College Life: With and Without Financial Aid

The following graph shows the average financial aid amount received per International student registered at Santa Monica College. Infographic from SMC Institutional Research.

College life, tuition, books, food, places to live, and class requirements... How does a student manage it all? Money!

Being a student doesn’t just mean worrying about exams and homework; there are also the inevitable financial struggles. Many students with low incomes have the option to use the financial aid program, while some others do not. They may choose to have their work and studies go hand-in-hand, but for most students without financial aid, books and class requirements cost even more than their enrollment fees.

To handle these costs, you would need either a good income, rich parents, or probably win the lottery. Plus, if you're an international student, your tuition is even higher.

Sara is an international student from Switzerland, majoring in business management at SMC. As such, her student life is getting pretty expensive. She said, “I pay around $6,000 per semester. Additionally, I have other expenses such as textbooks, access codes, and other costs [that] will bring it to more than $10,000 compared to my classmates who are paying, for example, around $900 for the semester, with even whole package of financial aid will cost nothing for them.”

Sara also mentioned international students aren't eligible for any type of financial aid program. She wished SMC could provide more supportive financial programs for international students as well. On the other hand, Mousa, who plans on transferring next semester, said he was satisfied with SMC's financial aid services. He described his financial aid experience positively and said, “I filled out the financial application, that’s all I did, and now I’m under the program until reaching my education goal. I get money from school; while it could be better if they pay it on time, so students with low income can purchase their textbooks.”

The following graph shows the average financial aid recipient by residence status at Santa Monica College. Infographic from SMC Institutional Research.

Christopher, a broadcasting student, had a different experience. He said, “[When] I would compare Long Beach College financial aid services with SMC, I realized that they have everything set up for students. After applying for financial aid they have somebody there to help you come out. Basically, they manage that the money goes straight to students' credit cards, but SMC just [sends] the money by the mail. Nobody does that in these days, which is weird.” He emphasized that there are some ways the financial aid office can make their process meet students.

Shany, a political science student, who plans to transfer to USC, isn’t covered by the financial aid program. “I go to SMC with BOG waiver, which is a federal grant, so that means all of my tuition is paid, so I don’t pay any tuition fees, which is amazing. I don’t get anything from FAFSA, but I don’t need it. The only expenses are just textbooks and transportation,” she said. Shany mentioned that the only financial difficulty she has in her college life is purchasing online access codes for her classes, which cost her "more than $200."

Have you ever wondered how to get financial aid? To provide a general knowledge about all aspects of this program, we interviewed Stacy Neal, Assistant Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships at SMC.

Neal enjoys her job and believes the financial aid program has benefited many students. She also explained that the first role of her office is to provide financial assistance to all eligible students. She said that assistance could be in the form of a fee waiver, which is $46 per unit for eligible state students. Students can also participate in federal programs, which is free for those with low income.

Neal's office typically cuts off other students who are not eligible for financial aid, and is reserved for students with primary needs. Consequently, when students apply for the financial aid program, the office analyzes their backgrounds, looking at different aspects such as income, family size and ability to pay, including others. After analysis, the information goes to the federal office in order to determine a student's eligibility for financial aid.

According to Neal, SMC’s financial aid office receives more than 40,000 requests each year. While all students are encouraged to apply for financial aid, she explained they use one formula to analyze and determine who the FAFSA program can cover and who it can't. She also stated that more than 21,000 SMC students, not including international students, are using some kind of financial aid program.

SMC's financial office also provides other kinds of supporting programs. These include California Cal Grants A, B, and C, which help state residents cover their tuition for books and other academic expenses.

Following news of President Donald Trump's proposed federal budget cuts; there has been much concern about the fate of the FAFSA program, among others. While Neal says she is not yet familiar with Trump's so-called "skinny budget," she claims her office is keeping up with the news. For the time being, any possible effects of the skinny budget to the FAFSA program are unknown. Neal's advice was to be proactive; students should apply or renew their financial aid documents when they can.

There are four main types of financial aid -- grants (also known as gift aid), scholarships, taking out a loan from the bank, or a work-study program that offers paid part-time jobs to help students cover their tuition. Financial aid is usually available until one earns their first bachelor's degree. Students have a maximum of 6 years to reach their degree.

To apply for financial aid, one must complete the application for federal student aid (FAFSA) or apply directly to the college. Both the FAFSA and CSS/Financial Aid Profile open on Oct. 1 every year.