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With increasing tuition, students are urged to apply for financial aid.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

Students and parents weighed down by the cost of a college education might have to shoulder a few more pounds this year, which financial aid experts say will be challenging at best.

Tuition is going up, federal grant assistance has remained flat and state aid has shown only modest gains. As this year's financial aid season gets under way, the scramble to find money for college hasn't become any easier, but aid advisers say no one should give up without a fight, or, in this case, an application.

"What I'm telling families to do is apply for financial aid, apply for scholarships and see what you're going to get," said Elizabeth Bickford, financial aid director at the University of Oregon. "Don't make the assumption that you're not going to qualify for something."

That's a mistake too many families make. Several studies, including a recent one by The College Board, found that almost half of students and parents either could not estimate college costs or overestimated the expense.

Lane Community College student Becky Parmentier, 33, of Eugene wasn't going to make that mistake. She was one of hundreds of people who attended a financial aid workshop at Lane Community College on Saturday. She said she was motivated to try for a scholarship after learning that a friend was awarded a $100,000 Ford Foundation Grant.

What's not so clear is the effect rising tuition and flat aid budgets are having on college enrollment. On the one hand, so many parents and students are trying to find financial aid that they packed the LCC workshop.

On the other hand, the growth in the number of people applying for the Oregon Opportunity Grant is slowing. The grant is the state's primary source of need-based college aid.

Jim Beyer, grants and scholarships director for the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, said the number of grant applications for students attending community colleges is up 7 percent so far this year, compared with 12 percent at the same time last year and 23 percent the year before that.

Applications for Oregon University System schools are up only 2.5 percent, compared with 8 percent last year and 11 percent the year before that.

"We're seeing a definite slowdown," Beyer said. "We're not sure what to attribute that to."

Many believe that it's the rising cost of a college education. Tuition at Oregon's universities is up an average of 25 percent since 2002 and community colleges are seeing similar increases; tuition at Lane Community College is up more than 50 percent in the past two years.

Pell grants, the largest form of federal grant aid, are flat this year, and students will see only marginal growth in Opportunity Grant awards.

Institutional aid, money that individual colleges and universities offer as supplemental grants and scholarships, also shows little growth and could even decline.

What all that adds up to, one student aid expert says, is a tough year for college aid.

"It's going to be an extremely challenging year," said David Myette, board chairman of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. "It's going to be much more difficult for students. It's difficult to get scholarships and difficult to get money."

That's bad news for parents as well as students. Stephanie Chaney of Eugene attended the LCC financial aid work to get an early start in navigating the financial aid maze for her son, a junior at South Eugene High School.

"I just want to find out as much as possible," she said.

Government-subsidized loans, which must be repaid, will continue to be one of the main sources of aid for students. Grants, which do not have to be repaid, once made up more than 50 percent of total student aid but have fallen to 40 percent, while loans have risen to 54 percent of aid, according to The College Board.

Chris Hainley, a financial aid adviser at Lane Community College, has noticed the trend. He said it isn't unusual for students to take out $15,000 to $20,000 in student loans.

"We used to see more students with more grants and less loans; but that has changed to students taking out more student loans and receiving fewer grant dollars as grant dollars are fewer today," Hainley said.

The brightest spot in the aid picture is that interest rates on federally subsidized loans remain low, making them more affordable. But students and parents should be cautious about taking out other, non-subsidized loans, to pay for college.

"Because the economy is still relatively soft, loan interest rates are real competitive, so if you do have to look at some borrowing, you can do it at a relatively comfortable rate," said Linda Peckham, a spokeswoman for The College Board. "The flip side of the that would be to stay away from credit card debt. You may feel strapped now, but in the long run you may be worse off if you have to go that route."

The key to the financial aid search is not to give up, and certainly not to give up before you start. Bickford said she has talked to many parents who thought they made too much money for a child to qualify for federal aid only to discover when she helped them through the process that they did qualify.

Almost all aid applications can now be completed online, easing the process.

The all-important Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is available on several Web sites and should be the first thing parents and students complete, and the sooner the better.

After that, start looking for scholarships if you haven't already. LCC offers a laundry list of scholarships, and OSAC administers more than 200 private scholarship programs that award about $10 million dollars a year to students.

High school counselors and financial aid advisers at area colleges also will help with questions and advice on navigating the aid process.

Register-Guard reporter Jim Feehan contributed to this report

ON THE WEB

The Internet is loaded with Web sites offering tips on where and how to find money for college. Here are some of them:

www.osac.state.or.us: The Oregon Student Assistance Commission offers financial aid applications along with tips and links to other sites. It is a starting point for millions of dollars in private scholarships. Most of the applications can be completed online.

www.finaid.org: This public service site offers information on all forms of student aid along with financial aid calculators, FAQs, worksheets and other helpful items. It is not supported by advertising.

www.studentaid.ed.gov: The U.S. Department of Education's portal to student financial aid programs offers a wide range of information on federal grant and loan programs, work study and other forms of financial aid. It also offers advice on choosing a college and applying for admission and has links to more detailed information, including The Student Guide, the government's comprehensive resource for financial aid.

www.collegeparents.org: The College Parents of America site offers numerous links to financial aid sites as well as other consumer information aimed at parents. Click on "resources."

www.fastweb.com: FastWeb is among the most popular commercial sites and is aimed primarily at locating scholarships and helping students select a college and apply for admission. It is supported by advertising and requires users to submit personal information to build a profile.

CAPTION(S):

John Stewart takes advantage of the LCC financial aid workshop on Saturday and uses the time to begin filling out the required paperwork.
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Title Annotation:Higher Education; Experts advise even those who don't think they qualify to fill out the applications
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 18, 2004
Words:1262
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