More students seeking aid in economic slump
More students seeking aid in economic slump

A woman, who asked to remain unidentified, fills out financial aid paperwork inside the busy financial aid office at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake. The office has seen more traffic than in past years because students are struggling to pay for tuition in the current economic crisis. (Justin Edmonds –

Ashley Carpenter, a senior at McHenry West High School, already knows where she’s going to college. Now she just has to figure out how to pay for it.

“That’s probably my biggest concern,” said Carpenter, who will attend Illinois State University in Normal.

Carpenter’s parents are waiting for financial aid information before they commit to helping with the costs, she said.

“They want to see where they stand,” Carpenter said. “They’re being cautious.”

Her plan is to soon submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – or FAFSA – and hope that she qualifies for aid.

Carpenter is not alone in her worries about the cost of college. The ongoing recession means more students will look to grants, scholarships and loans to pay for school, said Claude Walker, Illinois Student Assistance Commission spokesman.

About 14.7 million people have filed for financial aid this year by submitting the FAFSA, compared with 13.3 million who filed at this time last year, according to information from the U.S. Department of Education.

Walker said that students seeking aid shouldn’t wait.

“There is unprecedented demand for financial aid,” Walker said. “A lot of financial aid scholarships and grants are given out on a first-come, first-served basis.”

Walker suggested that students should fill out the FAFSA – the foundation block for all financial aid, including grants, loans and scholarships – at the same time as their income taxes.

The form, which can be completed online, is known for its length and detail, but Walker said students shouldn’t be intimidated.

“Take your time. It’s worth it,” Walker said. “Be brave and just fight your way through it.”

Melissa Siewrok, a McHenry County College sophomore, said she made the mistake of not filling out the FAFSA for her first year of school and basically gave up free money. Now she’s under the work study program and doesn’t pay for school at all.

“I get free money for doing the FAFSA, so why not take that advantage?” Siewrok said.

Students who fill out the form and then realize they still need additional money for college do have options, said Jim Bosworth, director of guidance at Harvard High School.

“There’s a lot of scholarships still out there,” Bosworth said. “Every year, or nearly every year, we have a scholarship not taken because nobody applied for it.”

Students usually can get direction on local scholarships from their guidance counselors, or they can visit Web sites, which typically have a broader focus. However, Bosworth said students should be cautious when visiting such sites.

“One of things that I always tell students is you shouldn’t have to pay for a scholarship,” Bosworth said.

Another option for McHenry County students is the McHenry County College Promise, which provides tuition for all high school seniors living within MCC District 528 boundaries.

Kellie Carper-Sowiak, coordinator for student recruitment at MCC, said there had been a lot of inquiry about the program, which will be administered for the fist time this fall.

“There are a lot of families that were planning on a four-year school that may not be able to afford a full four years, so they may turn to us as an option,” Carper-Sowiak said.

Baylie Shebeck, a senior at McHenry East, said the program was what finalized her decision to go to MCC.

“I planned to go to [Illinois State University], and then I heard about the promise,” Shebeck said.

Students who’d prefer a four-year school do have another option, though. They can take out personal loans based on credit checks. Walker said that had become a sad necessity for many students.

“So many people now are going into debt to go to college. In the [1970s], nobody had debt,” Walker said. “You kind of paid as you went. ... Now the average debt is $18,000 upon graduation for an Illinois student.”

Brent Gage, assistant vice provost for enrollment services at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, said anecdotal evidence suggested that even more students were taking out private loans because the poor economy had hindered parents’ ability to contribute.

Katelyn Jackson, a McHenry West senior, said she actually was worried that she wouldn’t get a loan because of the credit market. Walker said that, unfortunately, it was a realistic fear.

“A lot of banks have turned their backs on student loans,” he said.

Jackson’s plan is to go to Illinois State, but if she doesn’t receive enough aid to cover the costs, she’ll go to MCC, she said.

“I’ll be paying for college myself,” Jackson said.

Walker said even if students had to hunt, it was important to find ways to pay for school.

“Over a person’s life,” he said, “[a college degree is] millions of dollars difference in lost income.”
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