Learn From My Mistakes

This is a re-post from my other blog The College Wallet: I thought this story was important to share with others.  This story isn't just about paying for college, but is also about resilience and holding your head high in the face of adversity.

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. - Confucius

I’m not afraid or ashamed to admit that over my lifetime I have struggled with depression.  I know what it is like to consider suicide, to never leave my bed, and to think that all is lost.  I also know what it is like to make it through recovery and understand that I am a survivor that has overcome the depths of depression not once, but twice.   I have suffered many consequences due to my behavior during my depressive episodes some of the most aggravating at this point in time is what has happened to me academically and financially.

My second major depressive episode was more devastating when it came to long term consequences.   I did nothing for a year and a half.  Doing nothing meant I never left my bed, I slept all day, I didn’t keep up on my hygiene, I lost all three jobs that I had been working, and my relationship with my fiancé was under tremendous strain.  Because I did nothing I either failed or withdrew from all but two classes in three semesters. Not only did my G.P.A. fall to a 2.41 (from a respectable 3.33), but I also set up the foundation for the most aggravating experiences of my college career.

There is a law called The Higher Education Act of 1965 (which was reauthorized in 2009) that negatively affects students who have gone through circumstances like mine.  The problem is that this law doesn’t just affect students like me (those who have dealt with a death in the family, medical problems, mental illness, etc.) it also affects students who weren’t ready for college in the first place (such as students who struggle to pass coursework), and students that simply don’t take school seriously.  Those with legitimate problems are lumped in with those who don’t really care about completing school, or who should not be in a higher institution yet.

The section 484(c) of The Higher Education Act specifies that all higher education institutions must establish a procedure to measure satisfactory academic progress.  This progress is tied to a student’s ability to receive federal student aid. The problem is that each institution gets to determine what that process and procedure is, as well as the criteria of what constitutes as progress (with the exception that the student must maintain at least a C average or the grades required to be able to graduate).  What does this mean?  This means that there is a mishmash of policy across the nation.  This also means that illogical and irresponsible policies have been concocted. 

For instance the academic institution I attend regards withdrawals, medical withdrawals, retaking a course, and failing a course as all failures when calculating the percentage of courses a student fails. So if you have taken a total of 60 credits, but had at one point got severely ill one semester and had to take a medical withdrawal of all classes (15 credits) and the following  semester you retook those same 15 credits (the exact same classes) you would be deemed as failing to meet satisfactory academic progress because your pass/fail rate would be 50% if your school decided that the minimum pass rate must be 67%.  This is despite the fact that you never failed a single course, were never put on academic probation, and you are on track to graduate (albeit one semester later).

It is also possible to fail to meet satisfactory academic progress by taking too many credits.  According to the Higher Education Act too many credits would be defined as 150% of the published length of the undergraduate program; at my institution that is 180 credits.   Because of my depressive episode I am over the maximum credit hours, but if you exclude the 45 credit hours during my depressive episode that are counted as attempts then I would be under that maximum.

What happens is if you don’t meet satisfactory academic progress you are first given a warning (presumably to get your butt back into gear), then suspension, and finally termination (you will not receive any federal financial aid money for the rest of the time you are seeking your degree).

There are procedures to appeal financial aid suspension and termination and your financial aid can be reinstated if the institution decides that you were under “extenuating circumstances beyond your control.”  According to section 484(c), generally these circumstances would be a “death in the family of the student, illness or injury, and special circumstances as determined by the academic institution.”

I had already been through the appeal process for suspension last spring and was granted my financial aid; I then had to go through the termination appeal for this fall.  On Saturday, August 13th I received a letter that said my appeal was denied. 

My university is very careful to repeatedly mention that a denial of financial aid does not prohibit me from attending this university or completing my degree.  The moronic thing is that if the financial aid were not necessary for me to attend this university I wouldn't bother with these appeals in the first place. The very real fact is if you can't pay for college you don't get to go. I will be able to finish this semester, but I will probably end up owing money at the end which will prevent me from registering for my final 10 credits next spring.  Until I can come up with the money for this semester and my last semester I will have to leave school so I can save up the money (since no grants, loans, or work-study will be given). 
Getting back to my personal story; after my third semester of failures and withdrawals I was unable to make tuition payments (because at that time my financial aid didn’t even cover the full cost of tuition).  I left school partly because I was unable to continue financially and partly because I needed to get my life back together.   After a three year break I returned to school in the spring of 2010 and earned a semester G.P.A. of 4.08 (I was on the dean’s list).   Since my return I have completed the equivalent of 2 ½ years of coursework in 1 ½ years all B and above (with the exception of two C’s in some very difficult courses [one of which had a 60% failure rate]).  I improved my G.P.A. to a 2.79 (my request for a retroactive medical withdrawal was rejected due to a college policy that states no medical withdrawals will be granted beyond two years of the affected semesters). I have participated in clubs and organizations and even started a new academic club at the university.  This is all while working full-time at one job and part-time at another job. Not to toot my own horn, but I would say if anyone deserves a another chance I do.

I could be devastated by the news of a denial for my initial appeal, but I still have hope.  My university does have an appeal process for this recent decision.  On Monday I will surely be at my university waiting in line at financial aid stating my case as to why I should get an appeal on this poor decision.   I am hoping that this second appeal will go in my favor because it will be my last.  I only have two semesters left including this one (22 total credits until graduation).  I don’t want to have to drop out again, but I may be forced to.

I will keep you all posted on what happens, but regardless of the decisions made I will continue on with this blog and helping others avoid the kinds of mistakes I made and also to help you learn how you can improve your situations.

The most important thing to remember about trying situations like mine is that the important thing is not when you finish school, but that you finish school.  Never let your circumstances determine your destiny!  

There are many ways to pay for school... 

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