Streamlined Process, Range of Options Help Students

- by Chet D. Schuman, director of admissions, and Dennis L. Correll, associate dean for admissions and financial aid. Photos by Larry Kauffman.

The morning of Aug. 9, 2008, was beautiful and crisp, more indicative of fall than summer commencement. Of the 225 graduates, nine in particular had a secret to their success. Those nine were participants in Pennsylvania College of Technology’s Student Support Services program.

What do nearly 80 percent of Pennsylvania College of Technology students have in common? All receive some form of financial aid to pay for their college education.

Penn College draws students from diverse economic backgrounds. Many of our students are the first in their families to attend college; we serve a large population of lower-income, working-class families who seek to provide a better life for the next generation. However, no matter what their level of household income, students and parents are looking for grants, scholarships and student loans to finance their education.

Completing the appropriate forms in timely fashion is foremost for students and families seeking aid to fund a college education.

In 2007-08, Penn College students qualified for more than $76.5 million in financial aid including federal and state grants, scholarships, veteran's education benefits, Work-Study, and student and parent loans.

The college's admission representatives get questions about financial-aid opportunities on a regular basis. They are pleased to be able to share information about financial aid - both merit- and need-based - offered by the federal government, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency and the college itself.

It is disheartening when prospective students and parents decide they cannot afford college before even going through the aid process. For first-generation college-bound students, the costs associated with higher education can seem daunting. We try to persuade these individuals to see the big picture and to recognize the potential earning power that's available to them with a post-secondary degree.

We all recognize there are expenses involved in going to college, and families often are reluctant to seek assistance. But the college has the trained staff available to assist with the process. The greatest challenge is encouraging students and families to seek the help they need - it's all about understanding the process.

Penn College's Financial Aid Office offers various year-round programs to get the word out to prospective and current students about the opportunities that exist. Staff emphasize that all students and parents have to do is apply and then follow up on the paperwork; in many cases, it can all be done electronically.

It all starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Without completing the FAFSA form, the world of financial aid is closed to students. It is the No. 1 application that all colleges encourage students to complete. And, the key word is “free.”

There are many companies eager to assist people in pursuing money (scholarships) - for a fee. Their ads, noting that millions of dollars in scholarship funds go unspent each year, certainly attract attention.

To the uninitiated, the services offered by these companies seem to be a great deal. Until, that is, families pay the fee and learn that the same information is provided (at no cost) by the college's Financial Aid Office.

Candy S. Baran, Penn College's director of financial aid, meets with Bradley S. Jackson, a student who receives financial aid and works as a Resident Assistant and Student Ambassador.

Free scholarship searches - for Penn College and national scholarships - are available on the Financial Aid Office's website: www.pct.edu/finaid.

The second part of the financial-aid picture is student and parent loan programs. While the economy has been in a bit of upheaval lately, Penn College has a full range of lender opportunities for parents and students.

The final stage of the financial-aid process is completing the Penn College Financial Aid Scholarship application. Last spring, the college launched a “one-stop shop” to apply for any Penn College scholarship. Previously, students had to file separate applications for each scholarship that they believed matched their academic background and performance.

With the new process, the Financial Aid Office has eliminated the extra work; students simply need to complete the single application and write a brief essay about their career goals. This has not only simplified the application process for students, but also for faculty and staff, who have pored over thousands of applications in the past year.

Now, it is much easier to evaluate each student with correct, up-to-date information about economic need and academic performance.

This new process has also expedited the awarding process, allowing students to be notified earlier in the year so they may better assess their financial situation. ■

Finding Funds for College

With three siblings in his home in Warrington, Bradley S. Jackson - a junior enrolled in the information technology: security specialist concentration major - was very involved in the search for financial aid, including filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid himself.

While financial aid was not a major factor in Jackson's decision to attend Pennsylvania College of Technology, it certainly helped ease his parents' minds. Jackson and his parents had many discussions about finances and college, including his working a part-time job while in school.

Jackson is a Penn College Student Ambassador and a Resident Assistant in the Rose Street Apartments student-housing complex. Those positions keep him quite busy when he's not in classes.

"The availability of financial aid has reduced my concerns about having to work off campus and incurring those expenses," he said. "Students need to do the hard work of understanding and filing for financial aid, including scholarship essays. The money is out there. You just have to do some work to find it."

Jackson completed a summer internship with Lockheed Martin in King of Prussia. He hopes to work at Lockheed again this summer and eventually be hired at one of the company's facilities.

Testimony to the State Board of Education, Affordability of Post-Secondary Education

Dennis L. Correll, associate dean for admissions and financial aid - Oct. 28

On behalf of Pennsylvania College of Technology, I would like to thank the State Board of Education for providing us the opportunity to give testimony on today's topic of "Affordability of Post-Secondary Education."

I am Dennis Correll, associate dean for admissions and financial aid at Pennsylvania College of Technology, located in Williamsport.

Penn College is a special mission affiliate of Penn State University, committed to applied technology education. We have served the commonwealth, from our location in northcentral Pennsylvania, for most of the past century - first as Williamsport Technical Institute and later as Williamsport Area Community College. We became a Penn State affiliate nearly 20 years ago, in 1989.

We are proud of our unique role in Pennsylvania higher education, providing two-year and four-year "degrees that work" for our graduates and for business and industry throughout the commonwealth. Our most recent graduate-placement survey indicates that more than 90 percent of our graduates are working or continuing their education within a year of graduation.

