Cuts in U.S. college aid loom

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March 1, 2011, 7:23 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) For college-bound students and their families, it's one of the busiest times of year, waiting for acceptance letters and all-critical notifications of how much financial aid admitted students could get.

But this year, with tuition higher than ever, students and families could be facing significant cuts in federal support. According to the College Board, in 2009-10 the average U.S. college student got $11,461 (per full-time student) in financial aid and loans. Overall, in 2009-10 the U.S. government provided $40.2 billion in Pell and other grants and issued $65.8 billion in undergraduate student loans.  For more data see Trends in Higher Education. In the era of the trillion-dollar deficit crisis, though, pressure is on to cut everything, including help for college students.

The threat of cutbacks brought out hundreds of college students to the Massachusetts State House Wednesday to urge their legislators to help the fight back against proposals by President Obama to cut $100 billion from student aid over 10 years, and from Republicans to cut even more, including a 15 percent or $800 cut in the maximum Pell grant.

"I'll do whatever I can, just because I know I value my education,'' said Noemie Martin, a sophomore psychology major at Pine Manor College in Brookline, Mass., who is planning to become an art therapist working with deaf children and youth. Coming from a troubled family, Noemie is now officially a "ward of the state" with no one but the state to support her -- but thriving as a Pine Manor student, thanks to Pell grants that are nothing short of a lifeline for her.

"My financial aid has really helped me to stay in school,'' Noemie told state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston. "The Pell grant actually paid for two of my summer courses and had some money left over to help me live on campus,'' which helped her get ahead of her course requirements, and has even been the factor enabling her to get her school meal plan paid for.

"These discussions are incredibly relevant to us, obviously -- as students, what's at stake for us is our education,'' said another student participating in the lobbying day, Mia Waldron of Belchertown, Mass., a junior political-science major at Mount Holyoke College. With parents carrying two college tuitions, as well as big medical bills for her sister, Mia has counted on regular and subsidized federal loans to be able to attend the South Hadley women's college. Referring to the threatened federal cuts, she said, "Probably at this point, if they were to reduce funding, it would be questionable if I could continue attending Mount Holyoke.''

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the group of students that "we are going through some very, very difficult financial times. I think you are all smart enough to understand what's going on.'' But DeLeo said they were doing the most important and effective thing they could -- dramatize for legislators that these are cuts with real, huge impacts on the lives of real constituents.

Given the dicey climate for college financing in the spring of 2011, any advice? Financial-aid expert Kevin Fudge of American Student Assistance in Boston urges families and students to "have a plan before you start applying.'' Specifically, just like "there's a range of selectivity that people look at when they look at schools," considering some "stretch" schools that will be hard to get into and others near-locks or "safety schools" if a more aggressive bid doesn't work out, Fudge said, "Use that same process when you're looking at the cost. There are some schools that are way in the stratosphere, some schools that are in the middle, some not so much. The more work you do on the front end in figuring out what's affordable and what's not, the better you are at the back end when you actually have to pay the bill,'' Fudge said -- in particular, avoiding sticker shock in August when you finally realize just how expensive a school will wind up being after offers of financial aid or loans.

What Noemie Martin and Mia Waldron and dozens of other college students hoped they could show legislators from New England to Washington, D.C.: Cuts in student loans and aid aren't just cuts in something called budgets.

"I want to give back what I can, to be able to do something with my education,'' Martin said.

Waldron added: "I have one more year left, and that would just be really devastating'' if a loss of critical aid forced her to settle for earning a B.A. at a cheaper, less demanding college. "I've stuck it out this long and worked really hard to obtain a degree from Mount Holyoke.''

With videographer Kevin Krisak

Tags: barack Obama, Peter Howe, financial aid
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