How I Reported the Story: High need, low accessibility: Oglethorpe County residents face barriers to mental health care, even as teens and schools are willing to have the conversation

Read how Sydney Rainwater and Navya Shukla reported this piece, High need, low accessibility: Oglethorpe County residents face barriers to mental health care, even as teens and schools are willing to have the conversation for The Oglethorpe Echo, which was written through our participation with The Carter Center’s Mental Health Parity Collaborative. The collaborative is a group of newsrooms that are covering stories on mental health care access and inequities in the U.S. The partners on this project include The Carter Center, The Center for Public Integrity and newsrooms in select states across the country. Editors included Nora Fleming, The Carter Center’s newsroom collaborative manager, and UGA Professor Andy Johnston, editor in residence for The Oglethorpe Echo. The students also consulted during the reporting process with Sofi Gratas, a former Covering Poverty contributor who graduated from the UGA College of Journalism and Mass Communication and now participates in the collaborative covering rural health and health care for GPB (Georgia Public Broadcasting).

Their reporting process ran from October 2023 through January 2024, with February and March 2024 devoted to editing and gathering images. The story was published in The Oglethorpe Echo on March 21, 2024. That day, the paper received a letter to the editor saying, “I congratulate the Echo on featuring a story on the difficulties and necessity of mental health care which you featured on the first page of this issue.  My late wife suffered from severe mental health issues in her later life and the burden of them on both her and her family was substantial.”

Going into this story, my writing partner, Sydney Rainwater, and I were aware of the statewide need for better mental health resources and what the role our story could play in highlighting this need in a smaller community like Oglethorpe County. However, the challenge lay in finding the voices that could do the story justice. With an issue as sensitive and personal as mental health, and with a large part of the issue being the lack of conversation surrounding it, it took time to find the information and the sources that would pull our story together. 

What helped us the most was relying on the community we were trying to cover. Because Oglethorpe County is so tightly knit, each source we talked to pointed us in another direction, connected us with someone new, or told us something we were missing. Even though we ended up interviewing an immense number of sources, and many of them couldn’t make it into our final story, each conversation painted a clearer picture of the issue we were addressing and gave our story more direction.

In-person interactions, such as when I visited Oglethorpe County Elementary School to take photos for the story, allowed me to see the work being done in the county and make a personal connection with the topic of mental health. Coming out of that classroom, where the students had spent the past hour exploring mental health strategies in such an open, welcoming environment, reassured me that the story we’d spent months of time and effort on mattered, and that it needed to be told.

The importance of relying on others for this story extended to my partner, Sydney, and our editors. Tackling such a complex topic, reaching out to as many people as we did and incorporating so many perspectives into our final product would not have been possible without the constant trust and teamwork between all of us throughout the semester. —Navya Shukla

My writing partner, Navya Shukla, and I started working on this piece almost as soon as we joined the Covering Poverty team last fall. From the start, we knew how impactful this story could be to the Oglethorpe County community and how important it would be to the larger mental health conversation. We each put forth our absolute best efforts because we believed in the story.

There were certainly challenges. Finding an informative yet positive perspective was a struggle at first. We interviewed countless sources, many of whom didn’t end up in the final product, because talking about mental health is still not easy. As time-consuming as it may have been, I found that the more in-person, casual conversations we had with sources and community members, the more secure I felt in the direction of the story. 

Collaboration was the name of the game for this one. Our story would not be the same had we not leaned on each other for ideas, gathered advice from our editors and talked with as many sources as possible. —Sydney Rainwater

FOMO spending: a phenomenon sweeping college campuses 

By Sarah Fredrickson

College students are suffering from a universal phenomenon, one that spans across borders and generations. There’s no way to escape it. There’s no way to cure it. What is it? FOMO spending. 

According to a study conducted by Experian, only 56% of millennials and Gen Z feel optimistic about their current financial situation. This trend is also felt among many college students and seems to continue further into adult life. Is there a solution? 

According to a study in the World Journal of Clinical Cases, FOMO, aka “the fear of missing out,” is a fairly recent term used to describe the phenomenon of compulsive behavior to keep one’s social position due to fears of being left out. FOMO was coined in 2004 as social media exploded among millennials. 

FOMO spending, as defined by Credit Karma, happens when someone purchases something because they feel pressured to do so, such as a dinner out or a spring break trip, even when they don’t truly have the funds for the purchase. 

Many self-help blogs and articles list the top five ways to curve FOMO spending like sticking to a budget or cutting out spending, but University of Georgia Finance Professor Michael Thomas said it’s not that easy. 

“The most important part of this process is to realize that money and our engagement with financial resources is not an external process,” Thomas said. “It’s internal.” 

FOMO spending is just one of the many compulsive behaviors people act upon when feeling left out. A 2019 Credit Karma study found that nearly 50% of millennials overspend to keep up with friends. 

Thomas said this feeling affects all generations of people and can start at a young age. One example he gave was watching infomercials on TV as a kid. 

“What happens is that they’ll say ‘well, you’ll be the talk of the town, you’ll be the X, Y and Z or this or that or the other,’” Thomas said. “So that ploy has kind of always been around the notion of fear of missing out because it’s rooted in this notion or this idea of connection.”

FOMO spending may start at a young age, but Thomas said it can have the biggest impact on college students. 

“We called it ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’” Thomas said. “We’re talking about the same thing. We’re just using a different language for a new generation. Accept that it’s the same thing. People who were keeping up with the Joneses were not frivolously and randomly doing this. Usually, it’s a bid for connection. It’s a bid for respect. It’s a bid for ‘Hey, I’m on the same level’ or acceptance. So for college students, what is college life? Nothing but a bid for acceptance.” 

