Students banking on financial aid

    In this slumping economy, colleges have stepped up efforts to woo students and secure enrollment for the fall.

    College acceptance letters went out earlier this month, leaving students and their families to decide what will financially and academically be the best deal. In this slumping economy, colleges have stepped up efforts to woo students and secure enrollment for the fall.

    Listen:

    [audio:090421smcollege.mp3]

     

    The University of Pennsylvania’s top salesperson is working extra hard these days to get admitted students to say yes. Inside Irvine auditorium, Penn president Dr. Amy Gutmann works the stage before a packed house of prospective students and their families.

    Gutmann: Come to my house when I open it for undergraduate events, which I love to do. Parents, too, welcome. Email me. Tell me your first impressions.

    Students from Central and Masterman, which are Philadelphia's top magnet public high schools, on a campus tour of Penn.
    Students from Central and Masterman, which are Philadelphia's top magnet public high schools, on a campus tour of Penn.
    Gutmann’s invitation leaves these baby-faced teenagers beaming. They also cheer and clap when she says they’re the brightest and most diverse incoming class to ever be accepted. What Gutmann doesn’t say on stage is how families will afford Penn’s annual price tag of nearly $50,000. But outside the auditorium, Penn’s dean of admissions Eric Furda says the university’s brand new financial aid policy should help.

    Furda: If a student qualifies for need-based financial aid, the financial aid package will have a small component that is college work study. Outside of that, it is all grant money. So families can look at that package and they don’t see any indebtedness, which is very important. It then frees that family up to take out some loans if they need to, to pay for other expenses.

    Penn's information booth for admitted students visting campus.
    Penn's information booth for admitted students visting campus.
    On a campus tour, Rachel Tache is taking in the sights. Rachel currently goes to Masterman, which is one of Philadelphia’s top public high schools. She applied to nine colleges, and is now choosing between Penn and Brown University. Rachel will make her final decision based on how much financial aid she receives.

    Tache:
    I’m going to stay at Brown for a few days to get a feel for the campus there. Penn is giving me better aid than Brown. So my mom called their office, and they’re going to see if they can sort of match it, so it can be based on things that aren’t money.

    One of her friends at Masterman is Jordan Gifford from South Philadelphia. At home, Jordan sits at the kitchen table with his parents and fidgets with a pen. He’s torn between Penn State, Pitt, and Boston University.

    Jordan Gifford: I found out earlier that I got into Penn State and Pittsburgh. So I already had got my mind set one of those two schools. And then I found out I got into BU, and I was like, ‘Ok, cool.’  And then she said ‘I won’t let you make a decision for any college until you go see it.’ Then I went to BU, and I really enjoyed it.

    The Gifford Family at their home in South Philadelphia before driving to Penn State for a final tour.
    The Gifford Family at their home in South Philadelphia before driving to Penn State for a final tour.
    Jordan’s parents, Sheri and Joe Gifford, are starting to crunch the numbers to figure out how to pay for their son’s education. They both work and already have one kid in college.

    Joe Gifford: So we ask the questions about what happens if somebody loses their job. Well, of course, you lose half of your income, you’re going to get more aid.

    Sheri Gifford: Sometimes, I’ve wondered if I should just quit work and then my kids wouldn’t have any college loans.

    The Giffords are looking carefully at which loans they’ll need. After filling out the online federal financial aid form, they were shocked to learn that they’d still have to pay $30,000 out of pocket.

    Joe Gifford: I said, ‘Ok. Tell me where that bank account is that has 30,000 dollars in it?  Do you have 30,000 dollars hidden somewhere?’ And of course we don’t.

    Sheri Gifford: Our kids and us will pay off loans like everybody else does for higher education. But you don’t want to see your kid in debt to their eyeballs. And Joe is going to be 59. I just turned 55 . At some point, we really have to stock away some more money to retire.

    May 1st  is the deadline for students to make a final college decision. Public universities have seen a spike in applicants against taking on debt for higher education in this weak economy. In response, private institutions are increasingly taking steps to reduce loans and increase grant-based financial aid in years to come.

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