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Financial aid increases while applications surge

By Hallie Jordan     9/3/09 7:00pm

Despite the economic downturn, the Office of Financial Aid has increased the amount of aid it is offering students by several million dollars this year, Student Financial Services Director Anne Walker said. Though the office is awarding more aid than it did last year, Walker said students do not have a significantly greater need for aid than in years past. Instead, more families have special circumstances due to the uncertain economy that are causing more students to apply for aid, she said.

Walker also said that the matriculation of the largest freshmen class ever at Rice, totaling over 970 new students and transfers, combined with the recent tuition hike and the effect of the recession on many students' families, has led to the higher amount of aid offered.

"This year we were prepared and knew [the need for more financial aid] was coming," she said. "We anticipated we would see more families struggling with loss of jobs and other factors."



Walker said the university has seen the predicted uptick in applications.

"We've seen about a 30 percent increase in the number of students filling out a FAFSA over the last two years," Walker said, adding that this increase reflects all students who applied for aid during the past year, whether or not they were admitted to Rice.

Walker said this number is consistent with national figures from the United States Department of Education, which has seen a similar increase in FAFSA applications overall.

Walker listed several reasons the numbers may be increasing. She said the most obvious assumption was that the economy was putting more families out of work and reducing their income, making more students eligible for aid. The process of filling out the FAFSA has also been simplified over the past two years. Walker said this could encourage more students to fill out the form.

Since Rice gives out mainly institutional funds - private money from the university's endowment and budget for financial aid - instead of federal ones such as Stafford loans, the university is able to review 100 percent of the student aid applications. Due to this, the Office of Financial Aid is able to read and consider each student's application and documents, even though the U.S. government only requires a universities to consider 30 percent of applications for financial aid each year.

A student can receive four different types of aid: grants, loans, scholarships and work-study plans. Rice caps the total amount of loans a student can accrue over four years at $10,000 and does not include any loans as part of financial aid packages for students with family incomes below $80,000.

If the income situation of a student's family changes during the course of the year, Walker said, the financial aid office is ready to meet with them, work through their needs and, in some cases, reassess financial aid options for the next semester.

"A student who didn't have need in September may have need in January," Walker said. "We want to make sure we have the funding to support those families. The university tries very hard to plan and plan accurately the number of anticipated students who might have need."

Despite these assurances, some students, such as Jones College sophomore Brianna Mulrooney, have noticed a decrease in the amount of financial aid offered.

"This year some of my aid was cut even though my family situation has not changed," Mulrooney said. "I don't understand why except that I know they have to try to spread the money around."

Walker said making adjustments to financial aid mid-semester is tricky because by that point students have usually paid their bill, so they must wait until the following semester to redetermine financial aid status.

Walker said the importance of evaluating every student's financial needs carefully and equally is a priority of the Office of Financial Aid.

"We may miss something if we don't look at every student individually," Walker said. "Rice has made sure that every student who needs funding will get funding. And that's part of being need blind, and [of keeping] our commitment to students that we are going to cover 100 percent of our need.



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