Let Them Eat Cake: Single Moms, Estranged Fathers, and Financial Aid Policies that Totally Miss the Point

Chelsey Legge  (2L, JD/MSW)

Applying for financial aid is never fun. You have to fill out a huge form, collect a bunch of documents, and wait months for an assessment. Throughout the application process, you’re forcefully reminded of just how expensive this degree is and how much debt you’re taking onrealities you’re otherwise happy to stuff inside a little box and shove back into the darkest corner of your subconscious. (Or maybe that’s just me.) For some applicants, however, applying to financial aid is more than tedious: it’s also deeply uncomfortable. That was my experience.

I decided to get the application out of the way early this summer, and I submitted my form in mid-July. A few days later, the Financial Aid Office got in touch with me to ask about some “missing documents” from my application. They needed my final summer paystub (I was still working) and my parents’ income tax notices of assessment. I felt a pit settle at the bottom of my stomach. Oh, I thought. This again?

Allow me to explain. When I applied for financial aid as an incoming 1L, I assumed the Faculty’s financial aid application would be similar to the OSAP application. For those of you unfamiliar with OSAP, parental income information is only required from a student’s custodial parent. My parents divorced when I was thirteen and my mother has had sole custody of me, and my younger brother, since then. This meant that throughout my undergraduate degree, I only ever had to report my mother’s income to OSAP. Now that I’ve been out of high school for more than four years, I don’t even have to report hers anymore.

As many of you know, financial aid at U of T Law works a little differently. The school requires both parents’ income tax notices of assessment, and it deems a certain amount of parental contribution regardless of actual contribution (see: page sixteen of the Financial Aid Policies and Procedures Booklet, (2c) “Deemed Family Support”). The only real exception is if you have a spouse or partner, in which case you submit their income tax information instead.

As an incoming 1L, I found this all quite confusing and emailed the Financial Aid Office to clarify. I wrote something like, “My parents are divorced, I rarely see or speak to my father, and, to my knowledge, he’s unemployed. Do I really have to submit his notice of assessment as well?” Their reply was an unequivocal, “Yes.” So, insecure and fearful of rocking the boat, I asked my mom to get in touch with my father to ask him for his notice of assessment. He emailed it to me a few weeks later, I submitted it to Financial Aid, and I put the whole ordeal out of my mind.

I spent my 2L year as a full-time student of the School of Public Policy & Governance, so I wasn’t eligible for financial aid from the law school. Interestingly, the Financial Aid program through the School of Graduate Studies doesn’t ask for parental income information.

But back to this summer: I’m an incoming 3L and the Financial Aid Office has just asked me to submit my father’s tax information. Fortunately, I’m more assertive than I was two years ago. I responded:

I am not in touch with my father, but his girlfriend informed me that he has not nor is he planning to file his 2016 taxes. I’m not certain what he would file anyway, since to my knowledge he has not earned any taxable income since 2014. If it is imperative that you include an estranged parent’s tax information in my financial aid assessment, then I suggest you use his tax return I submitted with my first financial aid application, for the 2015-16 school year. 

The Office responded: “If you would like to list your father as estranged, please send us a letter explaining the situation and we will review.”

This reply surprised me. When I applied the first time, back in 2015, I was never informed of my option to treat my father as estranged. It’s not in the Financial Aid Policies and Procedures Booklet. The closest thing is the “two-household” policy outlined on page seventeen, which states that a larger sum will be exempted from the deemed parental contribution if a student has separated or divorced parents ($100,307 as opposed to $69,068 in 2017-18). Students who want to exercise this option have to write a letter attached to their application attesting to the fact that they have a two-household family for each year they apply for financial aid.

After the surprise wore off, I felt a little lost. What was I meant to include in this letter? Would the bare-bones details suffice, or did I have to tell the whole sordid story? If I admitted that I still see my father a few times a year, would I be barred from listing him as estranged? Most upsetting of all, why wasn’t my word enough?

This is a policy based on suspicion and distrust. The Faculty, I presume, aims to ensure that students with separated parents don’t claim the lesser of two incomes and receive more than their fair share of financial aid. You can imagine the scenario: Jane Doe applies for financial aid, shares her mother’s modest income only, and receives a large grant on that basis, even though her father is ready and willing to bankroll her law degree. It’s slimy and dishonest, but it could happen.

I understand the need to guard against students who wish to take advantage of the system, but there is surely a way to do so without such intrusiveness. Writing the aforementioned letter was a distressing experience for me. Without any guidance as to what information was necessary or sufficient to label my father as estranged, I muddled through three or four paragraphs about his substance abuse problems, his failed attempts at rehabilitation and sobriety, and the emotional and financial toll his choices have taken on my family. I called my mom to double-check a few details (“When did you guys formally file for divorce? What year did his first girlfriend overdose? Do you have any idea when he started using again, I can’t remember if it was during my first year or second year at Queen’s?”) and ended the phone call in tears. It took me three days to write a one-page letter.

At the beginning of September, I sent in my final summer paystub and inquired about the status of my letter. The Office responded: “The Financial Aid Committee will meet in September, and the decision will be communicated to you sometime in September.” I hadn’t realized until then that the whole Committee would be reading my letter, but I suppose it makes sense. Honestly, I am uncomfortable in the knowledge that a group of students, faculty, and admin collectively read and passed judgment on the most fraught and painful relationship in my life. It makes little difference to me that my letter and application were anonymous; it still feels unduly invasive and intrusive.

And here’s the best part: I get to do it all over again next year. The letter won’t stay on my file. A friend of mine, another U of T Law student who is also estranged from her father, told me that she submits the same letter every year and just changes the date. I think it would make more sense to keep the original letter on file and request an update only if the situation has changed. Alas, it seems we low-income students can’t be trusted to come forward with new information. We’ll take any opportunity to cheat the system, right?

U of T Law claims that one of the core principles of the financial aid program is ensuring that the law school continues to be accessible to students from all backgrounds. In the Financial Aid Policies and Procedures Booklet, they say, “Access is of particular concern for students from low-income backgrounds. Students from low-income families often have personal histories or circumstances which make a law school education less obtainable.” Indeed, we do. Yet, for me, and people in situations similar to mine, access is contingent on sharing deeply personal histories or circumstances. If the Faculty truly cares about accessibility for students from low-income backgrounds, perhaps they should give this policy a second look and consider its impact on students with traumatic or painful personal histories.