COLUMBIA — MU has experienced a 16 percent increase in the number of students applying for federal financial aid this year, which amounts to 2,859 more students using that option to pay for college.
The recession is partly to blame for the increase, said James Brooks, MU's Student Financial Aid director. More students are coming to the office to find out what their options are, he said.
As of June 1, nearly 21,000 MU students had applied for federal financial aid for the 2009-10 school year, Brooks said.
Columbia College is also seeing more demand, with a a 20 percent increase in federal financial aid applicants this year. Spokeswoman Jennifer Jonas said more than 12,000 students are expected to have filed by the end of this month.
Sharon Abernathy, director of the school's financial aid office, said they have not yet analyzed factors contributing to the trend.
"The economy may play a factor to adult students coming back to school," she said. "We may also have a lot of military students who plan on attending college this year, along with the fact that there is a significant number of students enrolled in our online program."
The demand for financial aid is rising nationwide. Last year, after the recession had begun, the number of applications rose by 12 percent to more than 16 million, according to the Department of Education.
Detailed estimates are not yet available for last year, but of all full-time college undergraduates in 2007, 58 percent applied for aid, and 47 percent received it.
For students such as Alyssa Essers, 20, financial aid is the only way she can afford college.
“Most of the financial aid I’ve received over the course of several years was federal because my mother has a low income,” said Essers, an MU junior switching her major to elementary education.
Right now, Essers is in greater need than ever. Her mother has been unemployed since being laid off in December.
“It happened right before Christmas,” Essers said.
Her mother supported her when she could, but now she has to be on her own.
“Overall, the financial aid covered the cost of in-state tuition, but it wasn’t enough to pay for housing, food and books,” said Essers, who has spent the past month looking for a job at Columbia retail stores and restaurants.
The federal government allows university financial aid offices to review various cases involving special circumstances. The loss of income is one of them.
As of Friday, 244 families had applied for financial aid for the upcoming academic year due to “special circumstances,” compared to last year's 272 families, Brooks said.
"I expect this number to continue to climb as we go through the rest of the summer and into the fall semester," he said.
With regard to “special circumstances,” students can file applications throughout the school year. If there is a change in family finances sometime during the year, the family can file an application, and the financial aid office might reconsider the amount of provided financial aid, Brooks said.
Daniel Smith, 23, received a Pell Grant to help fund his education. The MU senior majoring in international studies and history said he volunteers since he can't find a job right now.
“Sometimes, it’s pretty difficult to find a job when you are competing with thousands of other students wanting the same goal,” Smith said.
Smith said getting a job would be helpful, otherwise he has to rely on his 87-year-old grandmother, Laverne Smith, who has supported him throughout his life.
“Luckily, my grandmother helped me out during my freshman year, when I had to pay out-of-state tuition, and the financial aid didn’t cover its full cost,” Smith said.
A year after, when Smith became a Missouri resident, the financial aid became sufficient to cover tuition and other school-related expenses, he said.
“Not all taxpayers’ money is being thrown down the tubes, and a lot of it goes toward supporting students who couldn’t afford going to college,” Smith said. “Hopefully, the government doesn’t cut back on these fundamental programs.”
Brooks said funding for need-based scholarships isn’t climbing considerably, but it isn't decreasing either.
“I wouldn’t say that the economy is hurting us as far as the money that MU is awarding to students," he said. "In most cases, we are awarding more money than we have in the past.”
Over the past three years, MU's budget for need-based and merit-based aid increased by about $3 million, Brooks said.
For this coming year, the need-based funds increased by an additional $2 million in response to the increase in the number of federal financial aid applicants, Brooks said.
Many schools allocate more money for merit-based scholarships whereas, at MU, providing need-based aid is just as important as merit-based, said Brooks, who worked as a senior associate director in the financial aid office at Indiana University before coming to MU seven months ago.
A graduate teaching assistantship offered by the English department was one of the main reasons why Nell McCabe, 30, of Pittsfield, Mass., picked MU’s creative writing program over other competitive schools.
“When one of the universities that you applied for tells you, ‘We’ll pay you to come to study here,’ which one are going to choose?” McCabe said.
When she starts teaching freshman composition and intro to creative writing in the fall, her monthly stipend will almost double from last year’s $650 a month.
“That’s better. If I didn’t have kids, that might be enough to live on,” said McCabe, the mother of daughters, Matilda, 7, and Freya, 4.
"One way or another, we work it out, but it can be very stressful,” she said. “It’ll be better to just take out a few thousand dollars in loans and have that pressure lifted a little bit for the year and worry about it later.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.