Even as colleges and universities consider layoffs and enrollment caps in response to the economic meltdown, many are also investing additional money in financial aid programs in an effort to keep needy students from dropping out.
Jasmine Young’s stress level was rising as fast as the balance on her unpaid college bills as a new semester approached at Michigan’s Oakland University.
The 18-year-old already was behind on last semester’s bills, and her mother had been laid off from her job at a southeast Michigan auto parts supplier. But Oakland provided $2,893 in aid, one of many schools nationwide to help students cope with money problems—even as they deal with multimillion-dollar budget problems of their own.
"I’m not sure what I would have done without it. … It helped a lot," said Young, a freshman who lives in Canton, Mich. "I was stressing all last semester because I knew I didn’t have the money to come back."
Public and private schools in Michigan, Ohio, New York, Virginia, and other states have set up emergency relief funds aimed at keeping students in school when their families are swept up in the widening recession, which could be the worst downturn of at least the past quarter-century.
The emergency support likely could be even more crucial headed into next fall as the economy worsens and students find it harder to get private loans to help pay for school.
The national unemployment rate reached 7.6 percent in January, the highest monthly rate since July 1992. Some analysts predict the jobless rate will rise this summer and put even more financial stress on families.
Most universities have not had unusually large enrollment drops this winter. But there is anxiety about the 2009-10 academic year.
"There is greater concern about fall enrollment than we have seen in 25 years," said Terry Hartle, a lobbyist with the American Council on Education.
Enrollment at Wayne State University in Detroit, where the recession hit early and hard, already has dropped 1.3 percent compared with the previous winter. The decline would have been steeper, but nearly 200 students took advantage of a grace period allowing those who owed less than $1,500 in back payments to register for classes and stay in school.
More than 600 students have asked about the $250,000 in emergency financial aid Oakland University set up in December. Sixteen, including Young, have been approved for grants ranging from $500 to $4,000. Michigan State University set aside more than $500,000 for students hurt by the economy. More than 2,300 students have contacted the university about the program since it started in early December, and 13 have received an average of about $3,900 each so far.
Hundreds of students have asked about the programs in anticipation of facing financial problems headed into next year. The list of those getting emergency assistance at the Michigan universities this semester likely will grow as applications are reviewed. Many who have asked about new programs are being steered toward existing financial aid programs they are eligible for.
Ohio State University is adding $1 million to its short-term emergency loan fund and will help students dealing with a job loss in the family at any time of year. The Columbus university has promised that financial aid will increase proportionally to tuition.
Virginia Tech University is creating a $500,000 emergency loan fund. At Syracuse University in New York, a private fundraising effort has brought in $1 million since early December from donors in 42 states and 12 countries.
Syracuse says the fund has helped 426 students who might not have returned for the spring semester.
Nykeba Corinaldi was helped by Syracuse after she ran into trouble when a dozen companies rejected her loan applications last summer. A hiring freeze eliminated the job her mother had lined up as a social worker in Georgia.
"There are a lot more people in not-so-good situations with everything that’s going on with the economy," said Corinaldi, a 20-year-old sophomore from Columbia, Md. "I spread the word about the program as much as I can."