One Student's Plea for Help
John Around Him is a student in the Bunker Hill Community College English class that was the subject of Wick Sloane's last column. The class focuses on writing as a skill to manage your own destiny -- a job letter, for example, or a memorandum to make something happen. One use of writing the class has discussed is the exercise of our First Amendment right "to petition the government for a redress of grievances." As an assignment last week, John wrote the letter below to U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). As a result, Kerry met with John and the class at Bunker Hill this morning, where the students presented him with their recommendations for overhauling the student aid system.
Dear Senator Kerry,
My name is John Around Him, and I am a student at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston Massachusetts. I am Native American and a veteran of the War in Iraq.
I am sure you, a veteran of the Vietnam War, can relate to putting your life on the line; to live in an environment of gunfire, explosions, chaos and confusion, wondering if the next second might be your last. For most students, the idea of being shot at and delaying enrollment to earn money for college isn't very appealing.
But, for those students who do not qualify for federal financial aid, like me, it may be the only option and this is why I am writing to you. I believe the federal financial aid system is ineffective in helping students pay for college, especially low-income and minority students.
I grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and graduated from Little Wound High School in 2001. I was an average student, maintaining a grade point average just below 3.0. I always thought about going to college. However, there is one question that most students, including myself, often ask themselves -- how do I pay for college? I lived with my father (a single parent) and with two other families. He would also often take care of other relatives coming from broken homes. My father was a language teacher, respectable, but not the wealthiest career, so family support was out of the question.
Certainly, there is money and programs out there to help students pay for college, but which students? According to the formulas used in the federal financial aid system, my father made too much money; therefore, I did not qualify for financial aid. This is the case for a lot more students like myself.
Students either have to be dirt poor to get federal financial aid or in the top ten academically to receive scholarships these days. What about the students in the middle who worked hard and did their best (which by popular belief is the path towards success), but fail to enter or stay in college because of the tuition blockade?
Today, the average tuition cost (including room and board), according to the report "Trends in College Pricing 2006" by the College Board, for public universities is $12,796. In contrast to the average tuition cost in 2000, we have seen an increase of $4,357. It is evident that colleges are raising tuition, due mostly in part by the lack of state funding. Furthermore, although increases have been made, federal financial aid has not kept up with the rising cost of tuition. But, the increase in tuition isn't the only thing students have to worry about.
The formulas and standards used to determine a student's financial need are unrealistic to the average student or family. For example, according to the federal financial aid system, to be considered independent (which greatly determines if you receive financial aid) you must meet one of the following: 24 years of age or older; married; a veteran; or orphans or wards of the court. However, today, most students are financially independent after high school. A 2005 study by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that independent students make up 64 percent of the students at community colleges and 37 percent at four-year public colleges. About three in five of those students worked at least 35 hours a week.
Independent students must often cut working hours to attend class, or take classes part time to work full time. Both of which can be extremely stressful and discouraging.
As Mark Twain once said, the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning is a really large matter. I am not saying students should not join the military. Would I have joined the military had I received financial aid? Perhaps, perhaps not. I for one support our troops and enjoyed my time in the service. The values, discipline and experience contributed to who I am today and I am thankful for that.
However, going to war is expensive and ugly. Was going to war necessary? I don't know. But I do know this: to take care of those around us, we must first take care of ourselves.
I am writing to you not only on my behalf, but for the well-being of my country and my family. The federal financial aid system is deleting a majority of those students in need of financial aid. With state budget cuts, tuition continues to rise and the climb towards success is getting steeper. For some students seeking higher education, the financial aid options are slim. I feel as though these problems are often overlooked.
As a result, like a cancerous disease, problems like these will continue to grow to the point of no return, and we will watch -- a dying nation.
John Around Him is a 24-year-old Oglala Sioux from South Dakota. He joined the military to help pay for college, and drove a tank in the invasion of Iraq.