Colleges Scramble to Help Cash-Strapped Students

By Beacon Staff

It’s crunch time for college students. No, this isn’t about exams. It’s about tuition bills.

Facing job losses, dwindling college-investment accounts, and a tight credit market, students and parents have been streaming into financial-aid offices, asking for adjustments to their aid packages. Colleges are trying to help, but as the second semester starts up, some students have had no choice but to drop out or scale back the number of classes they’re taking.

To expand financial aid, many colleges are cutting back on hiring, and construction projects are going on hold. Some institutions are getting creative on the fundraising front – think special appeals to alumni. Another tactic: Some colleges are offering leniency to students with unpaid balances.

School officials thought the trouble would hit this past fall. Instead, overall enrollments were “perfectly normal,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) in Washington. But now, he says, “people are apparently running out of steam.”

Midyear departures are particularly disruptive. Schools create budgets based on enrollments for the year. And for students, “it’s very hard, having done one semester, to then [temporarily stop or transfer] and not end up losing a lot of credits and a lot of time,” Mr. Nassirian says.

Nearly a quarter of private colleges and universities and 13 percent of publics expect second-semester retention to be worse than last year’s, according to a survey of 214 chief financial officers by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Moody’s Investors Service.

“There’s clearly a heightened awareness [of the financial situation facing students] and a lot more proactivity by colleges and universities,” says Bob Giannino-Racine, executive director of ACCESS, a nonprofit financial-aid counseling service in Boston.

Syracuse University in New York noticed a 30 percent rise in requests for additional aid this fall. It launched a campaign in early December to try to raise $2 million for emergency grants by Jan. 31. It’s already helped more than 350 who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to return.

One is sophomore Nykeba Corinaldi. “I’m taking it literally semester to semester,” she says. Her mother is unemployed, her father doesn’t contribute, and she couldn’t secure a loan on her own after one fell through this summer. The financial-aid office gave her extra grants and loans this fall, and now, thanks in part to the Syracuse Responds initiative, she’s back to finish out the year. “It was a huge boulder off my shoulders,” she says.

At Spelman, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, about 500 students, a quarter of the school, had not fully paid their bills by late last semester. A fundraising drive has matched students with donors willing to cover their balances. Seniors have priority, and it appears they’ll all be able to graduate.

But that’s still not enough. “Unfortunately, we have had significant numbers of students who have stopped and said, ‘I’m going to try to come back in the fall,’ ” says Arlene Cash, Spelman’s vice president for enrollment management. “We’re working hard to find ways to support them.”

A number of schools have also announced tuition and financial-aid plans early in the cycle, hoping prospective students won’t give up altogether on the idea of college. Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., and Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., for instance, are freezing tuition for the coming year.

Ohio State leaders pledged that if tuition goes up, financial aid will go up proportionately. “We’re trying to get the word out to the community broadly that you can’t afford not to go to college and that there’s all kinds of help available,” says Martha Garland, vice provost for enrollment services and dean of undergraduate education.

Manchester College in Indiana wants to ease concerns about affordability by offering a “Triple Guarantee”: Academically strong low-income students from Indiana will receive grants to cover any gaps after federal and state aid is received; students will graduate in four years, or they can get a fifth year of classes for free; and if they don’t land a job within six months of graduating, they, too, can have a free year of classes.

The four-year graduation guarantee is “addressing a cost of college that lots of families don’t consider – that fifth or sixth year” that is fairly common at some institutions, says Manchester executive vice president Dave McFadden.

Despite these efforts, it’s understandable if families aren’t so upbeat. Many public universities are anticipating tuition spikes in the wake of state budget cuts. Nearly half of publics and 7 percent of privates plan to raise tuition for the coming year at a rate higher than the past three-year average, the Chronicle/Moody’s survey found. And in a December survey by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, 8 percent said they had frozen or cut financial-aid budgets, or plan to.

College affordability “is a true middle-class crisis now,” Mr. Giannino-Racine says. Waves of students who used to take the private four-year route are shifting to public and community colleges. In turn, students with less competitive backgrounds could be pushed out of college altogether, he and others say.

Higher-education officials are hopeful that as part of the economic stimulus package, Congress will increase Pell Grants for low-income students and infuse cash into states so that they can avoid deep cuts to public universities. House leaders have outlined a $15.6 billion increase in Pell Grants as part of their proposal to help higher education.