Thomas teaches anywhere from 750 to 950 students a semester in his Introduction to Personal Finance course at UGA. He addresses FOMO spending by trying to change the narrative of talking about personal finance. 

“Let’s get the shame out of the space,” Thomas said. 

There may not be a quick, easy fix to FOMO spending, but there are many resources to help address this issue. Megan Ford is the head of the ASPIRE Clinic at the UGA. The clinic offers a number of services such as therapy​, financial planning, nutrition education​ and legal problem-solving at little to no cost to students, faculty and others in the local Athens-Clarke County. 

Ford said she sees a number of students who struggle with FOMO spending and says the first step to fighting FOMO spending urges is to do some introspection. 

“I would invite people to do a little bit of self-reflection on what could be going on,” Ford said. “Why am I buying this or feeling, if I bought this translates into me feeling more important or more valuable as a person or more accepted in my group or just in society.” 

Although many of her students experience this feeling, Ford believes that this may affect students with less financial stability more than others. 

“I don’t think anyone escapes it really on any particular level across the socio-economic spectrum,” Ford said. “It could be that if you are in a state of some deprivation of being able to access things that you want or not being able to spend on certain experiences that other people you’re surrounded with are spending on, that you would experience that with a bit more frequency.”

Moss Joslin is a third-year science illustration major at UGA who pays for school through the Pell Grant and scholarships. Joslin sometimes has other large unexpected expenses like dental costs and a phone replacement they need to worry about. However, Joslin said small things like missing out on going out to dinner don’t really bother them. 

“I don’t feel shame about it,” Joslin said. “I’ll still go out and just get a drink. My brain’s just like ‘You don’t have the money for that, you can’t do it.’” 

However, there are more costly experiences that Joslin might have to miss out on. 

“I feel like I’m missing out on some of the college experiences that people with parental support get,” Joslin said. “I really want to go abroad, but that’s going to be really hard. I’m going to have to find a scholarship.” 

Joslin said despite their success with a limited budget, they still struggle with the FOMO spending phenomenon just like many other students. 

“I really want to go, but I don’t know if I can,” Joslin said. 

Sarah Fredrickson is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

Making taxes work for you

By Niyati Patel

Like many young adults, Joshua Brumbach did not have a grasp on financial planning until he got to college. 

Joshua Brumbach works at the VITA office, which is located in the Charles Schwab Financial Planning Center. Clients can find the building in the University of Georgia’s south campus. Photo by Niyati Patel

It was in college that Brumbach grew to understand the value of financial literacy after watching how the COVID-19 pandemic affected his parents’ small businesses. Now, having a budget and filing taxes are higher on his priority list.

“It kind of sparked something in me that thought, like, why does this happen,” Brumbach said. “How do people fail to plan for things like this, and how can people kind of come back from an event like this?”

Handling income taxes can be a tricky and expensive process. University of Georgia’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program provides free tax preparation to its students and people across Georgia with a goal of enhancing financial literacy. 

Brumbach, a student in the financial planning master’s program, works as a financial planning graduate assistant for VITA. His role includes research, behind-the-scenes operations and preparing Internal Revenue Service grant approvals and proposals. 

“Being able to actually sit in front of real life people and help them with their money while in school — it’s been a really great opportunity,” he said. 

How VITA works

Tax season, which generally occurs between Jan. 1 and April 15, is the period of time when taxpayers report to the IRS their financial statements and tax returns from the previous year, according to the IRS. It is during this time that VITA runs their tax preparation sessions throughout the country. 

That is where Brumbach comes in. 

The VITA team at UGA is made up of students and faculty of the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Their mission, Brumbach said, is to bolster the financial health of the Athens community and across Georgia by making a complicated process easier. 

Preparers and managers like Brumbach typically see between six and 12 clients per day, Monday through Friday. Although specifically geared to low to moderate income families, the program is open to anyone and has a wide client range, from students to faculty to residents of Athens-Clarke County.

“It provides a free service for a lot of people who otherwise would have to pay quite a lot out of the refund to get their taxes done,” he said. 

The process consists of two steps. Clients first make an appointment online or walk-in to the VITA office with their ID, social security card, banking information and tax forms. They are then matched with a preparer who inputs the client’s information into the TaxSlayer Pro software. 

The end result is Form 1040, or the individual income tax form that is reviewed by the managers and submitted to the IRS. 

If the taxes are done incorrectly, filers could be arrested or audited by the IRS, which is why VITA site coordinator Jennifer Short said quality reviews are instrumental. 

“And so, we are really, really passionate about getting taxes done but also getting them done correctly,” Short said. 

Through the work of 66 student preparers and 18 student managers, there were 1,619 tax returns prepared in 2023, making it VITA’s most efficient year according to their 2023 Impact Report. 

VITA by the numbers

VITA’s impact spreads beyond Athens, reaching 94 counties in Georgia, many of which are rural, low-wealth areas such as Burke County and Banks County. 

The Cooperative Extension process pairs community members with an extension agent who meets with them virtually. These agents prepare tax returns “correctly and professionally” and free of charge, typically saving clients around $300 in tax-related fees, according to the 2023 Impact Report. 

VITA program manager Wil Golden worked as an extension agent at Auburn University before moving to UGA. He now manages the day-to-day operations, passing his 15 years of program insight on to students like Brumbach and Short. 

“Don’t be scared,” Golden said. “A good tax preparer will walk you through everything, and you’ll be comfortable with it, I think.”

An aspect of tax returns that often goes unclaimed is Earned Income Tax Credit, or a tax break for qualifying filers that come from low-income backgrounds. Five to $10 million dollars of EITC goes unclaimed every year in Athens-Clarke County alone, Golden said. 

Through their services, however, the service was able to increase their numbers in 2023: 154 returns claiming EITC, $212,028 EITC claimed, $647,600 fees saved and an $3,178,752 economic impact. 

