Financial Aid Applications Rise by 10 Percent

Some colleges pour money into financial aid while others have had to reduce merit aid and grants.

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Like a Midwestern tornado, the economic downturn appears to be touching down and wreaking financial aid havoc for some colleges while leaving others unscathed. Financial aid officers at Boston College, the University of Central Florida, and Washington University in St. Louis all report no dramatic increase in requests for scholarships. But foot traffic and calls to the aid office have spiked 50 percent this January at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. And "the line is out the door" at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Mass., says Iris Godes, assistant vice president of enrollment management. Enrollment is up by about 6 percent, but financial aid applications are up 23 percent so far in 2009. Godes, who has been working in college financial aid offices for 21 years, says people who have lost jobs and savings in the economic downturn are now scrambling for new money to pay for college. "I have never experienced in my life this anxiety level of parents," she says.

Nationally, 1.4 million more students filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (the most important aid application) in calendar year 2008 than in 2007, a 10.4 percent increase, the Department of Education reports. Likewise, the College Board says its scholarship database experienced a 30 percent jump in visitors in December 2008 compared with 2007.

The biggest federal aid programs guarantee Pell grants and Stafford student loans to all students who qualify, no matter how many people apply. And some colleges have announced that they are pouring more money into scholarships next year. Boston College, for example, has announced it will cut its overall spending by 2.5 percent to free up $3 million extra in financial aid. And the University of Toledo announced it will offer free tuition to low-income B students from many major Ohio cities.

But those increases don't appear to be making up for the many smaller aid programs—including Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants and Perkins loans, as well as school-based scholarships and charitable grants—that expect to have limited or reduced funding this year. As a result, many aid officials say demand is starting to outstrip supply for some kinds of scholarships, forcing some schools and charities to make cuts.

Arkansas State University-Jonesboro, for example, has been so swamped that it has already cut off applications for merit scholarships for next fall, says financial aid director Terry Finney. The state of Rhode Island is reducing the amount of grants it will hand out to needy students. And many charities have said the declines in their investments are forcing reductions in the size and number of scholarships they'll award this year.

"Demand has never been greater and money never been lower," worries Godes.