Financial aid difficult to get for some

Many older students are not eligible for need-based assistance

Loans an attractive option

March 26, 2000|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In many ways, Joanne Daum is a typical undergraduate student.

After earning her associate's degree at Anne Arundel Community College, she switched to the University of Baltimore, where she is majoring in business and administration, with a specialization in accounting.

But as a 51-year-old who didn't jump right into college after high school, Daum -- like other nontraditional students -- has had to make tough decisions about how to pay for her education.

It's a bind faced by many undergraduate and graduate students who are returning to school.

Because financial aid is based on need, it might be harder to obtain for students with substantial savings and incomes. Nontraditional students aren't eligible for many scholarships.

"The central assumption behind all financial aid programs is that the student has the primary responsibility for paying educational expenses to the extent they are able," said Mark Lindenmeyer, director of financial aid at Loyola College. "That's to make sure students who truly need help are getting it."

Daum, who lives in Galesville and continues her woodworking career in the summer, paid to attend Anne Arundel Community College. But after earning her associate's degree with a 4.0 grade point average, she applied for a full Wilson Scholarship at the University of Baltimore -- and won it.

Although she has to pay for books and fees, she will graduate without crushing debt. Daum was determined to attend UB and applied for every appropriate scholarship, she said. Because the Wilson scholarship is based on academic merit -- not need -- it isn't affected by her seasonal income.

Daum said she worked hard to learn what scholarships were available. She was in close contact with her adviser at Anne Arundel Community College, and she found literature about scholarships at the UB registration office.

Her advice: "Students should stay in very close contact with their adviser and continually ask, `What is out there for me?' "

Daum was fortunate to receive a full scholarship. In many cases, however, students must finance the steep costs of higher education through a combination of loans, grants and other resources. Each can include its own set of hurdles.

Subsidized federal loans are awarded on the basis of need. Students born before Jan. 1, 1977, are considered independent and must report their income and assets, not those of their family.

As a result, it might be tempting for students to hide their assets by putting property in the name of a friend or family member. Lindenmeyer, the Loyola aid official, advises against it. Financial aid administrators rely on income tax returns that will show such discrepancies, he said.

Although administrators usually look at tax returns for the year the student wishes to begin school, exceptions can be made when a student quits a job to enter the world of higher education, he said.

Subsidized loans have an annual interest rate of 5 percent, which does not accrue until the student leaves school or drops below half-time enrollment. That makes them especially attractive.

But many nontraditional students don't qualify for such loans because they attend school part time or can't demonstrate financial need because of their savings or income. For those students, the federal government offers unsubsidized loans that can be used for tuition and living expenses.

A student doesn't need to demonstrate financial need to get such a loan. But such loans have a down side, and it's a big one: the interest starts accruing immediately.

Another common way of financing higher education is with the help of federal Pell grants, which can be as much as $3,125 a year and never have to be repaid. These grants are awarded to undergraduate students who have not earned a bachelor's or professional degree.

To qualify, students must demonstrate financial need. Daum qualified for the grants while she was at Anne Arundel because of medical expenses she and her husband were paying. But many older students might find it difficult to meet the criteria.

The state of Maryland offers a number of financial aid packages -- but these also include restrictions.

The state's Guaranteed Access Grant is for students from very low-income families and requires that a student begin college within one year of high school graduation.

The state's Education Assistance Grant, for students with families of low or moderate income, requires that students enroll in undergraduate programs and attend school full time.

Scholarships offer another way to finance college expenses. Maryland offers more than 20 scholarships for students interested in nursing, teaching, child care and more. However, many require that a student attend full time or begin college right after high school.

Scholarships are also available from private sources.

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