“I want people to feel a little bit less of that financial stress,” Short said. “I want them to feel like they really did something and feel productive.”

The benefits of VITA

The benefit of this type of program, Golden said, is the mutualistic relationship between clients and preparers. At the end of the process, both parties can be more financially literate. 

 From a student’s perspective, Brumbach said he thinks the service gives him a glimpse of what income taxes look like in real life. 

“There is no charge, so you know, help a student, and help us prepare tax returns for you and give the student the experiences working one on one with the client on real tax issues,” Golden said. 

Tax literacy also goes beyond the personal benefits of the preparer and client, reaching even a local, state and national scale. 

“So I mean, look at it as not being fearful, but look at it as ‘I’m doing my duty,’ if you will,” Golden said. “Because those tax dollars are going to, you know, services and roads, bridges and you know, don’t be fearful.” 

UGA VITA is a small portion of a bigger picture surrounding tax returns, and students like Brumbach are a part of spreading financial literacy and awareness to young adults on a college campus.

“So if it’s something that really stresses you out, and you don’t really know how to handle your taxes, then I just want as many people as possible to know that we’re a resource on campus for them,” Brumbach said. 

Niyati Patel is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

Financial barriers are removed for students at the University Health Center

By Nicole Collier

When it comes to affording health care while in college, uninsured students struggle the most. While the proportion of uninsured students visiting the University of Georgia Health Center hover around 1%, Steven Rose, marketing and communication manager at the UHC said, those students still have options when it comes to affording health care. 

“No student should let an inability to pay be a reason not to seek medical care or mental health help when needed,” Rose said in an email.

For UGA students, insurance is not needed to see a doctor. Students who need to seek medical care without the ability to pay have resources that are available to them. 

The University Health Center provides several clinics for students who need medical care. Photo by Nicole Collier

There is access to funding at the health center that “can be used to offset, or in some cases, eliminate those costs,” Rose said. No documentation is required to prove that you do not have insurance, but students must report the funding they receive for financial aid purposes, according to Rose. 

Health insurance policies are available through UGA Human Resources. Student Care and Outreach also has options for funding for students. 

Students may access the primary care clinic, the gynecology clinic, and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) with no out-of-pocket cost to the student, Rose said. A health fee is mandatory for most students and is paid with tuition each semester. In 2022, the health fee was $206 per semester.

“There may be other fees associated with office visits for things like diagnostic testing or prescriptions for medication, but we can file insurance for those. There are very few students who come to us without insurance (only about 1% of patients have no insurance),” said Rose.

SCO works with the Office of Student Financial Aid to determine a student’s Cost of Attendance (COA), which includes estimates of tuition and fees, housing, food, transportation, and miscellaneous personal expenses. Funding can be provided for medical bills, medications or other health-related costs, and mental health care, according to the website. 

Students may also get their flu vaccine at no cost. 

“Students have been able to walk up to any of the almost 80 mobile clinics around campus, get a flu shot in less than five minutes, and continue on with their day with no appointment needed and at no cost to them,” said Rose.

For students in Athens who do not go to UGA, several options are available. St. Mary’s Health Care System has charity care programs available and its staff can help anyone apply for government assistance if they qualify. In Athens, Community Internal Medicine of Athens provides a 50% discount for patients. 

CIMA services are provided through St. Mary’s and the AU/UGA Internal Medicine Residency Program. Also, Mercy Health Center provides free care and Athens Neighborhood Health Center is a Federally Qualified Health Center.

“If you are uninsured but do not qualify for assistance, you should be aware that the least expensive choice for care is a primary care physician, followed by urgent care. But students should also look into options for insurance coverage,” said Mark Ralston, public relations manager at St. Mary’s Health Care System in an email. 

Affordable insurance is available through Healthcare Marketplace at There are also resources available at Piedmont Athens Regional. Several options are available for non-emergency services as well as emergency services. If you are outside of Athens, look for a Federally Qualified Health Center near you. 

A student may find themselves in an emergency situation but do not seek care due to financial reasons. That can be extremely dangerous and only complicate your situation further, said Ralston. Students should be aware that the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act states hospitals that offer emergency services must care for any person, regardless of their ability to pay. Suffering in silence due to financial reasons will only endanger your health more. 

Luke Smith, a student who used to be without health insurance, waited four days with worsening abdominal pain before he sought medical care. He ended up needing  to have his appendix removed. 

“The money side of things definitely influenced the decision to wait and make sure that it wasn’t something else,” Smith said. 

If he waited any longer, the possibility of his appendix rupturing increased significantly, Smith said. Smith was able to get his emergency hospital bill completely covered by writing to the hospital explaining his circumstances. 

He had his grandmother help him write a letter demonstrating his hardships. He explained he was not working, he was a student, and his parents were not in a position to pay his bill either. 

They ended up writing back and eventually took care of the whole bill which Smith described as being “really helpful.”

“I think most people don’t even know to even reach out like that. They just start paying or try to figure out a way to pay,” Smith said. “I mean you should always at least try to write them a letter and explain your situation. I know in situations where it’s a planned procedure, it’s different, but if you’re in the situation where it’s like an emergency, at least in my experience, it worked out pretty well.” 

The resources above are options available to students who do not have the means to pay a hospital or doctor’s bill. There are financial aid offices located in each medical facility that might be able to assist and offer resources to students with financial hardship. 

Regardless, Ralston said, financial limitations are not worth your life.

“Do not risk your life over concerns about cost,” said Ralston.

Nicole Collier is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

Navigating the price of standing out as a college student

By Molly Langdon

University of Georgia students walk along Baldwin Street in Athens, Georgia after a class session ending September 29, 2023. Photo by Molly Langdon

College students frequently search for hands-on experience to build upon their classroom foundations, especially in this competitive job market. Students that face financial difficulties, however, can struggle when given an opportunity to gain experience because it is challenging to afford or justify. From unpaid internships to study abroad trips, it is clear that experiential learning comes at a cost. 

