Financial Aid Help: Where to Find It

The start of the new school year is just around the corner, but this year tens of thousands of students and their families who are struggling to come up with the money to pay college tuition are asking schools for help.

John Leinberger, a junior at George Mason University, went to the school's financial aid office a week before classes were to start to ask for last-minute funding. His dad recently lost his home-building business and is likely to have to file for bankruptcy.

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"The banks are knocking on the door and there's nothing he can do," Leinberger said. "So he has no income coming in and he can't help me out at all with my student loans."

Leinberger isn't the only one who's having to ask for more money from his college in order to stay in school.

Financial aid experts say the best place to start is the financial aid office of your own school, but for help on federal loans and grants check out the Department of Education's Web site.

Financial aid officers at George Mason say there's been a two-fold increase in the number of financial aid appeals they've received this year, compared to last. And it's the same story around the country.

Colleges and universities are seeing record numbers of financial aid applications and thousands of last-minute appeals, leaving schools scrambling to meet the increased demand.

The federal government saw this coming. In the spring, the deputy Secretary of Education sent a letter asking colleges and universities to "reach out to your students ... particularly those who seem to have hit a rough patch, to make sure that they know there may be ways that you can help."

College Financial Aid Offices Offer Last-Minute Help

While federal loans and grants have caps, individual schools have more flexibility and can fund a student's entire education, depending on the need of the student and the financial health of the school.

George Mason received an additional $14 million for student aid and all of it has been spent. Other schools have also set up emergency funds.

Sarah Bauder, head of the financial aid program at the including the University of Maryland, said in her close to 20 years at the school this is the worst she's seen.

Financial aid experts say the best place to start is the financial aid office of your own school, but for help on federal loans and grants check out the Department of Education's Web site.

"This year is the most exceptional year I have ever seen. I've never seen anything like it before," she said.

Usually Maryland gets around 300 financial aid appeals each year from students seeking more funding. So far this year the school has received almost 1,500 requests.

A year ago, when the economy started collapsing, the school started making contingency plans, she said. The administration started re-allocating resources towards financial aid and also preparing their staff.

"I pay attention to what I call the water cooler conversations and when you have your staffers saying, 'yeah, another family lost their job,' and they become de-sensitized to the volume of it, we had to bring in sensitivity training," she said.

Day after day her staff heard stories from families who were unsure where to turn. One family stands out in her mind, she said.

"The father couldn't look at me," she said. "He kept looking at the table. And he said, 'I can't afford for my daughter to go to college.' And he was so shamed."

Bauder took unprecedented steps to deal with the demand. She closed her office down every Wednesday for the entire summer so her whole office could focus solely on all the appeals stacking up.

But there are limits even to what schools can do. Bauder said her goal is to prevent even one student from having to leave school because they can't afford it, but she admits some students will have to make tough choices.

"More likely there's going to be some students that either have to go part time, that have to go to the community college rather than the four-year public, or have to go in-state rather than out of state," she said.

Bauder said she is reaching out to students like never before. Her office is working directly with the school's accounting office to make sure that before a student's classes are cancelled because they haven't paid their bill, a financial aid officer gets in touch with the student to make sure she knows her aid options.

College Financial Aid Offices Offer Last-Minute Help

Schools around the country are doing the same thing. But ulitmately, it's up to each student to pick up the phone or walk in the door of the financial aid office.

"I live by the concept of 'If you don't ask, the answer is always no,'" said Jevita de Freitas, the director of financial aid for George Mason University. "We can't always help everybody, but the best way to know whether you can have some additional assistance is to ask about it."

Financial aid experts say the best place to start is the financial aid office of your own school, but for help on federal loans and grants check out the Department of Education's Web site.

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