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Colleges scramble to help cash-strapped students

Many students need extra aid to pay spring-semester tuition.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 21, 2009

Between classes: Students listen to their iPods at the University of Georgia in Athens. Many colleges have tried to expand financial aid to help students stay in school.

Mary Knox Merrill/staff

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It's crunch time for college students. No, this isn't about exams. It's about tuition bills.

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Facing job losses, dwindling college-investment accounts, and a tight credit market, students and parents have been streaming into financial-aid offices, asking for adjustments to their aid packages. Colleges are trying to help, but as the second semester starts up, some students have had no choice but to drop out or scale back the number of classes they're taking.

To expand financial aid, many colleges are cutting back on hiring, and construction projects are going on hold. Some institutions are getting creative on the fundraising front – think special appeals to alumni. Another tactic: Some colleges are offering leniency to students with unpaid balances.

School officials thought the trouble would hit this past fall. Instead, overall enrollments were "perfectly normal," says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) in Washington. But now, he says, "people are apparently running out of steam."

Midyear departures are particularly disruptive. Schools create budgets based on enrollments for the year. And for students, "it's very hard, having done one semester, to then [temporarily stop or transfer] and not end up losing a lot of credits and a lot of time," Mr. Nassirian says.

Nearly a quarter of private colleges and universities and 13 percent of publics expect second-semester retention to be worse than last year's, according to a survey of 214 chief financial officers by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Moody's Investors Service.

"There's clearly a heightened awareness [of the financial situation facing students] and a lot more proactivity by colleges and universities," says Bob Giannino-Racine, executive director of ACCESS, a nonprofit financial-aid counseling service in Boston.

Syracuse University in New York noticed a 30 percent rise in requests for additional aid this fall. It launched a campaign in early December to try to raise $2 million for emergency grants by Jan. 31. It's already helped more than 350 who otherwise wouldn't have been able to return.

One is sophomore Nykeba Corinaldi. "I'm taking it literally semester to semester," she says. Her mother is unemployed, her father doesn't contribute, and she couldn't secure a loan on her own after one fell through this summer. The financial-aid office gave her extra grants and loans this fall, and now, thanks in part to the Syracuse Responds initiative, she's back to finish out the year. "It was a huge boulder off my shoulders," she says.

At Spelman, a historically black women's college in Atlanta, about 500 students, a quarter of the school, had not fully paid their bills by late last semester. A fundraising drive has matched students with donors willing to cover their balances. Seniors have priority, and it appears they'll all be able to graduate.