Some benefits of studying abroad, according to the Journal of International Education Research,  include “increased multicultural awareness, greater foreign language proficiency, better professional and personal development, and better academic performance.” The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that “internship experience is often the deciding factor when employers are evaluating two otherwise equivalent candidates.” These experiences are becoming a necessity, and their accessibility can vary between students of different backgrounds. 

Wanting to stand out to employers almost requires that students find experience outside of the classroom to speak to in interviews and display on their resume. As of August 2023, Education Data reported $1.766 trillion in student loan debt in the United States. 

Students struggling to afford college tuition may not be able to afford experiential learning experiences without scholarships or compensation, and unpaid internships and expensive study abroad programs can create further unease as students think about meeting future employment qualifications. 

Experiential learning encompasses “something that is going to contribute to your career long-term outside of the classroom,” according to Kyle Chiu, student employment manager at the University of Georgia, who works with students to secure internships while in school and help employers market their job opportunities. 

“Companies that can afford it are getting on board with the paid internships,” Chiu said. 

2023 NACE research suggests that many smaller businesses or nonprofit organizations tend to offer unpaid internships, and Chiu attributes this to either an inability to pay each worker or not receiving financial grant funding. 

“Obviously, in a perfect world we’d have all of them be paid,” Chiu said. He added that a lot of businesses still want to see what type of talent they can get unpaid since unpaid internships have been around for a long time, and will probably be around forever.

“Not compensating interns communicates to them and their organizational colleagues that their contributions are somehow less valuable than the work of paid interns,” according to NACE, and contributes to a disparity in student experiential learning by favoring those who can afford to work without compensation. 

Chiu notes that the Office of Experiential Learning at UGA offers some support for these unpaid experiences through scholarships that help pay for a portion of living costs. The office also offers a Suit Up Scholarship, which aids students needing or seeking business professional clothing by giving them a budget for it. 

The  Journal of International Education Research states that a notable objective for study abroad students is “learning and gaining proficiency in a foreign language,” usually picking a place that can best enable their language improvement and cultural understanding. 

Mary Harrison, fourth-year UGA student, chose to study abroad in Valencia, Spain to improve her Spanish skills and immerse herself in Spanish culture. Harrison always knew she wanted to study abroad while in undergraduate and applied to several UGA study abroad scholarships after finding the program that fit her goals. 

“There were definitely some financial stress stressors at one point, but I got all the scholarships,” she said. Harrison used her in-state Zell Miller Scholarship, and UGA’s experiential learning and Office of Global Engagement general scholarships to cover the program cost and other fees such as passport and visa expenses. 

Receiving the UGA Morehead Honors International Scholars program scholarship helped Harrison “travel to other places and fully experience a culture and food,” she said. 

Jordan Holmes, global education advisor at UGA, helps students find scholarships and programs in their budget. UGA students can schedule study abroad advising appointments and tell advisors of their interests or concerns regarding going abroad.

Holmes said she advises students on how they can use their existing tuition scholarships for study abroad and shares information regarding UGA and external scholarship funds. The Office of Global Engagement hosts scholarship info sessions during the school year, providing details on specific scholarship application requirements. 

An external, non-UGA, scholarship for study abroad offered that is need-based is the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, a national fund for students who are Pell Grant-eligible. Holmes said there are many others offered based on both need and merit listed on the Office of Global Engagement website’s scholarship search. 

Harrison learned how individual financial situations differed while traveling abroad in groups with other students. Her roommate, a business major at UGA, used a spreadsheet for budgeting while on the program, which Harrison said taught her more about how to manage money and plan. 

“Just knowing how to handle money and what’s worth spending stuff on,” Harrison said contributed to her experience and her better understanding of finances. 

Harrison’s study abroad program group shared everyone’s financial burdens by “creating a balance” and picking “a place that works for everyone,” she said.

“I feel like it also helped me understand a little bit because most people just don’t really talk about how much money they have, or like, what they’re able to afford and stuff,” Harrison said about her return to America after being abroad in Valencia, Spain.

Students and their families’ financial constraints, according to Journal of International Education Research, are a major factor of the popularity of short-term programs, which are less expensive than longer programs. Holmes added that all UGA programs include a cost breakdown in the program brochure, showing tuition and program fees as well as airfare, passport, personal spending costs and other incidentals.

Navigating scholarships and compensation for opportunities that advance a student’s skills and marketability remains a challenge, but understanding the resources available can help students make decisions and find valuable and affordable experience. 

Molly Langdon is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

The cost of convenience: College meal plans

By Lola Murti

For college students that are balancing classes, part-time jobs, clubs and social obligations, finding time to prepare meals can feel overwhelming. A campus meal plan can take the burden of meal preparation off of students, but often comes at a significant cost — one that many students have trouble justifying.

The 2023 National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey (NPSAS) results found that 23% of undergraduate students were food insecure. Access to grocery stores, time constraints and costs of both groceries and meal plans all play a factor. 

For students without the time or skills to cook, a college dining plan ensures that they’re able to get the food they need. Ella Randall Lee, a fourth-year public relations student at the University of Georgia, has been on the meal plan every semester of college except for one. Her disdain for cooking played a role in her decision.

“I am on a meal plan because I hate cooking. And my mom would tell me herself she doesn’t like to cook either, so she never really taught me how to cook. I swear I know like three meals that I can cook for myself,” Randall said.

She initially dropped her meal plan after moving off campus, but quickly realized that the money she was spending on eating out was not sustainable. 

