Parents, students and college counselors agree: Jewish families are finding it harder than ever to pay for higher education during this major downturn in the economy.
More college students are worrying about the tuition bill.
“Parents are coming in confidentially and asking how they keep their daughter in school. Families are in an economic strait jacket,” says Claire Friedlander, a college consultant and licensed professional counselor in Connecticut. “I didn't get the feeling that financial aid was an issue until this year.”
Many Jewish families with children in college can relate to the situation of Sandra Cohen,* a congregational rabbi with one son attending college. “We’re cash-poor right now. A lot of what we had invested as savings [for his education] tanked. Now we’re trying to find other avenues to tap.”
The downturn has impacted her congregants as well. “A lot of people are losing their jobs,” she explains. “It’s especially hard for those who have children in college and savings plans affected by the market.”
And for families of modest means, the problem is even more profound. Abby Weissman,* a divorced mother of five, can’t afford to pay for college on her own income, or rely on her ex-husband to help pay tuition. Weissman’s eldest daughter is currently taking a semester off to help pay down her growing debt - a decision Weissman described as “very difficult.” She hopes to return to school in the spring, but says money will continue to be an obstacle.
“It’s difficult for my 17-year old because her [high school] classmates’ parents are taking on loans that I can’t afford to take on,” says Weissman. “She doesn’t have the luxury of a dual-income family.”
What’s a Jewish family to do?
Rabbi Cohen and her family have already borrowed money from a relative and taken out an expensive federal loan to make ends meet. Their son, a Hillel activist, has also been diligent in applying for scholarships, earning nearly $20,000 so far.
Bruce Scher, director of college counseling at Chicagoland Jewish High School in Illinois, says that number doesn’t surprise him. “There is a tremendous amount of opportunity out there in the form of merit awards, service awards and need based grants,” he says. “Students just don’t know about them. The biggest fallacy is that parents feel the full amount of tuition is their burden. ”
Scher, who has been working in education for 35 years and is a member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling, took a special interest in working with college-bound Jewish teens four years ago. As part of his job, he researches little known opportunities for Jewish high school students like The Bentson Family Scholarships at the University of Minnesota which awards $5,000 to 100 students every year. Though the scholarship is open to all, preference is given to students of the Jewish faith. He also points to B’nai B’rith as a generous giver of college funds.
“Parents are just not informed,” explains Scher. “The best resource is a trained college counselor, not a neighbor.”
To help families at this difficult time, Hillel has published a guide to Jewish Financial Aid Resources on its Web site. The guide lists scholarships, loans and on-campus internship programs that can help students defray the cost of higher education.
College counselor Friedlander warns against informational sites that charge a fee. She recommends FastWeb for researching financial opportunities and says some listings are better than others.
“A student’s odds are awful when applying for a national or international scholarship,” she says. “The competition is simply too great. Students should look to local organizations for help.”
Friedlander also reminds parents to stay on top of deadlines - particularly the federal FASFA form, which requires tax information that must be submitted by February 15.
“Every parent must do that,” Friedlander says. “They must get their taxes done by the end of January so they have the data they need to fill out the FASFA form by February. If they wait or apply for an extension, they will not get financial aid.”
Shayna Goldman,* a freshman at the University of Maryland, chose an out-of-state school because she was most impressed by its Hillel, elementary education program and the attractiveness of the campus. Her parents agreed to pay the $30,000 annual tuition with their savings, but Goldman is also expected to earn (and keep) scholarships to offset the cost.
“The pressure of maintaining my grades is always there,” says Goldman. “But the financial burden adds to it because I know my parents are paying for this and I don't want to waste their money. It's not fair to them.”
“These issues are playing havoc in the minds of the Class of 2009,” says Scher. “I really believe the stress of the college search process is blown out of proportion… Students need to know that they can apply to a school that is a ‘financial reach' and still make it a reality with academic assistance.”
For more information on academic assistance, scholarships and grants for Jewish students visit Hillel’s Guide to Financial Aid.
*Names have been changed