Rising costs mean more looking for financial help
University of Arizona students Theo Bisbicos (right), 22, and Julio Sermeno (second from right), 21, wait with other students to get financial aid counseling at the UA financial aid office inside the UA Administration Building on a recent afternoon.
By combining federal grants, loans and his salary from part-time jobs, University of Arizona junior Kyle Versluis has been able to cover the costs of his education without spending hours filling out scholarship applications or surfing scholarship Web sites.
If the Arizona Board of Regents approves proposed tuition surcharges at its meeting Thursday, that will change.
“I’m going to do everything I can to stay in school, but the way it looks, it’ll be hard,” Versluis said. “Everyone’s not giving away as much money because everyone is feeling the economic struggle and (all the students) are out there trying to get their little bit of the pie.”
Universities, colleges and nonprofit organizations are noticing increases of up to 40 percent in scholarship applications as high school graduates and current college students search for solutions to an economic perfect storm: parental job losses, unprecedented tuition hikes and stagnant donations to scholarship funds.
At UA, scholarship applications are up about 17 percent compared with last year at this time, according to John Nametz, director of the Office of Student Financial Aid.
Perhaps more telling, Nametz said, is that there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of “change of circumstance” forms filed by students this year over last.
Those forms allow current UA students to explain changes in their financial status due to family illness or job loss.
“I expect we’ll get more of those as the months go on,” Nametz said. “I can’t emphasize enough that students need to let us know if there’s a change in their economic situation.”
Cheryl House, executive director of the Pima Community College Foundation, said the organization had received 1,600 applications as of mid-April.
“Yikes,” House said when looking at the numbers.
“Our deadline is May 29, and last year at that time, we had only 1,400.”
Wray Milam is a PCC student hoping to transfer to UA sometime within the next year.
“I applied for six scholarships and I got two, which is pretty good,” Milam said. “If I didn’t have these scholarships, that’s it. I wouldn’t be in school because I’d have to work full time. All my friends are looking on Web sites every which way to find more money.”
Internet scholarship search sites and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, are two bellwethers of interest in scholarships nationwide.
FastWeb.com, a popular scholarship search site, reported last week that its seasonal spike in Internet traffic this year is at 20 percent, compared with the usual 5 percent to 10 percent.
FAFSA applications are also up nationally. The FAFSA is the first step in applying for federal grants awarded by economic need, federally subsidized loans and many scholarships offered by individual colleges and universities.
At UA, FAFSA applications are up 16.5 percent over last year at this time, said Nametz. ASU has noticed a 40 percent increase, according to Craig Fennell, ASU’s executive director of student financial assistance.
Times are so tight that even nonprofits that don’t provide scholarship assistance are getting pleading phone calls.
“I’m getting a lot of requests from people asking if we can provide scholarship assistance,” said Kelly Langford, president and CEO of the Tucson Urban League Inc.
“And the interesting thing is the requests are beyond the traditional two-year or undergraduate students,” he said. “We’re getting people looking for additional resources to go to trade schools or get retraining. I have to tell them we don’t do that kind of thing.”
While there has been an increase in applications for scholarships – as opposed to merit aid, which is based on grades, or loans, which have to be paid back – donations to funds supporting scholarships are not rising to meet the need, officials said.
“Donations have not gone down, but they haven’t gone up either,” said House, who manages the PCC foundation’s $3.4 million endowment.
“People still see education as an important economic driver that will help the situation get better, so our long-time donors are sticking with us. But we’re not necessarily getting new ones.”
The UA Foundation, which annually funds 1,000 student scholarships, has experienced a drop in giving, said John Brown, UA Foundation communications and marketing director.
“We’ve seen an overall decline in gifts of about 20 percent,” Brown said.
In spite of that, Brown said scholarships remain a popular designation for those who do donate to the foundation, which has an endowment of $225 million.
UA President Robert N. Shelton had proposed a $1,100 surcharge in the fall on top of a $545 tuition increase approved in December, saying he will set aside 17 percent to 20 percent of the revenue generated from the surcharge for financial aid.
Shelton lowered his tuition surcharge request Thursday at the Arizona Board of Regents meeting from $1,100 for all students to $766 for residents and $966 for nonresidents.
He said he was able to lower it because of the federal stimulus money that Gov. Jan Brewer said earlier in the day would be given straight to the regent and university presidents to spend over two years to mitigate the need for a surcharge.
Not all students are convinced that the scholarship “set aside” from the surcharge will help them, however.
“It can’t cover everyone,” said Kelsey LoDuca, a junior at UA. “They say they aren’t going to leave anyone behind with this increase, but . . . in this state, where there are no jobs, to come up with another $1,100 over three months is just too much.”
Shelton, along with presidents from Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University, say the surcharges they are requesting are necessary in light of massive state budget cuts.
The Legislature, needing to make up billions in revenue losses, cut higher education funding by $191 million this year. UA alone took a $77 million hit, and Shelton expects further cuts.
According to a survey released last week by the Association of Governing Board of Universities and Colleges, Arizona has been hit particularly hard by the nationwide economic crisis.
The “Public Institution and University System Financial Conditions Survey” reports that colleges and universities in 14 states, including Arizona, are experiencing their own version of a “misery index” due to three consecutive years of state budget reductions, midyear budget reductions this year and anticipated cuts after July 1.
The state’s economic misery doesn’t mean a lot to students having to pay their bills, though.
Versluis, a junior in hydrology, hopes that he will be able to continue at UA, but he said it all depends on the tuition surcharge.
“The thing that upsets me is they are doing this with only a month left in school,” he said. “I already filed my FAFSA and was awarded a Pell grant and a Safford loan and I figured out I’ve got just enough to cover my tuition, books and the part of my rent not covered by (income from) my job.
“But if I have to pay another $1,100, it really will be a choice of having a roof over my head or going to school.”
University of Arizona students meet with financial aid counselors at the financial aid office inside the Administration Building last week.
• Start early. Many scholarships have spring deadlines.
• Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, even if you think your family makes too much money. Colleges and some private scholarship providers use the FAFSA to determine scholarship eligibility.
• Check college and university Web sites for scholarship lists.
• Register at FastWeb.com, a free site that allows you to customize your search for scholarships.
• Look for scholarships from your employer, civic groups and the individual school within your college or university.
• Read eligibility requirements carefully. Some organizations discard scholarship applications that are incomplete.
• Check with the financial-aid office at the college or university. They may be able to refer you to scholarships you didn’t know about.
The Arizona Republic
Watch those deadlines
• The deadline to apply for scholarships offered through the Pima Community College Foundation is May 29. Call 206-4646 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
• The University of Arizona’s Office of Student Financial Aid hosts a scholarship Web site at financialaid.arizona.edu/scholarships/. Deadlines for many of the scholarships have passed, but there are nearly 50 that have deadlines after Friday.
Many of the scholarships have unique restrictions, such as a scholarship only open to those of Greek ancestry or one offered by New Look Laser Tatoo Removal that is only open to students studying nursing, medicine, natural or applied sciences, or engineering.