“My bank account actually hit zero that one semester,” Randall said. “It was just kind of a moment where I was like ‘yeah, I am spending a lot of money on food.’ I don’t have the finances or the budget to go out for every single meal.”

According to a 2017 report from The Hechinger Report, the average cost of a meal plan for an academic year is $4,500, averaging $18.75 per day. Adjusted for inflation, the cost would be over $5,700 in 2023. Meal plan prices vary greatly across the country. Syracuse University meal plans can cost approximately $7,650 per year according to their website. For the 2023-2024 academic year at the University of Michigan, an unlimited meal plan is $5,440. Today, UGA’s seven-day all access plan is more affordable at $4,258 per year, and allows unlimited access to all five dining halls on campus. 

Still, some students may find grocery shopping for themselves to be more cost effective. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that in September 2023, the most frugal shoppers will spend between $247.10 and $302.80 per month on groceries for themselves. 

Scaling this to the academic year would have students spending between $2,471 and $3,028 for 10 months, which is significantly cheaper than a meal plan. But for many students, it still boils down to convenience. 

Clarice Henry, a first-year intended public relations student, started at UGA in July as a part of the Thrive | Georgia summer program for incoming first-year students. Thrive automatically places participants on the seven-day all access meal plan during the program. When Thrive ended and her first year began, Henry was unsure how she was going to continue to feed herself.

“Transitioning from Thrive to first year, like freshman year, I didn’t necessarily know if I was going to get a meal plan, so I was surviving off of like noodles and everything for like the first week,” said Henry. 

Shortly after moving in August, Henry was awarded the Crawford Scholarship through UGA, which renews annually and covers the cost of her meal plan. During the week before her meal plan started, she ate Cup Noodles, Capri Suns and fruit.

“If I didn’t get that scholarship, I more than likely wouldn’t be on a meal plan right now, let alone a seven day,” said Henry.

As a student without a car, having walkable access to meals was a priority for Henry. Like Randall, she also noted a lack of cooking experience, making a meal plan more viable.

Many universities have acknowledged the high food costs that students struggle to pay, and established programs to help. UGA created a food pantry for students in 2011, sponsored by the Panhellenic Council. More recently in 2014, the university launched a meal plan scholarship called ‘Let All The Big Dawgs Eat,’ which awards five-day and seven-day all access meal plans to students with demonstrated financial need. 

“To date, we’ve fed over 600 students on a meal plan thanks to the generosity of donors,” said Jan Barham, associate dean of students and director of the Tate Student Center, who also oversees the program.

When the scholarship was founded, one in 10 college students in the country faced food insecurity, according to Barham. At UGA, that number may be as high as one in five.

“They’re using their funds to pay for books. They have to pay for lab fees, they have to pay for somewhere to live,” said Barham. “The last thing they absolutely have to pay for is their food, and so it’s the first thing that goes.”

Barham said the ‘Let All The Big Dawgs Eat’ scholarship was the first of its kind at any university to fight food insecurity systematically through meal plans, as opposed to brick and mortar resources like the student pantry.

In the fall 2023 application cycle, 435 students applied and 115 received the scholarship. The program’s funding has grown immensely since starting with only two students, but financial limitations still leave many students without a meal plan. The program makes sure to provide resources to those they have to deny.

“When we do the ‘no’ email, there’s a list of resources. We connect them with [Student] Care and Outreach. We connect them to the financial hardship website,” said Barham. She also highlights employment opportunities at Dining Services, which include a free meal with each shift.

Barham said their research showed a positive impact on scholarship recipients’ financial stability, physical health and academic performance. 

We know that meal plans and being a part of one is more than just about the food. It’s about their physical wellbeing, it’s about their emotional wellbeing, their academic stability– food matters to bodies,” Barham said.

Proper meals are an essential part of student success that can be challenging to manage. With universities across the country taking a stance on meal affordability on their campuses, students no longer need to be limited to the stereotypical Cup Noodle diet.

Lola Murti is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

A new and improved FAFSA form

By Kendall Kelly

For many high school seniors, they are flooded with paperwork. From writing personal essays for the Common Application portal, scholarship applications, letters of recommendation and submitting test scores, it all can feel foreign. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is typically no exception. 

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is extensive, with many questions, from self-identification to specific tax information. Providing accurate information can seem daunting, as a lot of financial terminology can be unfamiliar to high schoolers. For so many students, the college decision-making process depends on the financial aid they receive.

However, new changes to the FAFSA form aim to simplify the process for students and families. The implementation of the FAFSA Simplification Act began in 2021 and the final phase of changes will be seen in the 2024-2025 academic year. The FAFSA form now aims to be streamlined, reducing the number of questions from 108 to 40. 

The FAFSA is an online form that determines eligibility for federal student aid like federal grants, work-study funds and loans. Universities can also use the information from the form to determine if a student is eligible for state and school aid. Many independent scholarships require proof that a student has filled out the form as well. 

According to the National College Attainment Network, students who submit the FAFSA form are 84% more likely to enroll in postsecondary education. For those in the lowest socioeconomic quintile, it correlates with a 127% increase in immediate college enrollment. 

UGA’s Office of Student Financial Aid, A resource for filling out the FAFSA form. Photo by Kendall Kelly

Many students are unaware of the reasoning behind filling out FAFSA, it is just one of the many pieces of the college application process.

“I feel like it took me a long time to fill it out, trying to figure out everything,” Grayson Jarman, third-year biology major said. 

Brenda Vaughn, outreach representative for Georgia Student Finance Committee, said she is excited to see the changes brought with the new form and how it expands aid for students. 

“In the convoluted world of trying to figure out how to pay for college, it’s just one simple form, I’ll say one form. And over the years, they have been trying to make it easier, easier to complete, easier for people who need aid to get aid,” Vaughn said. 

