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UW-Whitewater students among those concerned about aid

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Gazette Staff and Associated Press
August 13, 2009
— UW-Whitewater senior Jennifer Matamoros is worried about paying for school without the $2,600 grant she got last year.

“They just keep raising more costs and taking away more money,” she said.


Tuition at UW-Whitewater has increased about 6 percent a year in each of the past four years.


Matamoros is among thousands of Wisconsin students who will not receive state grants because of a lack of money at a time when the number of applicants is increasing.


Struggling with budget shortfalls that reach into the billions, several states are making deep cuts in college financial aid programs, including those that provide a vital source of cash for students who most need the money.


“It’s not good,” said Carol Miller, financial aid director at UW-Whitewater. “It’s going to cause a lot more of our students to walk out of here with more debt.


“It’s putting stress where students should be able to come and concentrate on school … and they’re having all these money worries,” she said. “We see that a lot.”


Miller said the university already has awarded more than 1,500 state grants, ranging in size from $674 to $2,980 and totaling about $3.5 million. The university last year awarded more than 1,800 state grants totaling about $3.7 million.


“I don’t think we’ll even get close to that number this year,” she said. “We have so many applicants because of the economy … We have so many students whose parents are unemployed or limited in their employment. And there’s not a whole lot we can do for them.”


Tuition, room and board at UW-Whitewater is about $12,000.


Matamoros said she likely will borrow more money and graduate with $30,000 in student-loan debt—which is as much as she expects to make annually in her career as an elementary school teacher.


At least a dozen states are reducing award sizes, eliminating grants and tightening eligibility guidelines because of a lack of money. At the same time, the number of students seeking aid is rising sharply as more people seek a college education and need help paying the tuition bill because they or their parents lost jobs and savings during the recession.


Many of the affected programs are need-based grants that provide money that complements financial aid offered by schools and the federal government. Without that cash, some students could be forced to drop out, transfer to cheaper schools or simply have less money available for rent and groceries. Experts fear others will take on too much debt or spend even more time working as they pursue a degree.


State financial aid accounted for 12 percent of the grants awarded to college students last school year, according to the College Board. That’s a fraction of the financial aid provided to millions of students by schools, the federal government and private scholarships, but the demand for aid is booming. About 620,000 more students applied for federal aid in the first quarter compared with last year, a jump of more than 25 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.


University of Illinois senior Brandi Cho, 21, said her parents cannot afford to make up the $2,500 she expected to do without after her state grant runs out in the spring. She is considering two options: Find a second weekend job on top of the 15 hours a week she already works, or cram five senior-level accounting classes into the fall semester so she can graduate early.


“The best that I can do is just start saving every penny that I have,” Cho said.


The cuts come as lawmakers and governors struggle to balance budgets crippled by the recession’s impact on tax revenues. Lottery-funded merit aid programs in states such as Georgia, Florida and West Virginia also are pinched as revenues from the games are leveling off and in some cases declining.


In Illinois, a state scrambling to find $11 billion in budget savings, officials are telling 145,000 low-income students who receive the state’s need-based Monetary Award Program grants to expect no help in the spring semester because money for the program will run out. Lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn cut the state’s aid budget in half; an additional 40,000 students who rely on other state programs will be affected, too.


Ohio is eliminating grants of up to $2,496 for low-income community college students, and cutting them by more than 50 percent for low-income students at four-year universities. The state is axing $640 grants for 58,000 private school students and grants of up to $4,000 for 22,500 students attending two-year, for-profit schools.


“That’s a lot of money to someone like me,” said Maria Zimbardi, a 33-year-old mother of three in Youngstown, Ohio, who will not receive the nearly $3,300 grant she got last year. She is working part time as a waitress while learning administrative and accounting skills at National College. She also is taking out more student loans—which now total $29,000—so she can graduate next May.


Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank, warned in a recent study that student debt was at an all-time high, with a rising share owed to riskier private student loans. The study warned that could eventually reduce access to higher education and lead to more students defaulting on their loans.


“It’s going to start to impact the equation of whether college is worth it for some students,” said Erin Dillon, a policy analyst for the group.


In Michigan, where state lawmakers have yet to pass a spending plan, about 96,000 students don’t yet know the value of their Promise scholarships—or if they get one at all. The state’s Republican-controlled Senate voted to eliminate the $140 million program that provides high school graduates with up to $4,000, but Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm has vowed to restore some of money.


Financial aid officials in other states are making difficult choices with the limited funds they have. In Massachusetts, where the state financial aid budget was cut 10 percent, the Office of Student Financial Assistance plans to make deep cuts to other aid programs to preserve the need-based Mass Grants program. Even so, many grants could fall by $400 to $500 compared with last year.


Wisconsin decided to slightly increase the average grant awards because students are showing much greater need, said Connie Hutchison, the executive secretary of the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board. That meant university students who applied in July for aid are learning the pool of money has run out.


“We’re getting a lot of questions about why students are not getting financial aid they got last year,” Hutchison said. “It’s so hard to explain to them.”



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