told me about her financial aid offers and scholarships, it sounded so simple. Nothing like what I’m looking at.

Julia describes her financial aid options and the scholarships she received. (dialup  OR broadband)

See the financial aid packages offered to Andy below:

Carlos is lucky. I guess having a pushy mom pays off in some ways. She made him go to his counselor and talk through everything about the financial aid reports and then his mom went to these meetings they had at night. But my moms was working when the school had the evening information sessions for parents, and I don’t know Ms. Lopez the way Carlos does. He tried to fill me in on what she said, but I don’t like anyone, not even Carlos, to know just how bad I need money.

I wish I knew what to do.

Ms. Lopez explains to Carlos what each part of the financial aid package means. (dialup  OR broadband)

Ms. Lopez explains to Carlos how to compare different financial aid offers. (dialup OR broadband)