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Changing Policies Cause Confusion Over College Aid

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Although Congress recently voted to override President Reagan's budget veto, restoring student-aid funds targeted for recission, educators, students, and parents across the country remain uneasy or discouraged about the problem of paying for college.

So many changes have been made in the regulations governing the largest federal aid programs--and the signals from Washington have been so strong that funding would decrease--that widespread confusion has developed, according to school and college officials.

Many high-school and college students are changing their plans out of fear that they will not be able to obtain the financial support they need to enroll. And the guidance counselors and college financial-aid officers who must advise them admit that they, too, are confused by the shifting guidelines and funding uncertainties.

In fact, because the Education Department did not decide on some rule changes before late this summer, colleges were not able until recently to tell students either who was eligible for aid or how much they would receive. And the government made estimating the amount of individual grants dangerous for colleges: the Education Department said that colleges themselves were liable for any amount they promised to students before knowing what Washington would provide.

The situation is further clouded by a gloomy national economy that offers little hope to students and their families that financing a college education will get any easier.

"College students are applying to less-expensive institutions; some students who intended to enroll in private colleges are forfeiting room deposits and postponing their decision to attend college as a result of last-minute financial concerns," according to John Phillips, president of the National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities.

"This trend," he continues, "will spell difficult times ahead for small liberal-arts colleges that rely heavily on tuition income for operating funds."

'Failing Economy'

"It's really quite tragic," says Anne L. Hitt, head guidance counselor at Madison High School in San Diego. "We invite all these recruiters to speak to students and get them interested in college. But now, with questions about federal support and with the failing economy, more and more students cannot afford to attend the private colleges."

Most students at Madison High who continue their schooling attend the nearby community college. While enrollments at many institutions are dropping, community-college enrollments will rise about 4 percent this fall, according to projections by the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

"Financial-aid worries are just beginning to hit juniors and seniors," Ms. Hitt says. "This month, recruiters are coming to schools. Students are traveling to prospective colleges and taking the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. In November, students begin applying for admission. Then, the real peak time starts in January when the Financial-Aid Forms for colleges are distributed."

Students who plan to attend nontraditional or proprietary institutions--such as secretarial, computer-programming, and culinary-arts schools--apply for financial aid all year round, she adds.

A spokesman for the Action Committee for Higher Education, a lobbying group that represents most of the higher-education organizations in Washington, reports that the group's telephone hotline is swamped with several hundred calls a week from parents and students concerned about the status of federal financial-aid programs. Some of the calls are coming from high-school students, says Robert Aaron, public-relations director for the American Council on Education and coordinator of the action committee.

"Everyone is asking about the status of legislation," he says. "Most people, and parents especially, feel that they are being shafted. Sending a child to college is a financial decision often made 10 to 15 years in advance, and many parents are concerned that their long-established plans are being jeopardized."

Administration Budget Cuts

Although most funds in major aid programs have been restored for the time being, people are still thinking in terms of the big 50-percent cuts proposed by the Administration last February, according to Mr. Aaron.

As things stand now, he explained, appropriations for federal financial-aid programs for 1982-83 will:

Cut the Student Work-Study Program, National Defense Student Loans, State Student Incentive Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and National Defense Student Loans by about 4 percent from 1981-82 funding levels.

Provide an additional $140 million for the $2.4-billion Pell Grant Program which provides aid to the most needy college students.

Place new eligibility requirements on students applying for Guaranteed Student Loans, which have become the largest federal aid program in recent years. Students from families that earn more than $30,000 are no longer eligible unless they can demonstrate need. As a result of the restrictions, the volume of applications is down about 15-to-20 percent.

"High-school students and their parents are confused about how much money is available," says Joseph A. Sciami, vice president for financial aid and student recruitment at St. John's University and president of the New York State Financial Aid Administrators Association.

Much of the work done by the New York financial-aid group is intended to give students and parents a realistic appraisal of the current financial-aid situation. The association sends college financial-aid officials to high schools and sponsors workshops to train guidance counselors to deal with student financial-aid problems.

This month, the aid-officers group will give three seminars to hundreds of high-school guidance counselors in New York City, Nanuet, and Albany.

A national program, the Education Department's office of student financial-assistance training program, provides training to 10,000 high-school guidance counselors every year. They receive up-to-date information on eligibility criteria and changes that may have been implemented from year to year, as well as a thorough review of financial-aid application procedures.

But despite the training efforts, there are still many other guidance counselors who either do not understand the complex financial-aid application process or are simply too busy with work in other areas to give their full attention to it, financial-aid experts say.

"Budget problems have caused school districts to lay off counselors. Those who remain just can't keep up with everything," according to Ms. Hitt of San Diego's Madison High. "Some school districts are hiring part-time people without counseling credentials," she says.

"Students who call in on the Action Committee hotline don't realize that the information is available right there in the schools," says Lori A. Konaromi, a staff assistant who answers calls for the Action Committee. "Much of the procedural information we give can be obtained from books and pamphlets in the counselor's office or in the school library, but for some reason students haven't gotten word."

Programs that emphasize the financial-aid process and the types of aid available may be helpful in offsetting a dramatic decline in the number of disadvantaged and minority students applying to private liberal-arts colleges, officials believe..

Applications Declined

A study released last spring by Harvard University shows that the number of applications the university received from students whose parents did not attend college has declined by more than one-third in the past three years.

"Less affluent students and their families are beginning to select themselves out of the applicant pool before they learn of the financial aid options that might make it possible for them to attend Harvard and Radcliffe," says William Fitzsimmons, dean of undergraduate admissions.

"The students are shying away," says Mr. Sciami of St. John's University. "But the fact is, the money is there. If they go through the process they will have the money they need."

"Students and parents are discouraged about the possibilities of receiving help, though they aren't pushing any panic buttons yet," according to Gene L. Wanders, guidance counselor at Tartan High School in North St. Paul. "The current attitude is that if you don't get money, you can go to less expensive schools," he says.

An estimated 56 percent of the 12.4 million students enrolled in postsecondary education are receiving some type of financial assistance.

The worry about the decline in federal aid is compounded in Minnesota and in many other states by a decline in state appropriations.

Last year, the Minnesota legislature cut back the state scholarship fund that supported students going to private institutions, Mr. Wanders says.

But even in communities where there is apparently enough money available, financial concerns are changing previous college-selection patterns.

Students attending Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Ariz.--one of the nation's most affluent communities--are attending local state colleges in greater numbers than ever before, according to William B. Holmes, head of the guidance department.

Last year, a record 200 Chaparral High School seniors chose to attend one of the state's three public institutions.

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