Brenda Brooks dropped out of college 40 years ago. Federal rules mean she can’t afford to go back.

Back at Chicago State University at age 60, she found out her decades-old GPA disqualifies her from receiving federal loans or grants.

Students lined up to receive degrees

Lately, Englewood native Brenda Brooks has had a tough time finding work.

The 60-year-old has decades of experience at CVS and the historic Regal Theater in Avalon Park. But recently, prospective employers have told her, “ ‘You have the qualifications, but this requires you to have a degree,’ ” she said. “And I don’t have that degree.”

That’s why Brooks wants to go back to Chicago State University on the Far South Side, where she first started a bachelor’s degree in the 1980s.

Like 40 million other Americans, she never finished. And like countless other onetime college students who face economic pressure to return, she now faces a nearly insurmountable hurdle to graduating: Her grades from her first attempt at a degree make her ineligible for financial aid, and she can’t afford to pay for tuition out of pocket.

“They’re penalizing me for something in the ‘80s,” said Brooks, speaking from her car in the parking lot of a company where she has a temporary data entry gig. “I don’t think anybody should be penalized for something that happened 40 years ago.”

According to federal rules, students have to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, among other requirements, to keep their government loans and grants. If they fail this standard two semesters in a row, they lose their access to financial aid.

To get it back, they either have to pay cash for their classes and get stellar enough grades to pull their entire grade point average back up, which advocates say is nearly impossible — or they have to file an appeal, which is a burdensome process and one that’s often unsuccessful.

“The policy that exists at the federal level really is kind of taking the most disadvantaged students and kicking them while they’re down,” said Debbie Raucher, director of John Burton Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that successfully petitioned to reform California’s eligibility requirements.

Raucher said students who most need financial aid to pay for college, often low-income students or students of color, don’t usually lose eligibility because of a lack of motivation or academic ability. Researchers have found that these students are more likely to have to juggle full-time employment or caregiving as they go to school.

When Brooks first started college as a young adult, for instance, she worked nights at a post office to support her two young children.

“I had a friend of mine make sure she came over to watch them at night while I went to work,” she said. “I’d get off at 8 o’clock in the morning, come home, get them ready, fix their breakfast, get them off to school. Then I had to run to be at class at about 10:30 a.m.”

The daily grind was too much, she said. Her grades dropped below a C average and she lost her financial aid.

“The data are not as robust as we’d like,” said Julie Peller, director of Higher Learning Advocates, one of 30-plus organizations that have asked for federal reform of the financial aid requirements. “But the data we do have shows that, overwhelmingly, students who failed to meet these standards are more likely to be low-income students and students of color for whom losing federal student aid like the Pell Grant can really just be detrimental.”

It has been for Brooks. She was just about to start class in the fall of 2021 when Chicago State notified her she didn’t qualify for financial aid because of her grades from the 1980s. She decided to go anyway. She thought she could get her eligibility straightened out or apply for help directly from her school. She scored three As and a B.