Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series entitled Map to the Middle Class, which is being jointly published by NBCNews.com and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. The series will examine how schools can prepare students for the good middle-class jobs of the future.

LOWELL, Mass. — On Sunday, Oct. 1, the first day the application became available online, Ben Lara sat down at the computer in his bedroom to apply for federal student financial aid.

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