Lifelines to Learning
Lost jobs or other reductions in income can send families adrift. Some institutions are reaching out with supportive programs to keep students in the fold.
By Margo Vanover Porter
In this still-sluggish economy, family breadwinners continue to lose their jobs and, despite exhaustive searches, struggle to find new employment. When these families discover they can no longer contribute to the tab for tuition, room, and board, higher education—once a family priority—can become an unaffordable luxury.
Fortunately, dropping out isn't the only option open to students who have run out of money. Institutions across the country have implemented emergency programs—varying from loans to grants to extended payment plans to the promise of summer employment—for financially strapped students who might otherwise fail to finish their degrees.
For example, Clarion University of Pennsylvania last year created its Last Dollar program to assist students who might otherwise be forced to abandon their studies because their cash ran out.
“We're part of the Rust Belt,” says W. Paul Bylaska, vice president of finance and administration. “Generally, our students and their parents don't have a lot of money to bring to our institution. We try to fill in financial gaps on an individual-by-individual basis. When we see a student who academically seems to be doing well and doesn't have disciplinary problems, the last thing we want is for that student to leave for financial reasons.”
In the 2009-10 school year, Clarion gave 21 students emergency grants, with an average award of $1,500, out of its regular education general funding. “Our board of governors decided, given the economic circumstances, to be more flexible in allowing us to use our taxpayer-supported funding to assist some of these students under fairly rigorous requirements,” Bylaska says. He clarifies that the institution evaluates prospective award recipients based on several factors, including outstanding balances, academic standing, and whether students are just starting out or ready to wrap up their degrees. (For more on student financial emergencies, see the sidebar, "When Institutional Support Is a Student's Last Resort.")
Given the difficult economy in Ohio and across the country, we recognized that we needed to help our families. Students First, Students Now was one way of doing that.
M. Dolan Evanovich, The Ohio State University
To bolster the financial aid IQs of students, Clarion University has started a student peer financial counseling program that is staffed by recent graduates who are pursuing master of business administration (MBA) degrees. After being cross-trained in financial aid and billing, counselors talk to students with outstanding balances, saying, “Listen, you need to finish your financial aid applications,” or “You haven't filled out a FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid], and you qualify for this award.”
“In a number of instances, we found it was a matter of reaching out to students and helping them with the process,” Bylaska says. “In some cases, it was a matter of setting them up on payment plans. For those who were willing to be diligent, we have had fairly good success in getting them back on a tuition payment plan and, frankly, keeping them in school.”
Paying Students First
Last year the Ohio State University made a couple of significant decisions to ensure all enrolled students have access to the funds to complete their degree programs: (1) senior managers did not accept their annual salary increases, donating all $722,000 to needy students, and (2) the university created a fundraiser called Students First, Students Now.
“Given the difficult economy in Ohio and across the country, we recognized that we needed to help our families,” says M. Dolan Evanovich, vice president for strategic enrollment planning. “Students First, Students Now was one way of doing that. We reached out to our generous alumni and the fundraising departments across all our campuses, raising a pool of money that we were able to use to help students who were running into problems, such as a parent losing a job.”
Using these private funds, in FY10 the institution awarded $169,000 in scholarships and $1.2 million in loans. This year, Ohio State has given needy students $207,000 in financial aid and $532,000 in loans, and Evanovich expects those numbers to increase as the year progresses.
Already planning his next challenge, Evanovich anticipates that portions of the Students First program will be rolled into a new capital campaign, which has a target of $2.5 billion. “Financial aid is one of the strategic priorities of our fundraising initiatives,” he says. “Raising money to provide access and opportunity for students who are from low-income situations and are often first in their families to go to college is a strategic priority as part of our land-grant mission.”
Separate and apart from the Students First, Students Now program, Ohio State in 2010 allocated $97 million in institutional financial aid. “That figure is based on a combination of need-based grants, merit-based scholarships, and employment programs,” he explains. “It's a huge commitment to ensure that the students we recruit are successful. Financial aid is not the only reason why a student chooses a university, or chooses to stay or go, but in tight economic times, it's an important consideration.”
Despite the bleak economic picture, Ohio State has managed to maintain a retention rate of 93 percent for freshmen students returning for their sophomore year. “Our total enrollment is just over 63,000 students, and we have a freshman class of 6,600 at our Columbus campus,” says Evanovich. “We are pleased to retain 93 percent of them to their sophomore year, despite financial setbacks.”
“These are difficult times,” he continues. “What's significant is that we are able to keep students enrolled and moving toward their degrees in spite of some very challenging financial situations.”
