The fundamental need for student financial aid has not changed over the last two years, but it certainly has intensified. It’s well recognized that families across the nation are struggling because of the recession, and with rising tuition costs, increased job losses, salary cuts and wiped-out college savings, anxieties about paying for higher education are running high. According to an April 2009 student poll, “Effects of the Current Recession,” published by the College Board, two-thirds of randomly selected high school seniors say their family has been impacted by the recession, and one in six revealed the current economic circumstances have forced them to change their college plans.
School officials are working hard to get the message out to all students not to give up on attending college. Given the economic landscape, the government and colleges are going to extra lengths to help make higher education more accessible and possible.
Brian Williams, vice president for enrollment at John Carroll University, says: “We give $33 million in institutional money to our students each year in scholarship and need-based aid based on family contribution. This year, we shifted more toward need-based aid due to families’ concerns of affordability across the board. A number of grant programs were also created to help immediately impact loss of jobs and to help current students graduate. As well, we received additional funding to hire 60 more students through the federal work-study program.”
Williams adds that while affordability is always a concern for prospective students, and this year, families are looking at their financial responsibility for all four years of school more than they ever have before. “We work with them personally and think ahead as to what might happen over those years, such as having to deal with the cost of another child entering college,” says Williams. “We look at the whole picture.”
Dr. Mark Evans, director of financial aid at Kent State University, also highly encourages families to sit down with financial aid representatives from schools, so they better understand their financial aid options. “Many families overestimate the cost of going to college, and underestimate the resources available,” he says.
Evans explains that one new thing KSU will be doing this year for prospective, accepted students is sending out initial scholarship offers several months earlier than in the past. “The sooner students apply, the sooner they can expect to hear back.”
For current students, Evans says KSU has decided to make an additional $2 million available during the next year to assist the school’s students who were relying on the Ohio College Opportunity Grant, which supplements the Pell Grant for need-based students. It has decreased $200 million during the last two years, which translates into a yearly loss of $1500 in aid per pupil. “A number of public four-year institutions are also doing this,” he adds. The financial aid director also points out that KSU has invested an additional $1 to $2 million in institutional scholarship programs this year to assist students in attending KSU.
Filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the first step in helping families pay for college. “Because of the economic conditions we are facing across the country, and especially in northeast Ohio with the auto industry, the number of federal aid applications has significantly increased,” says Evans. “At KSU, we had 22 percent more; that’s 8,000 more than we had one year ago.” Beginning January 1, 2010, students will be able to apply for federal aid for the 2010-2011 school year with a new streamlined FAFSA. The online form (www.fafsaonline.com) will adjust according to the answers the applicant gives. Questions about tax data will be eliminated because information is available through the IRS. “It has removed 30 percent of the questions, so the process for next year should be significantly easier and less burdensome for families,” says Evans.
To better understand the entire financial aid process, you must first understand exactly how financial need is calculated. The completed FAFSA helps determine the expected family contribution (EFC). For every family, that number will be different. To determine student’s need, the following calculation is done: Total Cost of School (-) EFC (=) Financial Need. The need is then provided through one or more of the following types of federal- or institution-based financial aid options: grants, scholarships, work-study programs and loans. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law February 17, 2009, has made changes to many of these options this year, improving benefits to students and families. Click here for descriptions of financial aid options and changes.
To further research financial aid opportunities, Evans and Williams recommend a number of websites:
- www.finaid.org has online calculators to look at cost of education and how much should be saved for future educational expenses
- http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator is a guided college search site with financial aid information about every school including rates of debt, comparisons of schools, type of aid received and how aid was awarded
- www.knowhow2goohio.org is a year-by-year planning calendar for students beginning in middle school including information and tips on savings plans, financial aid and more
- www.fastweb.com is a global scholarship matching website
- Individual college websites offer plenty of financial aid information, links and tips
“While financial aid has become more important in college choices these days, it shouldn’t be the only factor,” says Williams. “Don’t limit or rule out colleges because of cost because you are closing the door on your own future, and you aren’t giving the institution the opportunity to help you through the process. You might be surprised at what you find.”