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College Aid Requests Are Rising As Employment Declines

By: Diana Fishlock
The Patriot-News




August 9, 2009

Julia Howey studies managerial accounting each morning, but she is getting hit in the gut by real-life economics.

"My parents aren't in any situation where they can help me in any way," said Howey, 25, a Millersville University business major from Philadelphia. "I'm currently filling out papers to get on food stamps. It's nothing I plan to do long term. It's just for now."

The recession is forcing record numbers of students to apply for financial aid. And many of those who applied earlier this year are appealing their financial aid package because a parent is furloughed or lost a job or the family home is in foreclosure.

Some families face difficult decisions: transferring a child to a college close enough to commute from home or enrolling in a community college with hopes of transferring if finances improve.

Since Gov. Ed Rendell and state lawmakers have not approved the state budget, universities don't know what their budgets will be, college officials said.

The lack of a state budget also means colleges don't know whether students will receive state grants on time or whether they will be reduced, college officials said.

Harrisburg Area Community College is seeing a 20 percent increase in enrollment because of the economy, officials said.

"We're getting more calls from people who are anxious because of job losses," said Jim Carideo, HACC's director of financial aid.

Four-year colleges in the midstate won't know until the first week of classes how many students have paid their tuition bills and returned to campus, officials said.

"Schools are probably a little anxious about this year. Unlike past years, we know, given the state of the economy, that families might make last-minute decisions to pull back on their plans," said Anna Griswold, who directs student aid at Penn State University.

More are 'trading down'

Nationally, applications for financial aid increased 11 percent from 2007 to 2008 and were up 21 percent in the first quarter of 2009 compared to a year earlier, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the financial aid Web site finaid.org, quoting U.S. Department of Education statistics.

In Pennsylvania, the number of residents who applied for financial aid rose 12 percent during the first quarter of 2009 compared to the same period a year earlier, he said.

Kantrowitz is seeing students "trading down," changing plans and attending less-expensive schools.

The State System of Higher Education is expecting a robust increase in enrollment, spokesman Kenn Marshall said. The system's 14 universities -- including Millersville and Shippensburg -- served 112,500 students last year.

"We've experienced 11 straight years of enrollment increases," Marshall said. "We had projected a very slight increase back in October of last year, of about 1 percent. Indications are it might be significantly higher -- 2, 3, 4 percent."

Final numbers won't be known until September.

The system's universities saw increases in new students and transfers, Marshall said.

"At some campuses, applications were up 10-15 percent this year," he said. The economy probably is a significant factor, Marshall said.

Penn State's financial aid office has heard students considering switching from more-expensive private schools, or conversely, leaving PSU for cheaper options, Griswold said.

Griswold said she expects normal enrollment at Penn State this year, but is seeing an upswing in the numbers of students applying for financial aid and in those appealing their aid packages because their financial pictures changed.

About 4,000 more students applied for financial aid this year than last, for a total of 67,000, Griswold said. "We normally don't see quite that. From one year to the next, [the increase] might be one- to two thousand," Griswold said.

"We know it's tough on families and we're trying to be as understanding as we can and as helpful as we can," she said. "Money is always an emotional topic, and if it comes to the dreams of their children, it's very hard on families."

Lebanon Valley College is seeing roughly the same number of people applying for financial aid, said Bill Brown, vice president of enrollment. But many of those getting some help need more, he said.

"The number of students contacting us and appealing and indicating a change in their financial situation has increased dramatically," Brown said. "We've seen a four-fold increase in new student appeals that indicate change in circumstances -- from the loss of their financial portfolio to furlough to being laid off."

LVC has spent about $500,000 to help current and incoming students in tough situations, Brown said. He said he hopes that "we don't lose anybody, but there are some where I'm not optimistic."

http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2009/08/college_aid_requests_are_risin.html

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