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State budget worries colleges, students

POSTED: February 28, 2010 11:30 p.m.

As public universities scramble to meet state legislator’s demands this week to slice their budgets by millions, local students are busy finding creative ways to fund their own higher education.

Two area colleges were told to cut their budgets more than $7.5 million, part of the University System of Georgia’s attempt to shave off $565 million from its own budget.

North Georgia College & State University administrators met Friday morning to discuss the cuts, but school financial aid officers already have taken steps to help students and their families seeking financial aid in a tough economic climate.

On Sunday, College Goal Sunday grouped dozens of participating high school students and parents with Free Application for Federal Student Aid experts to wade through the process of applying for aid. With more families struggling because of the loss of jobs and a major influx of adult learners who are going back to school, workshops are increasingly valuable, North Georgia financial aid director Kathy Tosh said.

“It’s an effort to assist families who don’t have a history of a college-going student and to help them fill out the FAFSA for the first time,” she said. “It can be a little bit of a daunting experience.”

If students do not qualify for FAFSA, finding financial aid outside of school is becoming a more common option.

High school counselors are good resources for students looking for creative means of funding their education, Tosh said, including reaching out within their communities for grants or interest-based scholarships, she said.

“We’re seeing how hard people are working trying to find a way to make it work financially,” said Scott Briell, senior vice president for enrollment and student services at Brenau University. “Most of them are borrowing. There is more of a sense of desperation in a lot of the adult students right now.”

First-year Brenau University student Judy Simmons pays out-of-state tuition and is struggling to make ends meet this year.

“It’s really expensive to go to a private college,” she said. “I already have to take out a loan just to go to school.”

Beyond tuition, simple purchases such as textbooks have become a challenge.

“I have to share a book with my cousin,” said Simmons, a nursing student. “We share our anatomy books.”

Tosh said more adult students are flocking to colleges after losing jobs or to beef up their skills before jumping back into an increasingly competitive job market.

“We definitely have seen an increase in applications for financial aid, and I think part of that is fueled by the fact that we are seeing more and more adult students,” Tosh said. “They’re trying to go to school as well as feed their families.”

These students have fewer options for scholarships and most have jobs to support themselves. When Gov. Sonny Perdue suggested cutting a $975 grant that many private university students rely on, adult learners and veteran students would have been the main group affected.

“It hurts returning adult students who are trying to go back to school and are trying to pick up a degree,” Briell said. “They’re not gonna qualify for HOPE (scholarship). You’re taking money out of the pockets of people who really need it right now.”

Legislators eventually decided to maintain the Tuition Equalization Grant after students and private school administrators protested its removal.

But there also are parents whose incomes may have been substantial enough to support their children last year but job loss or salary cuts have limited their resources now.

“In many cases, the hope is that the parent will get another job or be able to replace that income another way and hopefully pay off the student loans,” she said.

Students also have the option to work on campus through federal work-study programs, but the process is highly competitive. Jobs are determined based on whether students are eligible for the Pell grant and are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.



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