Esha Hickson knows that dreams must be grounded in reality. She hasn't just imagined herself becoming a doctor some day; she's worked hard to earn straight A's at Knightdale High School.
Now she fears that the nightmare of the recession may smother her hopes. "College is so expensive and money is so tight, I'm really afraid," the soft-spoken senior said Saturday at Meredith College. "I will never give up, but it's going to be a huge struggle."
Hickson was one of an estimated 4,000 students who visited Meredith and 64 other locations across the state Saturday for help filling out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The eight-page form is the first step college-bound students must take as they try to cobble together a package of grants, loans and scholarships to help pay for college.
Reflecting the tough economic times, applications for federal financial aid in North Carolina have risen 29 percent so far this year, according to the College Foundation of North Carolina, a FAFSA sponsor that helps students with filling out the applications and finding loans.
Prospective collegians face a particularly daunting environment. In response to budgetary pressures, many colleges and universities have raised prices. Earlier this month, the UNC system's Board of Governors increased tuition and fees for in-state students by an average of 3.9 percent across its 16 campuses.
The baby boom of the '80s and '90s and the influx of immigrants mean that the number of high school students is steadily rising.
Rising unemployment and the falling stock market have also made it harder for families to foot those bills. The College Foundation reports that contributions to its college savings program -- the NC 529 program -- have decreased while the number of families withdrawing those monies for purpose other than college has doubled.
As a result, many more families are asking for help. Requests for aid at UNC-Chapel Hill were up 13 percent this year, according to Shirley Ort, director of scholarships and aid. She expects that to grow 15 percent more this year.
Ort said 35 percent of UNC-CH students now receive need-based aid to cover tuition and fees, which will reach $5,456 next year.
The percentage is even higher at Meredith College, a private women's college where annual tuition and fees are $30,290. Sixty-five percent of Meredith students receive need-based aid, and 95 percent of all students receive some sort of assistance, said Sandra Rhyne, the school's director for scholarships.
Rhyne and Ort both stressed that people should not assume that they wouldn't qualify for aid. At UNC-CH, the median income of a family of four receiving need-based aid this year is $50,300, Ort said.
Although the eight-page FAFSA can seem forbidding, many of the 200 families who showed up at Meredith College on Saturday said it took less than 30 minutes to fill it out.
"As long as you have the right documents, like your tax forms, brokerage and savings account information, it's not so bad,' said Danny Wim of Morrisville, whose daughter Eunice will attend Duke University next year. Rhyne of Meredith College said the financial aid officers at most schools are happy to walk people through the process.
North Carolinians can find the FAFSA and receive help filling it out from the College Foundation's Web site, cfnc.org, or by calling 866-866-2343.
Completing the form is only the start of the journey. As they sat together in a Meredith College classroom Saturday, Brandon Salig's family insisted that he type in all the information in the FAFSA form. His parents said they will do everything they can to help the senior at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School realize his dream of studying music at Western Carolina University. But they want him to be fully aware of the economic realities that involves.
"This is a big deal, and he knows that," said his stepfather Marlon Mitchell. "But seeing exactly how big a deal it is will drive it home."
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