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Low-income students deserve easy access to aid

On October 16, 2013

Transitioning from high school to college is a difficult process. Students move out of their homes and into new environments. They leave family and friends behind to pursue higher education. Imagine how much harder that process must be, however, for students who did not have a home in the first place.

In the United States, the number of homeless students has been increasing at an alarming rate for the past few years, according to Inside Higher Ed. The amount increased by 69 percent from 2009 to 2010 alone. By the end of 2011, the number of homeless students topped one million, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education.

With those statistics in mind, if students in these unfortunate situations are at UCF, they must be receiving some special assistance and accommodations, right? Not so much. In the spring of 2013, UCF had just two students who received tuition and fee exemptions, according to an email from UCF spokeswoman Courtney Gilmartin. They were the only students who qualified for the aid, Gilmartin confirmed.

UCF is more than equipped and able to handle students who may need some financial assistance. There are scholarships available for almost every circumstance. As stated in the previous paragraph, UCF has allowed exemptions for students needing them. The main concern here is not the availability of aid, however, but the accessibility and visibility of it. And this goes for high schools as well. Counselors need to be equipped and educated enough to point their qualified students in the right direction.

The key to accessibility won’t be found in TV ads or billboards, but through communication with the counselors and teachers who know these students personally.

According a document by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, one of the key challenges faced by homeless students who pursue college is a “lack of information about various supports that may be available to them.”

UCF students are not without their special circumstances. Entire offices, such as Student Disability Services, are in place to assist students with challenges they may face at the university. UCF even has an office to help transfer students cope with a new environment. All of these offices are advertised and easily accessible, so why can’t UCF be a little more transparent in how it handles homeless or low-income students? Homelessness is arguably a little more difficult to overcome than a transfer from one university to another.

Out of the nearly 100 different scholarships that are listed on UCF’s Office of Student Financial Assistance’s scholarship index, only one scholarship exists that specifically mentions “low-income” students, and that scholarship only applies to students who plan on getting a Ph.D or Ed.D. Sure, scholarships mention showing preference to those with financial need, but scholarships need to be advertised that deal exclusively with those who have immediate need for financial assistance. Not only is there an enormous lack of visible aid for students who are low-income, the aid is further limited to students who seek continued education.

The means of assistance needs to be a little more obvious. Students can secure scholarships simply by writing an essay, so why can’t there be more options for students if they have a need?

For students who may qualify for an exemption of tuition and fees, a waiver can be physically filled out at UCF Student Account Services. The exemption, however, is not advertised, Gilmartin confirmed.

This forces students to seek aid elsewhere, and if they can’t find it at their own university, there’s no telling if they’d be able to find it on their own. Organizations, like the National Center for Homeless Education, however have numerous programs available.

“All students who apply for the homelessness waiver — whether they qualify for the exemption or not — are given a university case manager so that they can be supported during their time at UCF and hopefully go on to graduation,” Gilmartin said in an email.

Students in complicated situations don’t deserve the run-around, and burying aid deep within the web of UCF’s websites does nothing but limit the potential scholars coming into UCF. Financial status and academic success are mutually exclusive so UCF has a responsibility to all students, regardless of difficulty, to assist when necessary.

The willingness is present, the accessibility, however, is not.

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