Santoyo: Not everyone can afford financial literacy

Melissa Santoyo, Op-Ed Contributor

I may be a humanities major, but numbers have always been a part of my life. Ever since I’ve been able to count, numbers represented the days since my dad left for work — days that inevitably eroded into weeks. When I was eight years old, numbers started to involve my monolingual mother and I (the family polyglot) failing to interpret billing statements in English. When I entered a richer, whiter school in sixth grade, numbers were the bank accounts and income that differentiated me from my peers.

Growing up, I quickly realized that numbers were never going to be on my side.

Now, in college, numbers symbolize more obstacles: the cost of winter clothes, the minutiae of necessary Target hauls and the seemingly minor expenses of transit when I need to travel into Chicago for reporting. But the greatest obstacle of all comes with the advent of October, the FAFSA.

Some of us procrastinate and let the form sit unfiled until a day before the deadline. Many of us sit alongside our parents in a group effort to trudge through it together. Others send our parents the link and move on, maybe even follow that up with a reminder text.

But I can’t afford that luxury.

I am the daughter of two immigrants from Cuba. My dad? A trucker with a heavily accented handle on English. My mom? A stay-at-home mother who’s been in this country for over 20 years and still struggles to understand a cashier’s greeting.

Some Northwestern students live in a bubble, oblivious to the struggles minorities face navigating and surviving this university. I didn’t have the privilege of forwarding my mother the link and forgetting about my FAFSA. While applying to this school, I navigated years’ worth of W-2s, 1040s and 1099s. I would get so anxious about the various numbered forms and the numbers on those forms; at one point, I incorrectly misfiled something and I was so panicked that I couldn’t bring myself to eat that night.

Financial literacy, as defined by Investopedia, is the “education and understanding of various financial areas.” Financial literacy can involve investment, business budgeting, retirement planning and paying for college. It’s not information that’s commonly taught unless one pursues studies in that area. For most adults, that’s not a problem. It’s a skill that can be picked up through employment and learned through trial and error. Some people inherit that information from their parents. And for those who aren’t so lucky to have financially literate family members, they may be able to afford working with outside parties to file their taxes and provide retirement consultation. There are even online classes one can take to be financially literate.

But for my family, that was never really an option. I don’t have the time or the resources to pay for and sit through financial literacy courses. My school offered us EVERFI: Financial Literacy for High School, which I completed through my AP Macroeconomics course. It was comprised of a series of vague videos and multiple-choice questions wrapped up into a graduate requirement. But it didn’t provide anything that helped when navigating FAFSA, the CSS or IDOC.

That’s the reality of many first-generation students across the country. Most of us are not properly equipped to interpret the FAFSA, nor can our parents help us fill it out. Even so, I have it easier than most; I am a U.S. citizen and my parents are both legal residents.

In a 2016 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Amairani Perez-Antonio writes about how the FAFSA acts as a barrier for first-gen students. Perez-Antonio’s high school held a parent workshop to help families file the form. After a call from her parents who said they didn’t understand any of the information being shared, she drove to the school to join them.

Perez-Antonio writes, “I was astonished to find that I, too, found the presentation on the screen impossible to understand. The language seemed to be written by and for government regulators. For example, because my mother is undocumented, we did not know how to fill out the line asking for a Social Security number.”

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in Sargent Dining Hall, complaining about FAFSA’s unintelligible language, when the girl next to me interrupted to ask why I simply hadn’t sent my parents the form. Easy, right? The ignorance surrounding financial literacy on this campus continuously astounds me, despite my understanding that I can’t expect people who aren’t in my circumstances to understand nor empathize. Here’s your wakeup call, NU.

Financial literacy is a privilege and not everyone has access to it.

Melissa Santoyo is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.