Family Violence and Financial Aid: A Trauma-Informed Policy Analysis of Financial Aid’s Responsiveness to Students Experiencing Violence in the Home
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Independence is a cornerstone of pursuing higher education. Applying for college, registering for classes, deciding on a major, completing coursework, and maintaining a passable grade point average to graduate, are all the student’s responsibility - no parental permission or involvement is required. The exception? Applying for financial aid. Most students between the ages of 18 and 24, are considered “dependent” by federal financial aid policy. Dependent students and their parents are required to report their financial information when applying to receive aid to cover tuition and housing expenses. In the past thirty years, tuition has nearly tripled in cost at public universities in the U.S (College Board, 2019). Student loans now constitute the largest portion of non-housing debt (Maldonado, 2018). This is not surprising given that tuition has increased at a rate eight times faster than the annual growth in wage earnings (Maldonado, 2018). Now, more than ever, students require financial aid to offset the increasing cost of a college degree. Yet, while all students and parents are required to complete the same financial aid form, not all family dynamics are the same. For students being abused by their parents, either in the present or past, this process can gravely impact their ability to apply for and receive financial aid to attend college. One option that exists for students experiencing family violence is a dependency override, a mechanism that, in special cases, can switch a student from dependent status to independent, allowing the student to forgo including their parents in the financial aid process. However, as experienced by the family violence survivor quoted above, dependency overrides present their own challenges and limitations which will be elaborated upon in the forthcoming sections of this capstone. The following paper presents the findings of a project aimed at understanding two key questions: How does the dependency override process operate in practice. That is, who does it serve, what steps must students take to request an override, and how are overrides approved or rejected. And, to what extent does the dependency override process align with trauma-informed care principles? The author argues that current financial aid policies position survivors of family violence to experience simultaneous forms of disempowerment that jeopardize their well-being, their safety and their ability to secure financial aid. To support this claim, the author will provide evidence from a content analysis of relevant financial aid policies, secondary research of trauma-informed care principles and practice, in addition to information collected from interviews with the directors of financial aid from three Washington universities concerning their dependency override procedures. This capstone will begin by grounding the reader in the literatures and histories of financial aid policy, family violence, financial abuse, and trauma-informed care, and where relevant, their interplay. Following the historical and theoretical context, the methods used to answer the guiding research questions and analysis procedure will be described. Next, the findings will be presented. Afterwards, the author will explain and discuss the dependency override practices utilized by Washington universities. The paper will conclude with policy recommendations for promoting equitable access to financial aid for student, family violence survivors.
- MA in Policy Studies