World and Nation

Admitted to college with aid, needing a fairy godmother

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The envelope arrives with good news. The college is pleased to announce that the student has been offered acceptance and, if he or she is fortunate, some scholarship money.

But in this busted economy, more parents are saying they need more money and are filing appeals. Then the waiting starts again, for a phone call.

The job of delivering that news — after weighing hopes and dreams against limited budgets — falls to people like Sandra J. Oliveira, the executive director of the financial aid office at Providence College.

Oliveira is spending this week plowing through a stack of 100 appeals from high school seniors who have been accepted for the next freshman class but who say they cannot afford to attend. Each packet contains a heartfelt plea for more aid than the college offered initially, to offset the impact of recent job losses, plunges in home values or other financial setbacks.

“In this economy, everyone is feeling it to some extent,” Oliveira said recently, her wood-laminate desk cluttered with medical bills, layoff notices and tax forms sent to her as supporting evidence.

“Sometimes we can do a lot,” she added. “Sometimes we can’t. But we spend a lot of time listening.”

Oliveira’s emotional, painstaking task is playing out on hundreds of campuses, in advance of the May 1 deadline for tuition deposits from many incoming freshmen.

At Providence College, a Roman Catholic institution where the dogwood trees are blooming, about as many financial aid appeals have been filed by the families of prospective freshmen this spring as last; those figures, though, represent a nearly 15 percent increase over two years ago.

At Villanova University in Pennsylvania, which competes with Providence for students, the 350 financial aid appeals filed this spring are down from last year, but are still running 17 percent ahead of those logged in 2008, before the economy turned downward. Financial-aid appeals from prospective freshmen at Lafayette College, also in Pennsylvania, are up more than 40 percent just since last year.

And while Harvard may be the rare university that has managed to hold the line on such appeals — the families of 175 prospective freshmen have asked this spring for more aid than was offered, about the same as in 2008 — it has done so only by increasing its financial aid budget by $22 million, or 16 percent, over that period.

Meanwhile, Providence, like other colleges, is under its own financial constraints, as its costs continue to rise and its endowment ebbs. While avoiding the layoffs and furloughs that other universities, both public and private, have done, Providence is raising its full freshman-year tuition, board and other fees by 19 percent this fall, to more than $53,000.

For families and institutions, the process that might ease those tuition expenses can be as daunting as some federal tax forms. Offices like Oliveira’s collect information on a family’s wages, savings, home equity and other assets, as well as on how many siblings might be attending college. Then, using a combination of federal formulas and policies unique to its campus, Providence, like its counterparts, will arrive at an award offer.