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College tuition rates are getting higher, leaving students with more and more debt—even if they never earn a degree to show for it. According to recent data, cumulative student loan debt for millennials is in excess of $1 trillion, or approximately $30,100 per borrower. Those statistics can be profoundly sobering for students who hope to begin, or continue, their studies without amassing a pile of loans.
U.S. Department of Justice attorney Jason White faced this reality head-on after he flunked out of his undergraduate computer science program. At that point, his parents read him the riot act; if he wanted to continue his education, he was going to have to figure out a way to cover the cost on his own. Searching for options, White visited his school’s career-planning center and discovered a potential remedy in the form of a little-known government-funded program called Vocational Rehabilitation (VR).
VR is a medical-based financial aid program created to award grants to college students who suffer from illnesses that may impact their future employment. White suffered from asthma and allergies, common conditions that he didn’t think would qualify him for funding. To his surprise and delight, the government disagreed.
After receiving nearly $96,000 in grants while earning his degree, White wrote The Medical Loophole: The Ultimate Guide to Medical-Based Financial Aid. In this interview, he discusses the finer points of the VR program, including the range of qualifying conditions and how to apply for funding.
How did you first become aware of medical-based financial aid, and what inspired you to write your book?
I became aware of medical-based financial aid after I failed out of my first college major. Up until that point, my parents had been paying for my college, but if I wanted to continue to attend, I needed to find a way to pay for college on my own. I went to the career-planning center at my college and stumbled upon the medical-based financial aid program.
Initially, I was skeptical that my medical conditions—asthma and allergies—would qualify. But I really wanted to continue attending college so I decided to apply for the program regardless of my doubts. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that I had, indeed, qualified. It was a huge relief for my family and me.
Why don’t more people know about medical-based financial aid? Is the government trying to hide it from students on purpose?
The typical college student first becomes aware of their financial aid options once they fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The FAFSA informs students about their eligibility for federal student loans, grants, and work-study programs, but it doesn’t tell them about their eligibility for medical-based financial aid.
The medical-based financial aid program is funded 80 percent by the federal government and 20 percent by the state. However, state governments are responsible for administering the program, so when students fill out the FAFSA seeking federal financial aid, it does not inform them of their potential eligibility for a state-administered program—even though the federal government provides 80 percent of the money.
Still, it still strikes me as unusual that the federal government does not inform students of their potential eligibility when they fill out the FAFSA. Each year, approximately 12 million students fill out the FAFSA in order to apply for federal student loans. The federal government knows that approximately 20 percent of those students suffer from some type of significant medical condition. The federal government also knows there is a federally funded program available in each state that would provide free money for these students and potentially eliminate their need for a federal loan.
So why wouldn’t the federal government want to inform these students of their potential eligibility? Here’s my opinion: Money provided to students through federal loans is paid back to the government with interest, while money provided to students through the medical-based financial aid program is not paid back at all.
From a pure business perspective, would you expect the government to inform 20 percent of their loan customers that they could potentially get the same money for free? I don’t think so. While the government may not be actively concealing the program, they certainly aren’t going out of their way to make sure students who potentially qualify are made aware of it.
You mentioned that you qualified for the program with allergies and asthma. What other conditions qualify for aid?
In order to qualify, a student must suffer from a medical condition that “impedes, or has the potential to impede their employment.” This standard can apply to many medical conditions that you might categorize as “less severe.” The eligibility standard for the medical-based financial aid program requires you to demonstrate that your medical condition could negatively impact you in the employment world.
Essentially, if there is any job out there that might be difficult for someone with your particular medical condition to perform, there is a good chance you will qualify for medical-based financial aid. I personally know of many students who have qualified based on conditions such as allergies, ADHD, depression, and asthma. The name of your medical condition doesn’t really matter, so long as it has the potential to negatively impact your employment.
Do students have to have an official diagnosis before they can receive aid?
Students must have suffered from their medical condition for at least six months in order to be eligible, but even undiagnosed medical conditions can qualify. In the event a medical condition is undiagnosed, the program will pay for the student to see a medical professional who will provide a written opinion on their condition.
When is the best time to apply for medical-based financial aid?
Students should begin the application at least 90 days before college tuition is due.
What are your tips (application or otherwise) to help students increase their chances for securing funds?
I would suggest students familiarize themselves with the program and the application process. This will prevent elementary mistakes such as missing deadlines or failing to provide proper documentation. I would also recommend students begin gathering their tax records, medical records, and old education transcripts early in the process. This will save substantial time during the application process.
If a student is granted medical-based financial aid, how much is typically awarded? Is it a flat rate, like the Pell Grant, or does it depend on the condition/amount needed?
The amount typically awarded is equal to the in-state rate of tuition at the local state university. The funding also typically includes money for books, campus meals, transportation, and other incidental costs of attending college. Recently, the program has begun to provide students with a laptop computer as well.
How are the funds dispersed, and are there restrictions on how they can be used?
There are restrictions on how the money can be used. Typically, the money is paid directly to the college that the student is enrolled in at the beginning of each semester until the student graduates. A separate check may be sent to the college bookstore for the student’s books. A personal check may also be given to the student directly for the incidental expenses of attending college.
Can students apply for funding retroactively and receive aid to cover student loans?
No. The program does not reimburse for expenses already paid. It only pays for expenses going forward.
Your book was written in 2017. What, if anything, has changed regarding medical-based financial aid since then?
Like any federal program, the amount of money Congress allocates from year to year can fluctuate. This can impact the number of students who can be served by the program each year. This typically isn’t a problem for medical-based financial aid because the application rate is so low (approximately 100,000 students per year take advantage of the program out of approximately 2 million who could potentially qualify.) This program has been around since 1973, so I’m confident it isn’t going anywhere. However, small changes are common and usually relate to funding levels.
What else should readers know about medical-based financial aid?
The medical-based financial aid program is a fantastic program that every student with a medical condition should know about. I talk to students all the time who say to me that they don’t think they should apply for the program because their medical condition isn’t all that serious. I challenge these students to resist the temptation to self-evaluate their eligibility. I frequently tell students that they may qualify for the program and they may not, but the only way to find out for sure is to submit an application. My advice to students: Apply for the program. With the ever-spiraling costs of a college education, they simply cannot afford to let programs like this one slip through their fingers.
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