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Economy pushes more to college

Economy pushes more to college

Derek Monaghan is back on campus after a three-year hiatus.

Derek Monaghan is back on campus after a three-year hiatus.

The 25-year-old Scotia resident is taking a full courseload at Schenectady County Community College before leaving for the Air Force in January. When he returns, he plans to finish his associate degree and then study mechanical engineering at Binghamton University with the Air Force footing the bill.

In the past, Monaghan paid for school himself. His parents separated when he was about 19, which, he says, “put a damper on things,” and in 2005 he left SCCC to “regain financial stability.” But he says the time off helped him mature and focus, and the desire to serve his country and receive a free education made the Air Force a good option. He took out a loan to pay this semester’s tuition, but expects the military to repay him.

Colleges throughout the Capital Region are reporting jumps in enrollment and applications. Such increases are typical during economic downturns, as people seek to acquire job skills and knowledge that will make them more attractive to employers. At the same time, it’s only getting more difficult to finance a college education. The credit crunch, a dismal economy and rising costs are forcing students to take on more debt and making it harder just to obtain loans.

Throughout the summer, colleges and universities in the Capital Region were inundated with calls for help, and report substantial increases in the number of students applying for financial aid.

tuition burden

“Anecdotally, it was a rough summer,” said Brian McGarvey, associate dean for student access/director of financial aid at Schenectady County Community College. “A lot of people came in here with extenuating circumstances — a parent lost a job, their income wasn’t the same. … We’re seeing a lot of extenuating circumstances.”

At the University at Albany, applications for financial aid jumped 19 percent, according to Beth Post, the school’s director of financial aid. The number of applications for financial aid increases every year, but a typical increase is in the 4 to 5 percent range, she said. In addition, a record number of students have called the school’s financial aid office with questions about the financial aid application process.

“People are concerned,” Post said. “They don’t have as much discretionary income. They’re very anxious about their ability to afford an education. Parents know the value of an education, and they’re still willing to send their child, but they’re more anxious. They’re worried about keeping their jobs.”

“It was quite a summer,” Post said.

David Alonge, a junior at the University at Albany, said he expects to graduate with $30,000 in students loans. “Loans cover most of my tuition,” said the 20-year-old accounting major from Marlboro. He gets about $500 a year from the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, “but that doesn’t even begin to cover my books and gas,” and works 16 hours a week at Wal-Mart. Even so, he feels he has it pretty good compared to some of his friends, “who are really struggling.” But he’s worried about the future. “With the economy, I worry about not getting a job,” he said.

At Schenectady County Community College, a record number of students have enrolled for the fall semester, and full-time student enrollment is up about 7 percent from last year at this time. Many of these students, McGarvey said, were accepted at four-year institutions, but decided to attend SCCC because it would be cheaper. “There’s been even more interest this year,” he said. “The economy is probably a reason. The first two years at community college are a bargain, and a number of students who were considering four-year institutions came here instead.”

Andrew Matonak, president of Hudson Valley Community College, echoed this. “Students are looking at HVCC as a real viable option, even if they were admitted to a four-year institution,” he said. “They’re looking at HVCC, and the cost of education.” Enrollment at HVCC is up about 5 percent, and applications for financial aid are up as well, he said.

Union College, a private college in Schenectady, saw increases in both financial aid and admissions applications. Linda Parker, the school’s director of financial aid, said the number of applications for admission jumped 10 percent, while applications for aid jumped about 16 percent. She attributed the jump in aid applications to the economy, but also to increased awareness about financial aid programs.

federal backing

Fran Clark, program coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group, which advocates for affordability in higher education, said that so far students who qualify for student loans don’t seem to be having trouble getting them. “The credit market has tightened, but students are still able to get federally backed loans,” he said. But problems may arise for students who have exhausted their federal loans and are forced to turn to private lenders, many of whom have stopped lending to college students. At the state’s public schools, where NYPIRG’s chapters are based, most students have federally backed loans.

