But the aid doesn’t usually cover all costs of attending college. Financial aid offices tell students that their parents can apply for a PLUS loan to cover the amount of money needed to bridge the gap. The Department of Education grants the loans without any consideration of parents’ income but requires a credit approval.
Students at historically black colleges are much more likely to have received PLUS loans, and so the change in policy was felt disproportionately there, said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and the publisher of Fastweb.com and FinAid.org, websites that specialize in financial aid information.
Students have found different ways to cope with financial difficulties.
Julian Melton, who graduated from North Carolina Central University in December, worked an early morning shift at FedEx and an afternoon and evening job at a Kroger’s store during his junior and senior years, with classes in between. He’d sleep or study in his car during breaks.
He said his scholarship and student loan just about covered his expenses, but he worked long hours to send money home to help his mother, who was ill. He said he couldn’t have asked her to take out loans. He’s now working at Time Warner Cable in Morrisville, N.C., getting ready to pay back his own loans and looking ahead to getting a master’s degree.
Jaleel Hunt, who also attended North Carolina Central, worked for a professor on campus but left school at the beginning of his senior year because his financial aid and employment still did not cover his costs.
Hunt said he had could have asked his family about a PLUS loan, but he “didn’t want to put my parents in that financial situation.” Today he is writing fiction and pushing wheelchairs at Piedmont Triad Airport in Greensboro. He wants to write for a living and doesn’t plan to return to school even though he feels “it was worth every penny, even though I’m in debt.”
Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an organization that helps students attending historically black colleges, said the federal government should at least grandfather in families of students who already were in college before the change in credit criteria.
“To have that student leave with debt and no degree is an unreasonable result,” he said. “Remember, this is the White House, who said it wants to double the number of college graduates by 2020. This seems 100 percent inconsistent with that kind of goal for kids who are already in school.”
William E. Hudson Jr., vice president for student affairs at Florida A&M, said enrollment was down by 1,000 students this year, and surveys of those who didn’t return found many said it was because of financial reasons.
“Many parents don’t want the parent PLUS loan,” Hudson said. “We see a lot of that as well.”
In some cases, the parents have lost their jobs and are in college themselves to retrain for new work, he said. Others have more than one child in college and can’t assume loans for all.
At Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, Chancellor Donald Reaves told Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., at a summit of chancellors from historically black colleges last month that at his school, which has about 4,500 full-time undergraduates, enrollment was down this year by about 750 students.
Of those who left, 609 were in good academic standing, and 200 of them were seniors, Reaves said. The average gap between what their financial aid offered and what they needed was $2,700.
“All of us are facing a tremendous challenge with regard to financial assistance to the students we enroll,” he said.
William Douglas of the Washington Bureau contributed.