Waves from the recession are rocking college aid offices as students seek more financial assistance to compensate for shrinking family incomes.
Families already struggling with increasing college costs are finding themselves overwhelmed by the loss of a job or a large cut in pay.
Consequently, they are looking for more help to pay tuition bills ranging from $2,350 at some state schools to $16,000 at Johns Hopkins University, on top of increased costs for room and board, books and other expenses.
To supplement what direct and work-study aid is available, parents and students are taking on even greater debt.
And, while it's still too soon for statistical evidence to have been collected, both national and area experts are reporting that students have been forced to attend their second- or third-choice schools, to take fewer courses to allow time to hold a job, to take a semester off to work or to drop out altogether.
"It's the worst I've seen. I don't recall any time in the years I've been in this position that it's been so widespread, affected so many states and is continuing so long," said A. Dallas Martin Jr., who has been president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators for 16 years.
"Families who have applied on the basis of information from the last tax year are now coming back to say their financial circumstances have changed.
"There's lots of anecdotal evidence about students dropping out for a term, selecting their second or third choices or doing a semester or so at community colleges," he said.
"There were lots of appeals in the spring and it's continued through the summer and right into the fall," said Martin, adding that the East Coast from Maine to Virginia and the West Coast, particularly California, are the hardest hit.
Martin said many parents already have used up available lines of credit and already have borrowed on life insurance policies or other assets to keep the family afloat. But additional grant money generally is not available.
"The only alternative lots of financial aid administrators have is more loans like the Parent Loan Program or even loans outside the federal programs," he said. "The result is we're going to see parents and students with higher levels of indebtedness."
"We're doing a lot more money," said Marilyn Leuthold, financial aid director at Towson State University, where officials already have processed more than $3 million in loans for this academic year. "We've already done in September what we did for all of last year."
Leuthold said students are seeking aid because the recession has cut family incomes, mainly because of job loss.
At the same time, the state, facing a revenue shortfall, has imposed a one-time 15 percent surcharge on tuition for the spring semester at the 11-campus University of Maryland system. That comes on top of a 4 percent annual increase imposed previously; a 16 percent surcharge is proposed for next fall. Tuitions at the various campuses range from around $2,300 to $2,700 a year.
"We're seeing horrific financial problems," Leuthold continued. "Businesses going under. People who have lost houses - they borrowed against the equity and got laid off."
"We are up to our eyeballs in applications."
Leuthold said Towson also was getting a "monster" number of transfer students, both those who first went to community colleges to save money and "refugees" from private institutions.
Most students, she said, also hold jobs and earn between $2,000 and $6,000, she said.
"If they start earning too much, it affects their eligibility [for aid]," she noted.
At Morgan State University, where 82 percent of the students received financial aid last year, officials also are fielding more requests, said financial aid director Reginald T. Cureton.
"We are seeing a lot of it where one parent is laid off and another is pending [being laid off]," he said.
Because eligibility for federal aid is based on a family's financial status as determined by their previous year's tax return, many of these students don't qualify for federally funded Pell grants. The school handles these requests on a case-by-case basis, and looks for special circumstances to justify more aid, such as parent and student loans.
The students are being saddled with more loans," he said.
Cureton said his office also was getting a lot more requests for the work-study program, which allows eligible undergraduates to work up to a maximum of 20 hours a week for $4.50 to $5 an hour. The federal government pays 70 percent of a student's wages and the school the rest.
Still, said Cureton, "I would say that we have lost kids."
Thomas Taylor, financial aid director at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said that while enrollment figures are remaining steady at the Catonsville campus, applications for aid are increasing.
UMBC distributes about $10 million in financial aid, $7 million of which is need-based, to about half its 10,000 students.