At some schools, such as SCCC, the federal government is a direct provider of federally subsidized student loans, which are backed by the government and offer lower interest rates; McGarvey said that last year only 25 students at SCCC used private loans to pay for their education, and that this year that number has dropped to about three.

But at other schools, such as the University at Albany, banks provide the federally subsidized loans through the Federal Family Education Loan Program.

Some banks have dropped out of the program, forcing University at Albany students to find new lenders. Most of the students still finance their education with federally subsidized loans, but some borrow from private lenders, Post said.

This is unfortunate, she said, because the federal loans come with a low, fixed rate, while “students with private loans do not end up with the lowest rate.”

“It’s pretty clear that the credit spigot has been turned off for a lot of college students, and that it’s difficult to get a loan on good terms,” said Tom Hilliard, senior policy associate at the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy in Albany.

Hilliard said adult students face special challenges in paying for college. New York has a generous aid program, the Tuition Assistance Program, which helps make up for the fact that tuition at its public schools is relatively pricey. The problem is that it’s easier for traditional students to obtain aid.

“If you’re 18 years old and you’re living alone and working, you have less access to TAP than someone who is middle class and living with their parents who are paying for college,” he said. “We’re concerned about working students. The old model still works for four-year students, but it doesn’t work for two-year students.”

Until 2006, TAP was unavailable to part-time students. The state now allows part-time students to apply for TAP, but they must first study full time for a year to be eligible.

As a result, “enrollment [for part-time students] is very low,” Hilliard said.

fewer adult students

Statewide, the number of adult college students is steadily shrinking. In 1995, people between 25 and 49 represented one-third of all of New York’s undergraduate students; by 2005, that percentage had dropped to just over one fifth, according to a paper, titled “Working to Learn, Learning to Work,” put out last year by the Schuyler Center. Meanwhile, the number of students between the ages of 18 and 24 has increased since 1995; a Schuyler Center analysis showed jumps from 13 percent to 34 percent throughout New York’s different regions.

The state’s worsening fiscal crisis will only make it tougher for students, Clark predicted. He noted that Gov. David Paterson recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed midyear adjustments of Tuition Assistance Program payments in the event of an emergency, such as a parent losing a job, a military call-up or divorce or separation. Current state law doesn’t allow for adjustments to TAP awards during the semester. The bill would have cost $10 million.

“The governor has called for a zero-growth budget, and that’s a real concern, because the costs of running a university go up each year,” Clark said. During a late-summer emergency economic session, state lawmakers cut $51 million from the City University of New York system, and another $96 million from the State University of New York. A $5.4 billion deficit is projected for the coming fiscal year, and state agencies have been asked to cut their budgets by 7 percent.

“Costs are always going up,” Clark said. At SUNY, “Books and supplies are about $1,000 a year now. Dorm fees have gone up. Meal plans are up. The overall cost of going to school is going up.”

Hilliard predicted that the cuts would result in the first tuition increase for SUNY and CUNY students since 2003, when tuition at SUNY schools increased from $3,400 a year to $4,350.

For a full-time student at SCCC, tuition and fees is $3,263. About 80 percent of the school’s full-time students receive some form of financial assistance.

Colleges throughout the U.S. have become less affordable, according to “Measuring Up 2006,” a report by The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

The report suggests that paying for college has become significantly more difficult for American families, particularly those with modest and low incomes. “An important indicator of declining affordability is an increase in student debt,” the report says. “Each year more students borrow and the amount they borrow increases.”

Even though state and federal financial assistance has increased 140 percent since 1991, that increase has not kept pace with the increased cost of college attendance, the report says.

The report grades each state on college affordability; 43 states, including New York, flunked. New York, the report says, has fallen behind other states in enrolling students in college by age 19, and the proportion of working-age adults enrolling in college has also declined.

“Higher education in New York is less affordable than most other states,” the report says. “Despite its historically strong performance in higher education, college opportunity has declined in New York since the early 1990s.”

New York fared well on other measures in the report, receiving an A- for student preparation and the proportion of students completing degrees and certificates.

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