More students now paying their own way

When Shaimaa Abdelhamid received her financial aid package last summer, she was startled by the expected family contribution — $30,000.

Abdelhamid, a junior majoring in history and political science, had recently become financially independent. The Financial Aid Office had determined her family could afford to pay $30,000 toward tuition, but now that she was on her own, Abdelhamid did not know how she was going to come up with the money.

“I’m on my own. Both my parents have filed for bankruptcy in the past couple years, and I can’t afford school unless I get more financial aid,” she said.

Because Abdelhamid isn’t 24 years old, married, supporting someone else, in the military, from an abusive household, an orphan or an emancipated minor, she can’t list herself as an independent on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Independent students tend to earn higher aid awards than regular applicants because their parents’ income is not considered.

It is unclear how many USC students are in the same position as Abdelhamid, but national trends suggest the number of students receiving zero financial support from their parents might be increasing. Schools, meanwhile, continue to calculate financial aid based on the assumption parents are contributing.

“What we’re finding in our surveys is that tuition growth compounded with the economic decline, there’s increasing hesitation from parents to take on debt,” said Peter Mazareas, vice chairman of the College Savings Foundation.

According to the foundation’s 2009 survey, 41 percent of parents have not saved any money for their children’s college education. Another 28 percent said they have saved less than $5,000 per child. Compared to a third of parents in 2008, nearly half of the 778 parents surveyed in 2009 expected their children to pay a third of college costs.

For those like Abdelhamid, whose parents don’t offer any support, filing an appeal is important if initial aid awards seem unfair.

Four days after e-mailing the Financial Aid Office last summer, Abdelhamid received an additional $23,000.

Abdelhamid pooled her new aid award with a $6,000 loan, a $5,000 scholarship from her dad’s employer and federal and state grants to pay tuition. Her $4,000 work-study income covers credit card and cell phone bills. Excess financial aid pays rent.

One junior majoring in political science, who asked to remain anonymous because of privacy concerns, said that except for a loan her parents co-signed when she was 17, she has paid rent, bills and tuition herself. She married her husband last March, carrying $60,000 in debt.

“USC wanted to consider both my parents’ and my husband’s incomes for financial aid [last year], which made no sense whatsoever,” she said. “I was convinced for most of last summer that I wouldn’t be able to finish USC because the Financial Aid Office wouldn’t budge.”

After appealing via e-mail, USC awarded her independent status and increased her aid.

Mazareas said students should feel comfortable appealing because financial aid officers have discretion to amend awards in special circumstances.

“The worst thing a student can do is drop out of a school for financial purposes,” Mazareas said. “They’ll find support if it’s a drastic situation.”

The Financial Aid Office was not available for comment.