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The Spiritual Journey of Applying for Financial Aid

When my son was a sophomore in high school, I attended an evening seminar about applying for financial aid to meet the exorbitant costs of higher education. This is where I learned to fear the FAFSA, which is a form of numerous pages and way too many questions. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. “Free” is a happy word, but who cares if a form is free? We want the aid, that’s all, and it appeared to me that the form would get in the way. Many things were taught that night, but what I took away was this: Make one mistake on the FAFSA and you pay the rest of your life. This is where my spiritual journey began.

At this time, we owned a large house we couldn’t afford. We bought at a booming time in my career, but then…well, you can guess the rest. Many wonderful things about this house kept us from putting it on the market: the low property taxes, the artist studio for my husband, the little cottage with the cupola on top that we rented to a really nice lady, and the advice of our friends who had already been through the process of pursuing financial aid. They advised: don’t sell your house, because if you do, the money would be up for grabs and you won’t qualify for aid.

We were between a rock and a hard place. Hold on to the house and prolong the intense discomfort when it came to buying anything more than a banana, or sell the house and enjoy money in the bank for a brief time before the university takes it all. Searching online, I learned that, in actuality, some institutions do consider the equity in your primary residence; they take into consideration your entire net worth whether that involves money in the house or the bank. More importantly, I learned that I was entering into a large unknown place where absolutely nothing was black and white. This is where prayer kicks in. “We know not what the future holds, but we know what holds the future.”

So, I solicited the help of a few praying ladies in our town. I know for a fact that they gather every Wednesday morning to pray for the kids, schools, and culture of our community. I know this because I occasionally join them when I’m not under a deadline or too coffeed-up to sit still for an hour and focus. This particular morning, I told them how my husband and I couldn’t decide if we should put our house on the market. They prayed right then and there, and by the afternoon of that very same day, my husband all-of-a-sudden announced: “We’re selling the house.”

Six months later, we are living in a cute little rental home with roses outside our window, lots of money in the bank, and a FAFSA to fill out. I am so nervous about this now-electronic form, that I type in my PIN instead of my password and I immediately muck everything up. I tell myself that countless forms have come my way before and there is nothing to be afraid of, but it does not help. Tim, my accountant, claims that in his 30 years of business, no one has ever requested that their taxes be done by the second week in January. I’m too eager, I know, but Tim kindly does my taxes and then comes alongside me as I face the FAFSA again, complete it, and start on the CSS, another form that I can’t even talk about.

Back to my son—after all, this effort is all for him—he applies to just two colleges. No, no, no, I say. If there is anything that’s clear, it’s that you have to apply to a range of colleges so you have choices and leverage in the aid department. I’ve heard, for example, that you can take a nice grant award from one college and show it to another college who then might sweeten their award. So, Luke complies and ends up with a total of seven colleges. A good number, I think. I start to feel better, but I’m still too anxious for a mature person of faith. Why can’t I just let go and enjoy the process?

Toward the end of March, the letters start coming. All the colleges that want my son send their “Financial Aid Award Letter” at the same time as their acceptance letter. All, that is, except for the one institution where my son really wants to go. Is this just to torment me? I contact the university and inquire. To their credit, they explain that they are trying to understand our situation. They can see that my husband and I make little money, but the SAR, which is developed from the FAFSA (sigh) states that we don’t qualify for any aid whatsoever. I carefully explain how money from our house sale went into our adjusted gross income due to the rental cottage, home business, and stuff I don’t understand, but we really are quite needy, trying not to sound too desperate, of course.

Only two weeks are left before my son has to make the biggest decision of his life to-date. Still, there’s no word from his preferred institution, which shall remain nameless because, with all those forms, I may have checked a secrecy clause, I’m not sure. More questions from the financial department arrive in my email and I do my best to properly portray our situation. Finally, after one more email, I was at peace. Ironically, I actually thought at this time that we’d be paying in full for college, but I was finished stressing. I even got down on my knees and thanked God for whatever the future would hold.

Then my son checks his email. It’s there! The most awesome university in the world sends an award letter to my son, stating that they will essentially give him a full ride. I whoop and holler so loud, that now my son is scared. If he were still a little boy, he would jump up and run around the house with me. But now he is grown, and he just sits there like a man wondering why this crazy lady is making so much noise. But he is fine young man, so fine that the university will cover his tuition. So fine that maybe with the next spiritual journey—an actual journey across the country to drop him at his dorm—I’ll be able to let go without so much fuss.

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