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NIU program picks up where state, federal aid leaves off

Saturday, December 20, 2008  
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Posted December 20, 2008 @ 8:35 p.m.
ROCKFORD — Max Sluiter began his college career with a goal: Graduate with no more than $5,000 of debt.

Sluiter, 21, of Machesney Park plans to graduate in May with a business degree from Rockford College and probably will meet that goal, thanks to college jobs and financial aid.
He’s one of the many college students who take advantage of state and federal financial aid to pay for school. Today, Northern Illinois University offers a new incentive to further help incoming freshmen.
Officials recently announced a program that will help make up the difference between state and federal grants and the cost of tuition for incoming freshmen.
The Huskie Advantage Program will cover any portion of tuition costs not covered by the Illinois MAP grant and federal Pell grants. Not all students can tap the program. Students only qualify if they’re already qualifying for MAP and Pell grants.
State and federal financial aid formulas offer coverage to families at the lowest end of the income scale. That coverage takes care of most or all of students’ tuition. But families just above the poverty level might not have the same coverage and can’t make up the difference even after state and federal grants, said Brent Gage, NIU assistant vice president for enrollment services.
NIU officials offered the following formula: If a student’s parents have a combined income of $52,000, the state offers a MAP grant of $3,300 and a federal Pell grant of $890. The student still needs $1,960 of the $6,150 tuition fee.
The problem tends to be that extra $1,000 to $2,000. Sometimes that’s just enough to divert students from going to college, said Joe King, NIU assistant director public affairs.
Working for school
Rockford College has a $7 million-a-year financial aid program that’s funded through scholarships, donors and endowments, said Todd Free, assistant vice president for student administrative services.
After completing the college application and FAFSA, students receive a comprehensive financial aid package that offers payment options.
Students also have an opportunity to work on campus in a federal work-study program or an institutionally funded campus work program. The job gives students a paycheck to help with tuition or other expenses, Free said.
Sluiter has worked in the student admissions office at the Burpee Center since he was a freshman, and now he’s also a server at Chili’s to help pay his bills.
Rockford College’s tuition was $23,500 for 2007-08. Based on a study of NIU’s current freshman class, the program could help more than 900 new NIU students each year.
NIU tuition and fees for 2008-09 is estimated at $8,524. Room and board tacks on another $7,270; books and supplies cost an estimated $1,200. Add insurance, personal and travel expenses, and the university’s Web site estimates total college costs to be about $20,000 a year for Illinois residents.
Emmalee Wilson, 23, is a graduate student at Rockford College. She received money through FAFSA for her undergraduate studies at Rockford College. Today, she’s a graduate assistant, a job that subsidizes her tuition. Without it, she would have been in debt, she said.
Tony Hardin is a Rockford College senior who works in the admissions office for extra money.
“Then you don’t have to worry about bugging Mom,” he said.
Down economy benefits community colleges
Tuition at Rock Valley College is $66 a credit hour — that’s $990 for a 15-hour credit load, not including various fees, said Cyndi Stonesifer, director of financial aid.
About 40 percent of Rock Valley students take advantage of financial aid, grants or loans, or a work-study program, Stonesifer said. Students have the option of two work-study programs to help pay tuition.
In one program, the federal government pays 75 percent of the student paycheck and the college picks up the other quarter. In the other program, the college pays the entire wage, and students are limited to working 20 hours a week at an on-campus job, such as student services, the library or groundskeeping. Between 125 and 150 students take advantage of these programs, Stonesifer said.
The economy has made money tight for several families — something that community college officials are aware of, Stonesifer said.
“The community colleges are anticipating growth because of the economy,” she said.
Students choose a community college for several reasons: to stay closer to home and to save money on tuition and housing, she said. The lagging economy has made many families give community colleges a closer look, said Nancy Chamberlain, Rock Valley College’s director of communication.
“It certainly makes families stop,” she said, “and think a little bit more.”

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