See the sidebar, "Your Professional Judgment, Please," for details about special circumstance appeals for financial aid.
The idea for Madison for Keeps blossomed during a brainstorming session with the business and development offices, says Lisa L. Tumer, director of the office of financial aid and scholarships, James Madison University (JMU), Harrisonburg, Virginia. “We saw a lot of students whose parents were laid off. People were having a hard time paying their bills. We reached out to alumni and friends of JMU asking, 'Do you want to give?' We got a tremendous response and ended up with $433,337.”
To spread the word about the one-time program, the institution created marketing pieces, put table tents in dining halls, sent newsletters to parents, and created a Web site where givers could donate with the click of a mouse. Soon, students were waving the Madison for Keeps banner at flag football games and ordering meals at restaurants that promised donations.
In total, the program assisted 110 students who might otherwise have dropped out. “A lot of money went to juniors and seniors who wanted to finish,” Tumer says. “This program kept them here. They were able to come back.”
To qualify for funding, each student had to submit an appeal explaining how and why his or her family was a victim of the economic crisis. “It was very time-consuming,” she says. “We had a lot of appeals submitted, many of which were heart-wrenching. We felt lucky that we had the money to help students stay here.”
Although Madison for Keeps is the program that makes headlines, JMU also sponsors a less-publicized program that few even know exists. “We have another pot of money that we call the financial hardship scholarship,” explains Linda Combs, director, university business office, at JMU. “This is not publicized at all. If the collections department identifies students who are having trouble paying their bills and have exhausted everything they have, then we consider them for the financial hardship scholarship.”
This scholarship money is applied directly to students' university accounts. For instance, if an out-of-state student has a balance of $6,000—and no way to pay it—the scholarship might provide $5,000 toward the tab. “The student would still owe $1,000, which is a little more manageable,” Combs says.
In the past year and a half, the scholarship has provided almost $27,000 to eight students. “We're giving either the balance on an account or up to $5,000 for an out-of-state student, or the balance on an account and up to the in-state rate for in-state students,” Combs says. “The criteria are simply that students have accepted all financial aid that they can—which might include student loans, scholarships, and grant money—and that they have a documented financial hardship, such as a parent losing a job or a parent who is seriously ill and not able to work. This is the very last chance they have. It's so nice to have this quiet little pot of money for those students who absolutely need it—and certainly deserve it.”
No Free Lunch
The Midwestern work ethic continues to thrive at the College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio, where students can find summer jobs painting a resident hall, answering office phones, or toiling in the physical plant. The institution created the program, called WooCorps, two years ago in response to the recession.
“Many students who tried to go home and get summer jobs discovered there were no jobs,” says Laurie L. Stickelmaier, vice president for finance and business, and treasurer. “Some of our students could not afford to go to a private college without their summer jobs.”
WooCorps allows students to work 40 hours a week at minimum wage during the summer and to live in the residence halls, paying a minimal amount for room and board. Students who finish the required summer hours receive a $1,000 scholarship. “In the first year, the 2009 summer, we also offered a forgivable loan program funded by one of our donors,” Stickelmaier says. “When those students graduate, the loans will be forgiven. The money for that went very quickly, but part of it helped to fund the WooCorps.”
The institution paid 2010 participants by using money from operating surpluses or money left over from student work-study budgets. To be eligible, students must be making satisfactory academic progress and have demonstrated financial need. “The qualifications are really that you need a job, and there's one available,” she says.
The College of Wooster plans to continue the program, which is a collaborative effort among the student life department, the student employment office, and the business office, until the economy gets much stronger.
“We feel there is a corps of 150 to 200 students who just have to have this,” Stickelmaier says. “Not only are these students' parents losing their jobs and finding it difficult to find new jobs, but with all the unemployment, the students are the last on the totem pole to get work when they go home for the summer. We've heard from many students who say they would not be able to return without this program.”
In addition, the institution is currently considering bringing in-house a new loan program for fall 2011. “We're looking at forgivable loans to help more students complete their degrees at Wooster,” says Stickelmaier. “If we can make a loan with the stipulation that the student must graduate in order to have a portion forgiven, then we may increase our retention and graduation rates without compromising the academic enterprise by reducing net tuition.”
If implemented, the loan program would forgive 25 to 30 percent of a student's outstanding balance upon graduation. “It costs $45,000 a year to go to the College of Wooster,” Stickelmaier explains. “We have some students who have less than a $3,000 balance, and they just can't come up with it. They've pretty much run out of financial aid, their parents have done whatever they can do, and the students just can't come up with that last $3,000. This is an avenue to keep them in school.”
MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.