Financial Aid Doesn’t Stretch To Help Middle Class

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by Donna Gordon Blankinship, The Associated Press

SEATTLE – The people who distribute financial aid to college students in Washington State want to make sure parents know there will always be money to help low-income students pay tuition. But the same can’t be said for those in the middle class.

Despite the financial pressures of the recession and state budget cuts, more students got help for college during the past two school years than ever before. The problem, though, is that even more students were looking for help.

This year, as families wait to hear how much tuition is going up in the fall—the Legislature approved increases of 16 percent and above for some Washington schools—financial panic may be outpacing excitement for some.

Nearly 22,000 students who were qualified for a state need-based grant during the 2009-2010 school year did not get one because the money ran out, said Rachelle Sharpe, director of financial assistance for the Higher Education Coordinating Board. The numbers for the 2010-2011 school year have not been finalized, but she expects even more did not get the financial help they needed.

That’s a big leap from the 5,000 students who were qualified but didn’t get a grant in 2008-09.

Since the state’s need-based grants—and most other federal and state need grants—are distributed based on income, middle-class students are the ones feeling the most pain right now, said Sharpe and financial aid officers at Washington’s universities.

“We’re worried that families will be discouraged, that college is no longer an option for a family,” Sharpe said.

Her advice to worried families: Plan ahead, have a backup plan for paying for college, apply for financial aid on time and look for other scholarships. Washington State has a website devoted to scholarship matching: thewashboard.org.

Iris Maute-Gibson, a junior at Western Washington University, went to school on a state need grant during her first two years of college. This year, she had to find another way to pay her tuition, even though neither her parents’ income nor her eligibility for financial aid changed.

Maute-Gibson, who lobbied in Olympia on behalf of Western’s student government, joined the growing number of students depending on student loans to pay for most of their college expenses. She knows some students who take out as much as $20,000 a year in student loans because they can’t get the money for college any other way.

“It’s a really frightening prospect,” Maute-Gibson said. “Especially with a degree in public service, it’ll take decades to just pay off the loans, much less to start a family or buy a home.”

State officials have found that most student loans go to those who are eligible for financial aid but aren’t getting enough help to cover all their college expenses. Although some needy students also qualify for federal grants and scholarships, many have other expenses including food, housing, books and transportation.

During the 2009-10 academic year, 59 percent of needy students took out loans, averaging $7,411.

Financial pressures dominate student conversations on campus, Maute-Gibson said in a telephone interview, as the Legislature prepared to end its special session with a budget that includes another year of big tuition increases and some additional help for needy students.

She knows some students who work more than one job, trying to finance most of their education in real time but doubts they are giving their studies the attention they should.

Sharpe said state officials also were tracking student employment—both on campus and off—and shared Maute-Gibson’s concerns.

“Working, depending on the hours, can interfere with their success as a student,” and, in some cases, force students to take longer to complete their degrees, Sharpe said.

About half the students who attend the University of Washington get some kind of financial aid, ranging from loans to grants, said Eric S. Godfrey, the school’s vice president and vice provost for student life.

About 8,000 low-income undergraduates attend school on the “Husky Promise,” which means they do not have to pay tuition or fees for four years, but that doesn’t mean these students get to go to college for free. They still need to find a way to pay for other school-related expenses.

Godfrey said federal grants and scholarship money, plus loans, help close the gap for some.

“We’ve been able to maintain accessibility in the face of increasing costs,” Godfrey said. Thanks to private donations, he said he expects UW will continue to be able to say that.

But the middle class at the university still face the same challenges as students at other Washington schools, since financial aid is distributed first to the low-income families. At some point each year, the grants and scholarships run out.

“Our money each year is not stretching as far into the so-called middle income categories,” Godfrey said. “That is an area of concern.”

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