With financial hardship at home, more students seek college aid

When his father lost his job, Robert Hermann faced the prospect of adding to his already huge student loan debt. But he caught a break last year when he told University of Connecticut officials of his financial pinch.

The university tapped into a new $1 million emergency fund set aside for juniors and seniors facing sudden hardships. Hermann, who will be a senior in the fall, received $5,600 from the university.

Like public and private schools across the nation, UConn is seeing a surge of applicants for financial aid, including many whose families have lost jobs or homes during the nation’s deep economic slump.

UConn started the emergency fund last year and will keep it for the coming school year in addition to its regular student aid budget. More than 250 students qualified to receive grants averaging nearly $4,000 apiece from the fund in its first year.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Hermann, a 24-year-old history and English major from Stratford. “A lot can happen in a year as far as financial circumstances changing.”

The signs of the recession can be seen in college financial aid offices across the nation.

“We’re seeing financial aid being distributed at historic levels,” said Haley Chitty, a spokesman for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Last year the association found that more than 60 percent of colleges surveyed reported increases of greater than 10 percent in financial aid applications.

That has occurred while colleges themselves are undergoing financial strains.

Public colleges “are in a tough spot because they’re seeing tax revenues decline,” Chitty said. “It makes it tricky for these institutions to try to keep tuition down and provide financial aid.”

At UConn, officials decided to keep the emergency fund despite facing a lean budget year. The fund is aimed at juniors and seniors “to help them finish their education and graduate,” said Jean Main, director of student financial aid services.

In a letter to colleges last year, the U.S. Department of Education urged financial aid administrators to remind students that they could become eligible for additional federal student aid if their families experience problems such as layoffs, medical emergencies or housing foreclosures.

The Obama administration has poured federal stimulus money into additional college aid such as Pell Grants and has reported large increases in federal student aid applications.

In Connecticut, the level of unmet need for college students after considering family contributions and federal grants rose to about $181 million this year, an increase of nearly 24 percent, the largest one-year jump in recent memory, said Nancy Brady, the director of finance for the state Department of Higher Education.

At Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, financial aid applications were up 15 percent, and the number of students citing special financial circumstances jumped 21 percent.

“It’s tough out there,” said Richard Bishop, Central’s financial aid director. “There are kids who through no fault of their own have financial exigencies. We don’t want to lose those kids.”

Private colleges report similar stories.

“In the last 18 months, we’ve had over 500 students who have filed financial aid appeals, often because of layoffs, changes in working hours, reduced overtime, more difficulty finding summer jobs,” said Judy Dobai, associate vice president for enrollment management at Fairfield University.

Fairfield, a school of about 3,300 undergraduates, boosted its financial aid budget by about $6 million in the past two years, she said.

At the University of Hartford, “we’ve consistently added significant money to the financial aid budget,” including about $2.8 million this year and another $4 million next year, said university spokesman David Isgur. Through its Student Success Center, the university seeks to identify “students who may have needs that come up during the school year because a parent has been laid off or their financial situation has changed,” he said.

For students such as Hermann, the UConn senior, college has been costly despite the emergency grant. He estimates he piled up as much as $70,000 in loans for college and living expenses while attending a technical college in Florida, something he now calls a “misguided endeavor.”  At UConn, he expects to add another $15,000 to $25,000 in loans.

Because of the grant, he said, “I didn’t have to increase that burden.”