We also play a key role in workforce development in Pennsylvania, managing the state's largest worker-training program, the guaranteed free training for Pennsylvania companies and employees, commonly known as WEDnetPA.

Pennsylvania residents make up nearly 90 percent of our total enrollment, which stands at 6,510 in Fall 2008. A majority of our graduates remain in Pennsylvania; more than 82 percent of our 53,000 identified alumni live in Pennsylvania.

We offer a diverse portfolio of majors that relate to more than 100 different career fields. Programs that attracted the highest enrollments this fall are nursing, building construction, automotive, architecture and business management.

We are accredited by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, and many of our programs are endorsed by industry and professional organizations recognized both across the state and nationwide. Our success in providing hands-on, applied-technology education directly impacts the Pennsylvania workforce.

Many of our students at Penn College are the first in their families to attend college. These first-generation students and their families need support to achieve their goals. Eight out of every 10 Penn College students - 77.3 percent - receive some sort of financial aid. In 2007-08, these students qualified for more than $76.5 million in financial aid - including federal and state grants, scholarships, veteran education benefits, and student and parent loans.

Penn College students represent a high-need population. This past year, 41.7 percent of our aid-eligible students received a Federal Pell grant, indicating that they come from low-income families.

According to the U.S Census Bureau, the median income for Pennsylvanians in 2004-05 was $45,641. This past year, the income of 45.2 percent of our families (representing 2,710 of our students) was at or below that level.

Pennsylvania College of Technology serves a large population of lower-income, working-class families who are trying to provide a better life for the next generation of their family.

Recent economic events have created stress in the lives of our students and their families. As an example, the recent shake-up at PHEAA, the state grant agency, has limited the availability of resources. It not only reduced the dollar amount of a grant that a student might receive; it also reduced the number of eligible students all across the state.

This past year, 51 percent of Penn College students received a state PHEAA grant - down from 53 percent the previous year. The PHEAA grant is important because a student does not have to repay that money; it is targeted to benefit students from lower-income families.

In addition, our students are seeing a decline in lending opportunities. Lenders are important resources for students who need money for college. For years, dozens of lending institutions from all across the country have assisted our students and parents in their borrowing needs. In the past six months, we have seen the number of potential lenders drop significantly.

After many of our students and parents already had their financing in place this year, they learned that their chosen lender halted all loan processing. They were forced to find another lender, at the last minute, in order to satisfy their tuition bill.

While assistance from the federal government's stopgap action is helping some lenders stay afloat, many have chosen not to come back into the student-loan market. This has created limited options for students and parents - and we fear that our families will find it more difficult and more expensive to get the loans they need to pay for college.

Nationwide, economic turmoil has subjected many parents to tighter credit restrictions; some are now unable to borrow on behalf of their college student. In 2008, we saw an increase of 36.3 percent of parents who found themselves unable to borrow under the Federal PLUS program to assist in the funding of their child's education.

With decreasing opportunities for parents to borrow, students may turn to alternative education loans, outside the federal government's program, where they pay a much higher interest rate. This past year, student-loan debt for our graduates grew to $23,636, up from $20,547 just three short years ago.

Lower PHEAA grants, reduced borrowing options and increased costs to provide education, we believe, may result in more students "stopping out" after high school graduation - to find employment in order to save enough money to enter college. This "stop out" can have a negative economic impact on the commonwealth if we do not have enough skilled workers available to meet business and industry needs.

Coupled with decreasing PHEAA grants and fewer opportunities for education loans for parents and students, higher education in Pennsylvania is challenged by declining state appropriations. As fewer dollars are made available by the state to fund its colleges, the colleges must increase tuition to meet rising costs. At Penn College, the percentage of our budget gained through state appropriation has declined from 14.3 percent in 2004 to 11.7 percent in 2008. In a National Conference of State Legislatures' survey compiled in November 2007, Pennsylvania ranked 46th out of the 50 states in the funding of higher education.

Every bit of support we receive from the state is appreciated - and is necessary to our operation. The recent request that we prepare to give back 4.5 percent of our current appropriation ($615,911)*, translates to a loss of $101.60 for each of our students. We all know that the value of the lost appropriation will be compounded in future years, and the deficit will be made up by charging higher costs to students and families who already are finding it increasingly difficult to pay college costs.

How many families will opt out of college altogether? How many Pennsylvania jobs will be lost if our residents lack the skills needed to succeed as technology advances?

Technology impacts every career in the modern workplace. Penn College is the state's premier technical college. No other institution in the state offers such a wide range of applied-technology offerings.

We are a leader in Pennsylvania higher education and workforce development. Over many years, we have demonstrated that we are good stewards of the economic resources provided to us. With 82.6 percent of our graduates living and working in Pennsylvania, we have shown that money invested by the commonwealth in Pennsylvania College of Technology is money that, in turn, supports the state's economy and develops the potential of our workforce.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to share our story. We urge you to invest in the economic future of our state by ensuring the accessibility of higher education that supports real workforce needs in Pennsylvania.

* In December, Penn College was asked to return an additional 1.5 percent - or $253,610 - to the state. Over the course of the year, the state appropriation approved for 2008-09 was reduced by 6 percent, which equals more than $800,000.

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