For Ed Ross, the combination of sending his daughter to college and getting laid off from his job last spring was too much. He had financial aid from the college but it wasn't enough.
So he appealed for more assistance for his daughter and got it. Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., dipped into its reserves last fall to keep April Ross, a senior majoring in English, from having to leave school.
That was last year. Now the question on the minds of many higher-education officials is whether a deepening economic downturn means that many more parents who lost jobs, or whose stock portfolios are sagging, may also appeal.
Such appeals would come at a difficult time for American colleges as state institutions' budgets are being slashed and private colleges' endowments are racking up losses in the stock market.
Most families were notified of aid awards by mid-summer. Helen Nunn, director of financial aid at Susquehanna, says she's seen a slight rise in appeals and is bracing for more. "We're building our reserves just in case," she says. "Yes, we're spending more than we otherwise would, but we're still within our total spending allotment for aid for the year."
Many schools say they have not yet seen big increases in aid appeals. David Gelinas, financial aid director at University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., for instance, says he's gotten many more phone calls asking about existing aid decisions but he hasn't yet seen a big jump in the number of formal appeals.
But several institutions are reporting increases. Colleges in technology and manufacturing regions where layoffs are prevalent seem to be hit hardest.
The number of appeals has gone up 40 percent in the past year at Hope College, a private liberal-arts school in the manufacturing heartland of Holland, Mich. "Much of it has come since 9/11," says aid director Phyllis Hooyman.
Appeals are up significantly at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., and at Temple University in Philadelphia.
At this point, it's difficult to know whether there's a national trend or simply regional effects, officials say.
"Based on the anecdotal evidence we've seen, when all is said and done we will have seen [financial aid appeals] on the increase," says Barmak Nassirian, a spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington.
"The last time we saw this kind of increase was in the late 1980s or early '90s," says Seamus Harreys, dean of student financial services at Northeastern University in Boston, which has seen a 40 percent increase in aid appeals this year. "We're seeing Enron and other companies chop jobs, and that translates into students and parents not knowing how they're going to pay."
Many parents' stock portfolios have fallen 50 percent or more. Most successful appeals, however, come when parents lose jobs, Mr. Harreys says.
Still, he sees his share of unusual appeals. Take the case of Matthew Blaskovich, a New York City fireman with Ladder Company No. 32. Northeastern had already awarded his daughter a generous financial-aid package to help pay the $33,000 bill for her first year. But last year his income was $15,000 higher than normal because of overtime he put in while helping dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center.
"It was like a bittersweet thing," he says. "It was good to have the extra money, but ... I knew those checks were really going to hurt my ability to pay for college. I knew it was going to lower our financial aid."
So this month, Blaskovich drove to Boston to appeal his financial-aid award and explain why the effects of terrorism should not keep his child from attending college.
He prevailed. Even though the school upheld its five-year aid award, it permitted him to appeal annually. And it gave him grants and loans worth about $3,500, enough to ensure his daughter could attend. "I sure hope we can do this on a firefighter's salary," he says, "because I know once she gets there she won't want to come home."