At UGA, more must rely on aid

ATHENS, Ga. -- The number of University of Georgia students who qualify for need-based federal grants has soared for a second straight year, along with the amount they receive to help them pay for college.



As of Oct. 8, nearly 6,200 UGA students had qualified to receive Pell Grants, a federal aid program for needy college students - nearly twice as many as three years ago, when the 2007-08 academic year began.

And the amount of money those students will get has nearly tripled, according to figures provided by the UGA Office of Student Financial Aid.

In 2007-08, awards totaled about $9.3 million; this year, the total is about $25 million.

More and more Georgia families are simply unable to pay their children's way through college without outside help, said Bonnie Joerschke, director of student financial aid at UGA.

"We're finally seeing the really dramatic effects of the recession," Joerschke said.

UGA students also are borrowing more, according to the financial aid statistics.

They had taken out about $141 million in student loans as of Oct. 8, up from $103 million in fall semester 2007.

But despite the dismal economic news, UGA students still are graduating with relatively little debt compared to national averages, Joerschke said.

According to figures compiled by a national organization called The Project on Student Debt, about 44 percent of UGA students who graduated in 2009 had student loans to repay - an average of $14,776 each - below average for Georgia students, and far below the national average of about $24,000, according to the group.

Only Utah students have a less debt than Georgia's average of $16,568 per student, according to Project on Student Debt calculations.

Students in Georgia and at UGA have been able to keep their debt low because of the HOPE Scholarship and relatively low tuition costs in state public colleges, Joerschke said.

For students who qualify, the HOPE scholarship pays college tuition, plus some student fees and textbook costs.

But more students are borrowing at UGA.

UGA students were awarded about $142 million in federal college loans this year, up 51 percent from three years ago.

Graduate students have been especially hard hit.

About 250 graduate students received a special federal loan for graduate students in 2007-08, and took home a total of just more than $2 million. This year, about 1,100 graduate students qualified for nearly $10 million in the graduate student loans.

"People's parents aren't able to help them as much as they once were," said Jason O'Rouke, president of UGA's Graduate Student Association.

Graduate students also are paying more for college, he said.

O'Rouke plans to ask UGA administrators for help for graduate students - help in paying health insurance premiums and some student fees, he said.

Admissions officials at other state colleges are seeing similar surges in student aid requests and awards.

Athens Technical College students will get about $23.5 million in Pell Grants this year - more than twice what Athens Tech students qualified for in 2008-09, said Patrick Harris, director of financial aid at the college.

Statewide, the number of technical college students receiving Pell Grants has nearly doubled in the past two years, from 47,000 to about 89,000, said Mike Light, a spokesman for the Technical College System of Georgia.

Enrollment in the technical college system has surged in the past two years as the economy fell into recession and laid-off workers turned to technical colleges for training in new job skills, Light said.

Without the Pell Grant, many of those unemployed or underemployed workers would not be able to go to school full-time, and some wouldn't be able to afford school at all, he said.

"The Pell Grants are just vital to our students," Light said.

"Obviously, the students need it," Harris said.

Joerschke doesn't expect UGA students will need less financial help any time soon.

Some economists say the state is pulling out of recession, while others say the state's economy actually may be worse next year, she said.

"I don't expect it to be better," Joerschke said.



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