Madison Hamel, a senior entertainment and media studies student at the University of Georgia, filled out the FAFSA form prior to her first year of college. Since then, she has not filled it out again. With divorced parents, she found difficulty navigating questions regarding parental income and support. 

“I didn’t really know whose information they wanted more, like my mom’s or my dad’s. That is the most difficult part I would say,” Hamel said.

For students with nontraditional circumstances, the prior FAFSA form may have been an obstacle in the goal of higher education. Now, the FAFSA defines a custodial parent as the individual who provides the most financial support for the student. Additionally, even if a student or student’s family do not file taxes, they are still eligible to fill out the FAFSA and receive aid.

“There are many reasons why families may not file tax returns…There are parents that don’t make that much money. And so then, there are parents who are already retired, that don’t have that income. There are parents in disability that don’t have that income,” Vaughn said.

In 2022, students left about $3.6 billion in Pell Grants on the table, simply by not filling out FAFSA, according to the National College Attainment Network. Pell Grants are awarded to undergraduate students displaying exceptional financial need. Unlike federal loans, they do not need to be repaid. The new Student Aid Index calculation aims to expand Pell eligibility. 

The Student Aid Index calculation (SAI) replaces the previous Expected Family Contribution (EFC) score. The SAI determines what federal aid a student qualifies for. The formula conducts a need-based analysis, factoring in taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits received, such as unemployment or Social Security. A notable change is that the SAI no longer takes into account how many students a family has in college at that given point in time. A common misconception with the previous EFC score is that it equates with the amount a family is responsible for. Now, SAI is a calculation of the amount of need-based financial aid a student is eligible to receive. 

In Vaughn’s role at Georgia Student Finance Commission, she serves 22 counties in the state of Georgia. She works alongside seven other representatives who aim to be a resource to students in the state. With their knowledge of the financial aid process, they present workshops and host FAFSA completion events for both private and public schools. 

Financial literacy is oftentimes an obstacle in completing the form. For students and families, terms like net worth or assets may be difficult to understand and quantify. Undocumented students and homeless students face barriers with the FAFSA form. With non-permanent addresses and a lack of proper identification, FAFSA can feel impossible. However, there are local resources available to help complete it. 

Vaughn encourages all students to file the FAFSA, especially for their first years in post-secondary education. With the expansion of Pell eligibility, aid may be available to more people than in previous years. 

“Big thing, do not ever pay anybody to do this, to get any of this help. And if anyone needs help, feel free to come to GAFutures and look up the rep. Go to the financial aid office at any institution, even if it is not one you’re attending… Also, you can go to your guidance counselor at a high school to get some help…There are a lot of organizations around, that are to help with this process,” Vaughn said.

The FAFSA form will become available beginning Jan. 1. To be considered for federal aid, the form must be submitted before June 30. Deadlines for priority aid vary in each state. 

Kendall Kelly is a journalism student at the University of Georgia. 

How financially independent students navigate college costs

By Jesse Wood

Ashlynn Wistoski is financially independent at the University of Georgia, meaning she receives no monetary support from her parents. Wistoski supports herself through college, which is made more challenging by the fact that her parents’ income excludes her from need-based financial aid. 

“Yeah, [my] parents make money, but it’s not near enough for them to pay all of our expenses as well,” Wistoski said. 

College is expensive, presenting unique obstacles for students who do not have financial support from their parents. Though these challenges seem daunting, financially independent students have developed sustainable habits to stretch each dollar as far as they can, as well as lean on services designed to provide assistance. 

According to Third Way’s 2019 research, 55% of students financially struggle to support their college education, causing 79% of them to delay their graduation date and 51% of students drop out altogether because they cannot afford an education.

Wistoski, a student working towards her master’s in accounting, chose UGA because of access to student loans and in-state scholarships, such as the HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships, which cover the cost of tuition for recipients. Additionally, Wistoski’s rent is paid for through the Veteran Affairs Chapter 35 Dependents’ Educational Assistance due to her father’s service.

Despite the scholarship money Wistoski uses to pay for education and rent, she still owes $10,300 per semester for bills such as utilities, car payments, groceries, and other expenses. 

“Honestly, it’s pretty stressful, ” Wistoski said.

Students in the workforce

Part-time jobs are common in college. According to a survey performed in 2020 by the National Center for Education Statistics, 40% of full-time students held a job while enrolled in college, and 74% of part-time students did.

Sammi Briggs, a third-year student studying astrophysics, has scholarships to cover her tuition, leaving her to manage the expenses of medical bills, food, rent and everything in between. 

Briggs works around 15 hours a week as a business developer at DLB Associates, a company that provides engineering and consulting services for data centers. Similarly, Wistoski worked anywhere from 10 to 18 hours at various part-time jobs while working towards her undergraduate degree.

Wistoski arranged her schedule to only have class on Tuesdays and Thursdays to allot time for work. She worked at Cravings, a local restaurant, and during her junior year, Wistoski added a job at Keppner Boxing. 

“But neither of those jobs paid a lot, so I had to work both of them at the same time so I could make enough,” Wistoski said.

Now, as a teaching assistant at UGA, she is paid “whenever she is in the classroom,” Wistoski said. This is a significant cut to her usual monthly income of $500 to $700 from multiple part-time jobs, leaving her to rely on her savings from paid summer internships.

“I was able to save enough money with my internship this summer,” Wistoski said. “I really needed to focus on school for my master’s, so I use that. I worked hard over the summer so I could not work so hard during the semester.”

The impacts of working while in school

It is a nonnegotiable for Briggs, Wistoski and many other students to hold at least one part-time job while enrolled in college. However, allocating time for a job can strain their grades and social life.

“Working impacts my grades because I do not have time to study as much as I should and sometimes I have to miss class,” Briggs said.

