Despite cuts, colleges say financial aid still abounds

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The financial picture might look bleak to some prospective college students, considering state budget cuts, millions of dollars slashed from the low-income Pell grant program, and constant tuition increases.

But financial aid officials at area colleges and universities insist that there are millions of dollars in scholarships, work-study grants, and other assistance still available, with more local dollars up for grabs at the schools.

“The one good thing is there’s an increase in institutional aid: Institutions are bumping up the amount of money they’re giving,” said Greg Guzman, the financial aid director at the private Lourdes College in Sylvania. “Much of that is from donors who are generous with scholarship funding.”

That money can’t be doled out, though, without the completion of the mandatory Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Area schools have varying deadlines for students to complete the forms. By following those guidelines, students get the first chance at the school’s cash.

“We’re certainly looking for ways to help needy students, really all students, to fund higher education,” said Craig Cornell, director of student financial aid at Bowling Green State University.

The green is behind that statement at BGSU, where Mr. Cornell said students this school year are expected to receive an estimated $175 million in tuition assistance, be it federal, state, or institutional dollars. That’s compared to $149.7 million the previous year.

About 90 percent of all incoming BGSU freshmen receive some form of financial aid, Mr. Cornell said. He added that the university continues to hike its scholarship dollars, to the tune of about 20 percent annually over the last five years.

Similarly, the University of Toledo has increased its merit-based scholarship funding for new and transfer students by more than $3 million for the upcoming school year, said Rob Sheehan, senior vice provost for academic affairs.

Carolyn Baumgartner, UT’s financial aid director, said overall aid also has risen at the university, with $101 million offered to students last year, up from just under $100 million the previous year.

Nationwide, a record $122 billion in financial aid is available this school year, according to the College Board.

In recent years, though, studies have shown that some college students who are eligible for federal money either don’t complete the federal student aid application or file too late. The American Council on Education says that half of the 8 million undergraduates enrolled in 1999-2000 at institutions participating in federal student aid programs did not complete the main application form.

Organizations like the council on education as well as school leaders themselves have been trying to change those statistics.

Just as it says, the FAFSA is free. But it does take some time to fill out and requires pertinent tax information from students or, in many cases, their parents, if perspective students are still dependents. The application must be refiled annually.

Myriad new tactics to get students to complete the applications are in place, from one-on-one free help to computers that are set up in college lobbies.

“We bookmark different scholarship searches,” said Betsy Johnson, the financial aid director at Owens Community College. “It helps, I think, for the student who’s [applying] for the first time.”

At area high schools, college representatives hold regular financial-aid nights to help students with the federal forms. Other workshops also are available.

Yesterday at BGSU, more than 200 parents and students braved the snow to gather in a ballroom to learn more about the FAFSA and types of financial aid.

For those who were concerned about rising tuition costs, a sign that greeted them attempted to alleviate those fears. It used dollars and cents to show the importance of a college education: The annual income for someone with a high school education is $30,400, a figure that jumps to $52,000 with a bachelor’s degree.

Mike Harnishfeger was one of the people yesterday who took that information to heart.

“Sure, paying for college is a sacrifice and an added stress, but it’s one of the most important things we can do for our kids,” he said.

Mr. Harnishfeger, who’s the police chief in Ada, Ohio, showed his commitment to that goal by attending to the event. He had to leave behind a weather-related crisis in his town, where people still remained without power.

After sitting through part of the workshop, the chief said they were thinking about possible student loans to help pay for college. His daughter, Lori, 17, who’s already set on attending BGSU, said she plans to work to help pay for school.

In order to stay ahead of the race, the Harnishfegers have filled out most of their FAFSA. Others, like Ben Ashin, and his father, Brian, of Ann Arbor, sent in their federal application several days ago.

Now the waiting and the decision-making process begins.

Ben, 17, has yet to decide between BGSU and Western Michigan University, a choice that could come down to the amount of money offered to him from either school.

Others at yesterday’s event were learning for the first time how to fill out their first FAFSA form, including Amber White, 18, and her parents, David and Ruth, all of Youngstown.

Miss White already has learned she will receive a underrepresented minority scholarship, but is hoping for more money to attend BGSU’s main campus, where the total cost – including room and board, personal expenses, books, tuition, and transportation – is estimated to be $18,324 for one year.

The area’s largest FAFSA event, known as College Goal Sunday, will be held Feb. 13 at locations across Ohio, including Owens Community College in Perrysburg Township.

Mr. Guzman, who’s also a co-chairman of College Goal, said about 1,175 students participated in the statewide event last year. Out of 622 families who completed exit interviews that day, he said 552 of them involved “first generation” college students.

“We just want them to go to school, whatever school they want to go to,” Mr. Guzman said.

Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it. - Proverbs 22:6