Alex Schneider: At GW Law School, you’re not an ‘adult’ until graduation day

When do you consider a person an independent adult? At 16, when they get their driver’s license? At 18, when they can purchase tobacco and vote? At 21, when he or she can legally drink?

Well at the GW Law School, we have a new answer: You might be 25, 30 or 35, but you’re not an independent adult until you graduate.

The law school quietly implemented a new policy this month for determining eligibility for need-based grants that will force applicants – regardless of age – to fill out their parents’ financial information when turning in their Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms. The previous policy only required this financial aid paperwork for students 28 years old or younger.

The financial aid office emphasized that the new policy won’t affect the total amount of financial aid students receive. But for students entering in 2014, that still means more hoops to jump through, more paperwork and more scrutiny.

And for some part-time students who haven’t lived with their parents for awhile and thought they would be considered financially independent, the change could be a barrier to filling out an application.

Financial aid policies are some of the most consequential for students seeking higher education, and the smallest changes can have substantial impacts that the school should not take lightly.

Parental income and savings data is only relevant if it has a bearing on the resources available to fund a student’s education. The law school should not be sniffing around personal and irrelevant data for financially independent applicants.

It’s far from clear how this will affect access to financial aid for part-time students – but chances are, it won’t be positively.

Many students in the part-time program work and are financially independent, but would not be able to afford law school without need-based grants. Many haven’t lived with their parents within the last five years. The new policy treats all of these students as dependents, requiring parental information on the FAFSA.

The law school has done a poor job explaining the purpose of the new policy and students deserve more clarity. There was no discussion of this issue with the Student Bar Association Senate, no outreach to evening students through the Evening Law Student Association, no surveys and no meetings.

The notice of the change was placed at the bottom of an email sent to students en masse.

And while there’s certainly no guarantees, greater community input would have identified the shortcomings and could have saved this policy from itself.

SBA Executive Vice President Marisa Ortega said that since the policy was announced, it has become a “heated topic.” The SBA is currently working on plans to address the issue.

I asked the law school: Why even change the policy?

“The policy change is occurring now because we are in the process of a normal review that happens every year as we begin to accept a new class,” University spokeswoman Angela Olson told me. “This is a natural time to change the policy to be consistent with other units at GW and with other law schools around the country.”

That’s well and good, though it might be prudent to note that this supposed consistency really only applies to the medical school, the only other provider of need-based grants to graduate students. GW now joins Georgetown Law in this policy, but parental information is not required for all students — and especially not those in their 30s — at schools like Northwestern University, Columbia University, University of Virginia, Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley.

So the law school’s explanations are far from convincing. If students had been privy to this decision making, they would have pointed out that the policy appears to place undeserved, increased scrutiny on financially independent students.

We also don’t know whether some students will get to waive the requirement of providing parental data on the FAFSA, as is the case today.

I’m all for closing loopholes if there’s a demonstrated purpose — for instance, to combat fraud in financial aid applications. But this time around, the law school has imposed a solution that burdens financially independent applicants without demonstrating a real reason why the administrative change is needed.

The writer, a second-year student in the law school, is a Hatchet columnist.

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