Not only do Briggs’s grades suffer, but she also cannot afford many of the activities she wants to participate in, including Greek life. According to UGA Panhellenic’s website, the average cost of new member dues in a sorority is approximately $1,930 per semester. 

“The biggest obstacle is saying no to things I want to do because I have to work, study or I can’t afford it,” Briggs said.

Wistoski shares the same sentiment, explaining that instead of hanging out with friends, she would either be working or staying in to study. 

“I envy the kids that really only have to worry about just school and hanging out with friends,” Wistoski said. 

Wistoski has developed better study habits that allow her to make more time for friends during the semester, but in the end, school and work come first.

“I always sacrifice social life over anything,” Wistoski said. “I care a lot about my grades and I have tough scholarships that I need to keep.”


Gabriel Smallwood’s role as a college advisor at Clarke Central High School is helping over 400 students determine their next steps after graduation. 

Financial hardships are a deterrent for students to enroll in college. According to College Board, “federal grant aid decreased by 33% … between 2012-13 and 2022-23,” while public four-year college tuition fees have been continuously increasing since 1993.

“Finance is definitely the big barrier to college,” Smallwood said.

Smallwood works one-on-one with financially disadvantaged students who want to attend college. This extra help can range from additional meetings to researching local and national scholarships available to students.

“I try to meet students where they’re at, regardless of what is going on,” Smallwood said.

UGA offers resources to students, such as support funds, to help cover costs for essentials such as medical bills, car repairs, personal safety needs, mental healthcare, essential household expenses and more.

The Office of Student Financial Aid website provides undergraduate and graduate students easy access to applications for grants, scholarships and federal work-study. 


Wistoski, Briggs and many other students face obstacles due to being financially independent, but they also can reap benefits. Wistoski’s experiences have led her to become efficient at budgeting, spending thoughtfully and always having “an idea of what’s in her account.”

“I do have to be cautious about what I’m spending and when I’m spending it and what I’m spending it on,” Wistoski said.

Smallwood said that although the situation is difficult to navigate, it teaches young adults an important lesson — advocating for yourself. 

“I feel like going through this process, it’s going to be very, very helpful for them,” Smallwood said.

Jesse Wood is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

Pell Grants: Making college affordable for low to middle-income students

By Ellie Pool

More than 5,600 students at the University of Georgia received the Federal Pell Grant for the 2023-24 academic year, according to Sara Freeland, communications director for UGA’s Office of Instruction, which is almost 20% of the entire undergraduate student body. Jamison Wood is one of these students.

Wood is a senior public relations major from Hiawassee, Georgia. Since she was a little girl, she knew she wanted to attend UGA, and she worked hard to get there. She is a Pell Grant recipient, among numerous other scholarships that make it possible for her to attend college.

Pell Grants are a form of gift aid available to college students earning their first bachelor’s degree in the United States. Pell Grants are provided by the federal government and do not need to be repaid, according to Freeland.

The main difference between Pell Grants and student loans is that Pell Grants do not need to be repaid, except under certain circumstances, making them a great option for funding college for students who come from low to middle-income households. The main reason a Pell Grant would have to be repaid is if the recipient’s enrollment status changed, according to Prep Scholar. If that happens, the school would notify the recipient, giving them 45 days to pay it back or enter into a satisfactory repayment agreement.

Pell Grants usually are awarded only to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and have not earned a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree, according to the Federal Student Aid’s website.

Jamison Wood, a senior at UGA, poses for a portrait in front of UGA’s Park Hall. Photo by Ellie Pool

The amount each student receives from the Pell Grant depends on their financial situation, but the maximum amount can be anywhere up to $7,395 for the 2023-24 school year.

Coming into UGA, Wood knew she would be eligible for the Pell Grant because she was coming from a single parent household. Her father helped her figure this out because he was also eligible for the Pell Grant when he went to college. 

Wood’s parents helped her figure out her finances for college, and Wood passed that knowledge to her younger sister, Jacey, a current first-year student at UGA. The sisters are essentially on the same scholarships, although Wood said that her sister got a few more local scholarships.

“I knew I was going to have those two [HOPE Scholarship and Pell Grant], and I also got some local scholarships, and one national one… I knew I had a lot of opportunities with state scholarships,” said Wood.

The three main scholarships that Wood said support her and her sister are the Pell Grant, HOPE Scholarship and the Hagan Scholarship.

Eligibility for the Pell Grant requires students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, aka FAFSA. Students are automatically considered for the Pell Grant upon completion of FAFSA, according to Prep Scholar.

To complete the FAFSA, the student has to have a valid high school diploma, be a citizen or eligible non-citizen of the United States, have a social security number and maintain satisfactory progress in school.

The amount of money a student receives depends on Expected Family Contribution, the cost of their university, status as a full or part-time student and how long you plan on attending school. Expected Family Contribution is calculated through your FAFSA form, through a number of factors including the number of people living in your house and your school’s cost of attendance, according to Prep Scholar.

Most Pell Grants are awarded to students whose families make less than $30,000 annually. According to Prep Scholar, it’s ‘possible but rare’ for students to be awarded the grant if their family makes over $60,000 annually.

When applying for scholarships, Wood didn’t stop at just filling out FAFSA. She found additional local and national scholarships through her high school guidance counselor.

She wanted to come out of undergraduate school debt-free. Through her many scholarships she will achieve that goal when she graduates in May.

“I know student loans are such a major issue for a lot of Americans, and my stepdad, he still has to pay some on student loans, and my stepsister has a lot of student loans. So I really wanted to try, if at all possible, to be debt free,” Wood said.

Woods’ end goal is obtaining two degrees with no debt.

