For more students, financial aid offers are not enough

Joe Markman

When Sean Galligan, a senior at Weymouth High School, received his financial aid package from Worcester Polytechnic Institute this spring, he knew right away that he had to apply for more money.

First of all, his brother Paul, a junior at WPI, had been awarded $3,700 more in grants and scholarships. More importantly, Galligan is planning to pay most of his own way through school.

“Money has been hard to come by and I felt I wanted a little more help going into my freshman year,” Galligan said.

Thankfully for him, WPI added $3,700 to his scholarship package. But not all college students are so lucky.

The number of college students seeking additional aid at private and public institutions is growing rapidly in the face of family layoffs, battered savings and stock market accounts, and more bankruptcies brought on by the deep recession. And schools with dwindling endowments are sifting through more requests for more money than in years past.

“This is going to be a year like none other that we’ve ever seen,” said Clantha McCurdy, vice chancellor at the Massachusetts Office of Student Financial Assistance.

McCurdy said there are no statewide records on re-evaluation applications – petitions by students seeking another run at financial aid – but that financial aid offices are seeing “huge increases” in requests.

Financial counselors at the University of Massachusetts-Boston are encountering two petitions per day, up from two per month last year.

Requests at Bridgewater State College climbed to 86 from 56 at this point last year, a 65 percent increase. Though the re-evaluations involve only a small number of the 6,000 Bridgewater students receiving help this year, financial aid director Janet Gumbris said the increase was atypical.

Since September, more than 75,000 Massachusetts workers have lost their jobs, according to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. The state’s 7.8 percent unemployment rate – representing 265,900 people – is at its highest level since 1993.

McCurdy said her office is getting four times as many calls than previous years, and she urges her staff to spend extra time with parents to explain their options, including reapplying for more state grants.

Reggie Harge, a program manager at the TERI College Planning Center in Boston, said he’s heard more questions about financial aid re-evaluations this year than at any time in his 13 years at TERI, a national organization that serves 8,000 students annually at its offices in Boston and Brockton.

“The economy is doing us a favor in one sense, in that it’s bringing more clients,” Harge said. “But it’s unfortunate the economy is having that kind of impact on students. It breaks our heart to hear these stories.”

This year the federal financial aid form, or FAFSA, includes a question about displaced workers, which has helped keep colleges informed from the start about hardships, Harge said.

But for students whose financial situation changes after they submit the form, the next step is normally a letter or e-mail sent to the school where they are requesting more aid. The school will then ask for more details to verify the situation, such as unemployment checks or court bankruptcy papers.

Private colleges have also seen a spike in re-evaluation requests, though not as drastic as those at public schools.

Stonehill College, which has experienced a 20 percent jump in financial aid requests from incoming freshmen, has also seen a 10 percent hike in requests for re-evaluation, as compared to fall 2008. Still, only 29 out of 3102 financial aid applicants there seeking more money cited job loss in the family, said Eileen O’Leary, the school’s financial aid director.

Private schools are seeing smaller percentage jumps in such re-evaluation requests because overall they give more aid to students based on their higher tuition, said Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.

“Most of our schools are residential,” Doherty said, “so the conversation between counselors and students is more straightforward, it’s a more personal experience.”

The Patriot Ledger