All-time low interest rates on student loans may be the lone bright spot for college students facing the financial squeeze.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
With the stock market flopping and fall semester classes about to begin, more students and parents are asking area colleges for last-minute increases in financial aid.
"Families have lost money in some of their stock portfolios that they were counting on to use to send their kids to college," said Doug Swartz, dean of admissions at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa.
"People just don't have as much available income or available assets for college."
"It's a challenge," added Tim Bryan, assistant to the president for college relations at Hiram College. "You only have so many financial aid dollars to go around."
At Westminster, where fall classes begin Aug. 27, the number of students requesting "special circumstances" forms for increased financial aid has nearly doubled, Swartz estimated.
Bryan said he did not have any specific figures, but he said there's been a "noticeable" increase in Hiram students appealing for more aid.
Sandra Pittenger, director of student financial services at Mount Union College, said she also does not have final figures for financial aid appeals this year, but she said such appeals were up 10 percent last year.
"It seems like a lot more people are concerned," she said.
The same is true at Youngstown State University, where fall classes commence Aug. 26.
Elaine Ruse, financial aid director, said her staff is sorting through "stacks of files" from students looking for more financial help.
Many of the requests are from students whose parents have recently lost their jobs. She pointed to the closings of Phar-Mor and Tamco for some of the requests.
Across the country
The calls for more financial aid aren't exclusive to the area.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that students and colleges across the nation are feeling the squeeze of higher tuition and the bad economy. Financial aid appeals at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, are up 10 percent to 15 percent this year.
At Texas A & amp;M University, at least 10 percent of students already receiving financial aid are asking for more, and requests for financial aid at the University of Texas at Austin are up 5 percent to 10 percent, according to DallasNews.com.
Ruse and Swartz said students with special circumstances, such as a parent who has lost a job, can file an amended financial aid form with the federal government, but Swartz said that does not guarantee more aid.
Swartz said Westminster provides its own financial assistance to needy students, but even that pot of money is limited. The average need for Westminster students increased by $1,500 this year, he said.
With need rising and Westminster's annual tuition and fees at nearly $19,000, this year's incoming freshman class has dropped from 380 last fall to 355 this fall.
Going to state
Swartz said many students are opting for state universities at a lesser price.
At Slippery Rock University, for example, annual tuition is $4,478 for Pennsylvania residents. The yearly tuition at YSU is $4,996 for Ohio residents.
Bryan said Hiram, where tuition and fees are nearly $20,000 annually, also has lost students caught in the financial crunch.
"We've increased aid," he said. "We have looked for alternative loan programs for families."
Patty Hladio, financial aid director at Slippery Rock University, said she has not seen an increase in appeals for more aid.
"It may be that families are still playing kind of a waiting game to see what's going on with the market and if things will stabilize or get better," she said.
Hladio and Ruse said there is one bright spot: Interest rates on federal loans are at all-time lows.
Rates for student loans are 3.46 percent, compared with nearly 5.5 percent a year ago. Interest on loans to parents for college expenses is 4.86 percent, compared with nearly 6.8 percent a year ago.
"If there is some comfort to be found right now with tuition going up nationally and the times being tough, those low interest rates are one thing students can be thankful for," Hladio said.