After graduating, Wood plans to continue her education at UGA by enrolling in the master’s program in student affairs administration. She will try for a graduate assistantship program to cover tuition and provide her with a stipend, in addition to reapplying for the Hagan’s Graduate Scholarship, which provides funds for up to four consecutive semesters of secondary education.

Ben Hampton, a Ph.D. student in the Financial Planning program at UGA, has been working with finances for almost a decade. He believes that when it comes to college and finances, most students get guidance from their parents on how to finance college.

Hampton got his undergraduate degree in finance, then worked in financial planning for six years before coming back to UGA for his Ph.D.

Hampton says the most helpful thing to do when figuring out which college to attend and how to finance it is to do your best in high school so you can qualify for as many merit-based scholarships as possible. Students also need to compare the financial situations between colleges to make sure you choose the best option for your needs, Hampton said.

“College is expensive, so a lot of students need student loans. As students are getting close to graduating, figuring out how to repay them, it can be a little overwhelming… But with a little bit of research or guidance…” Hampton said, ”You can find a good repayment plan that works for you, and it doesn’t have to be as scary, necessarily, as you think.”

Freeland said her best piece of advice to high school students applying to colleges and looking for financial aid is to “just take your time and be cognizant that there are opportunities out there.”

Ellie Pool is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

Navigating financial stress in college

By Ella Kroll

A growing crisis is quietly unfolding on college campuses: the unspoken burden of financial stress on students’ shoulders. Money management can make a great impact on college students at this new stage in their lives, but many struggle to make ends meet while keeping their mental wellbeing afloat.

“I spend a lot of time trying to manage my money, so it’s almost taken over my life at this point,” said Bipasha Bipin, a third-year computer science student at the University of Georgia. “I never had to think about money before until I came here.”

New College on the University of Georgia campus. Photo by Ella Kroll

Many students feel unequipped when making financial decisions, and it can often feel taboo to ask for help navigating personal finance for the first time. This leaves students to their own devices to manage the intersection of money and mental health at a time when their education should be paramount. 

“Well, I definitely had to learn it all by myself. I just searched it up and found out, oh, how much should I spend if I have this much balance on my credit card?” Bipin said. “So I wasn’t ready for that, but through unfortunate experiences I learned it.”

Money struggles can be an isolating experience, but there are resources that meet students where they are to build up their financial readiness and alleviate the mental burden that money can bear.

Budgeting apps, like Mint or Wally, are available on the app store for free, or building a budget spreadsheet is similarly effective. Having a tool to keep yourself on track is an easy lifestyle tweak that can make a big impact.

“I think the simplest thing is having a monthly budget, which sounds like a no-brainer, but a lot of people don’t have that,” said Kellie Bath, a fourth-year financial planning student at UGA.

Bath works as a financial planning service provider at the ASPIRE Clinic, a unit of the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at UGA that offers low- and no-cost services and resources to the Athens community.

The ASPIRE Clinic and others like it serve a wide range of clients, so students should not feel alone in being overwhelmed, nor should they be ashamed of seeking help.

“Working with people in general is always very impactful because they’re not coming to the ASPIRE Clinic for fun,” Bath said. “They’re coming because they’re genuinely feeling really stressed about their situation and they don’t know what to do with themselves.”

The clinic works with its clients to rate their level of financial stress each week. Bath said that she sees stress ratings go down significantly after just the first step of creating a budget alone. 

In addition to creating a budget, many students find ways to make extra money to supplement their lifestyle. 

“I donate plasma,” said Raelee Hunt, a second-year political science student at UGA. “I sell clothes on Depop, stuff like that, to make extra cash on the side.” 

Exploring ventures like these and getting jobs are common for college students seeking sources of income.

Estimates from 2018 data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 43% of full-time students and 81% of part-time students work jobs while enrolled in college. For students that elect to work these jobs, the workload can be stressful, especially with the added pressure of tax compliance without financial education.

A resource for working students is Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), which provides free tax help to people who make $60,000 or less. IRS-certified volunteers provide basic income tax preparation with electronic filing to individuals who request the service.

Through VITA, students do not have to pay to have their taxes filed and can maximize their tax benefits knowing that their preparations were properly completed. This provides meaningful help to students who don’t know where to start with filing taxes and want to look to someone credible for assistance.

Student loans are also a large perpetrator of anxiety for student borrowers, often resulting in loan payments still being owed years after graduating from higher education.

In August, the Biden-Harris Administration introduced the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) plan for student loans. The SAVE plan is an income-driven repayment plan that is based on a borrower’s income and family size- not their loan balance. The plan also forgives remaining student loan balances after a certain number of years.

“Students want to look into that if they’re worried about their student loans,” Bath said. “It’s a really, really generous plan.”

The Department of Education estimates that a typical graduate of a four-year public university will save nearly $2,000 per year on the SAVE plan. They also estimate that 85% of community college borrowers will be debt-free within 10 years.

Borrowers can sign up for the SAVE plan by visiting the Federal Student Aid website.

After maximizing available resources, seeking community is the final measure that can be greatly impactful for students feeling alone in their struggles. 

“I feel like talking it out is really helpful, like with your friends and things like that,” Bipin said. “And the situation is what it is, so might as well talk about it.”

Since 1970, the Consumer Price Index has seen over a 500% increase. According to a Student Minds survey from July 2022, 51% of students said that the rising cost of living impacts their mental health. Feeling unequipped to handle this is not a lone experience.

Hunt said the biggest lesson she has learned is “radically accepting that living costs a lot of money.”

Ultimately, personal health and mental wellbeing should be prioritized higher than being consumed by finances. Money management is important, but it should not take over one’s entire life.

“Don’t drive yourself completely crazy and skip meals and stuff like that,” Hunt said. “Just in the name of saving money…I feel like that is never worth it.”

Ella Kroll is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.