Published: April 29, 2010
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The envelope arrives with good news. The college is pleased to announce that the student has been offered acceptance and, if he or she is fortunate, some scholarship money.
Ryan T. Conaty for The New York Times
Sandra J. Oliveira, executive director of financial aid at Providence College, has 100 appeals for more aid to go through.
But in this busted economy, more parents are saying they need more money and are filing appeals. Then the waiting starts again, for a phone call.
The job of delivering that news — after weighing hopes and dreams against limited budgets — falls to people like Sandra J. Oliveira, the executive director of the financial aid office at Providence College.
Ms. Oliveira is spending this week plowing through a stack of 100 appeals from high school seniors who have been accepted for the next freshman class but who say they cannot afford to attend. Each packet contains a heartfelt plea for more aid than the college offered initially, to offset the impact of recent job losses, plunges in home values or other financial setbacks.
“In this economy, everyone is feeling it to some extent,” Ms. Oliveira said recently, her wood-laminate desk cluttered with medical bills, layoff notices and tax forms sent to her as supporting evidence. “Sometimes we can do a lot,” she added. “Sometimes we can’t. But we spend a lot of time listening.”
Ms. Oliveira’s emotional, painstaking task is playing out on hundreds of campuses, in advance of the May 1 deadline for tuition deposits from many incoming freshmen.
At Providence College, a Roman Catholic institution where the dogwood trees are blooming, about as many financial aid appeals have been filed by the families of prospective freshmen this spring as last; those figures, though, represent a nearly 15 percent increase over two years ago.
At Villanova University in Pennsylvania, which competes with Providence for students, the 350 financial aid appeals filed this spring are down from last year, but are still running 17 percent ahead of those logged in 2008, before the economy turned downward. Financial-aid appeals from prospective freshmen at Lafayette College, also in Pennsylvania, are up more than 40 percent just since last year.
And while Harvard may be the rare university that has managed to hold the line on such appeals — the families of 175 prospective freshmen have asked this spring for more aid than was offered, about the same as in 2008 — it has done so only by raising its financial aid budget by $22 million, or 16 percent, over that period.
Meanwhile, Providence, like other colleges, is under its own financial constraints, as its costs rise and its endowment ebbs. While avoiding the layoffs and furloughs that other universities, both public and private, have done, Providence is raising its full freshman-year tuition, board and other fees by 19 percent this fall, to more than $53,000.
For families and institutions, the process that might ease those tuition expenses can be as daunting as some federal tax forms. Offices like Ms. Oliveira’s collect information on a family’s wages, savings, home equity and other assets, as well as on how many siblings might be attending college. Then, using a combination of federal formulas and policies unique to its own campus, Providence, like its counterparts, will arrive at an award offer.
At Providence, one of every three dollars in the operating budget, or nearly $50 million, is spent on financial aid, and nearly three of every four students receive some scholarship help.
The average direct scholarship based on need last year was more than $17,000. (Students who also qualified for merit-based aid, which not all colleges offer, received substantially more.)
But for some families, the initial offer, however generous, will not go far enough. Enter Ms. Oliveira, 46, who is equal parts banker, therapist and fairy godmother, and who has the discretion to increase an offer by several thousand dollars a year if she deems the family’s circumstances dire enough.
In arguing their case before Ms. Oliveira, families have the ear of someone who was once on their side of the desk. By the time she enrolled in 1981 at North Adams State College (now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) near her home in Western Massachusetts, her father had retired as a Navy chief petty officer and her mother was not working.
Two older siblings were in college, and two younger ones would soon be college age. She said she would have been unable to attend college without substantial scholarships. “Financial-aid discussions were fight night at my house,” she said.
After graduating with a degree in communications, Ms. Oliveira became a financial-aid officer at a community college, largely because “my loans were due, and I had a summer of no jobs.” She has worked in financial aid ever since, including at nearby Brown University.
Among the appeals Ms. Oliveira was considering this week was that of a student accepted for the incoming class whose parents had each lost jobs in recent months; one had worked in construction, the other in an administrative position.
Providence’s initial offer had been about $18,000 in direct aid, Ms. Oliveira said.
“With the change in circumstance, they may get another $1,000, $2,000 in grant,” she said, using shorthand for a direct scholarship, as opposed to loans. Moreover, the precipitous drop in income will most likely qualify the family for a federal Pell grant, perhaps as much as $5,550.
Ms. Oliveira’s eyes filled with tears as she described another parent who had just called — someone whose daughter already attends Providence, and who was struggling to pay the final tuition bill of the year.
“We’ve given them little bits throughout the year,” Ms. Oliveira said. “They’re borrowing from friends and relatives. The daughter is taking money she needed for a computer to make it work.”
Here, too, Ms. Oliveira was hopeful that she could help.
She found herself less moved by the father of an accepted applicant who had lost his job in 2009, but had since found another. The family told her the bank was refusing to allow them to borrow against their home equity.
“This is a bank they have worked with for a very long time, and they were almost stunned,” Ms. Oliveira said. “But they have other real estate worth a half million dollars that’s paid off.”
In light of more pressing appeals, she said there was probably “not a whole lot” she could do for that family.
While that phone call might not be a happy one, she said she would draw strength and satisfaction from other conversations this week that could well change the course of a young life.
One high school senior was so excited to receive good news from Ms. Oliveira this week that she switched her cellphone to speaker mode. She then asked Ms. Oliveira to tell her again that her aid had been granted, so her whole class could hear.
“I could hear them cheering,” Ms. Oliveira said.