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Sandy-struck students get tuition aid at LI colleges

Sarah Gochez was considering withdrawing from Molloy College

Sarah Gochez was considering withdrawing from Molloy College after her family's home was destroyed during superstorm Sandy. The college credited her $5,000, the remaining balance from the Fall semester, which helped convince her to finish out the year. (Jan. 4, 2013) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Several Long Island colleges, in an effort to keep students enrolled, are refunding, crediting and, in some cases, offering grants to help those unable to pay tuition because of hardships from superstorm Sandy.

More than 200 students at public and private institutions Islandwide have requested such tuition assistance so far, according to officials at the various colleges.

"Students lost homes, textbooks and cars, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to continue with the semester," said Sandra Friedman, associate vice president for student financial affairs at Nassau Community College, where 135 students asked to withdraw from the fall semester and have their tuition refunded because they were affected by Sandy.

Requests began in the days right after the storm and continue to come in, Friedman said.

With colleges on winter break, officials said they are trying to work with affected students to make sure they have the means to continue their education through the spring semester.

Several schools set up Sandy relief funds designed to help students with tuition bills and the cost of books and transportation to school. Others are revising students' federal and state financial aid applications, especially if there has been a drastic change in the amount of money a family is able to spend on higher education, college officials said.

Power to waive tuitionState university officials in mid-December passed a resolution giving presidents at each SUNY campus -- including Stony Brook, Farmingdale and Old Westbury -- the ability to waive fall semester tuition for students devastated by Sandy.

So far, six students at Stony Brook, eight at Farmingdale and two at SUNY Old Westbury have applied for waivers, officials at each of the schools said.

All of those schools, as well as private colleges including Adelphi, Hofstra, LIU Post, New York Institute of Technology and St. Joseph's, reported making efforts to work with students suffering financial hardships because of the storm.

Tuition was not refunded or waived at the private schools, but students have gotten grants ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.

"It's the same way we would've treated a student who might have had a catastrophic event, the death of a parent or a fire to their home," Adelphi spokeswoman Lori Duggan Gold said. "It's what our staff does on an ongoing basis."

Proof of hardship neededWhile the process varies by school, students requesting such waivers or Sandy-related tuition assistance need to provide documentation to prove their hardship. The supporting material often includes copies of insurance or FEMA claims and photos of property damage, college officials said.

Sarah Gochez, a senior at Molloy College, was among those uncertain about being able to return for the spring semester.

The storm brought waist-high water into the first floor of her family's Freeport home, from which she has commuted to the Rockville Centre school.

More than two months later, the house has no floors, limited plumbing and no heat. The family is financially stretched, laying out money for repairs as they wait for reimbursement from their insurance company.

"My parents are really having a hard time," said Gochez, 21. "We don't have the insurance money. And the money we do have is going to the house now."

Molloy credited her the remainder of her balance for the fall semester -- $5,000 -- with money from the college's Sandy relief fund.

"It was a great help to me because, on top of everything else, thinking about the tuition bill was driving me crazy," Gochez said.

Hard-hit student bodyAbout one-third of Molloy's 4,500 students live in the most damaged communities in southern Nassau County, so college administrators knew they needed to do something.

The college's annual gala, held two weeks after the storm hit Oct. 29, raised $200,000 for students affected by Sandy, and helped 28 students, including Gochez, pay their fall semester tuition.

The awards ranged from $1,200 to $7,500, said Linda Albanese, vice president for enrollment management. Molloy's yearly tuition is about $24,000.

In addition to grants, several colleges' administrators encouraged students to refile their federal student aid form, commonly known as FAFSA, to make sure they are getting all of the tuition assistance available to them.

Taking a breakSome college officials said a few students were so overwhelmed with anxiety and family responsibilities that they had to take off fall or spring semester.

"They wanted to spend the time with their families because they needed to clean up and felt they couldn't concentrate on school," Albanese said. Four Molloy students decided not to return during the fall semester.

Bill Gustafson, associate provost for student success at LIU Post, said about 20 students at the Old Brookville campus required counseling and a review of their financial aid packages. The school did not waive or refund tuition, but officials adjusted payment plans to help families that expected to have trouble paying on time.

"We had students who weren't sure what their next steps were in life, never mind getting to campus," Gustafson said.

"It wasn't just about tuition," he said. "These families didn't know what they were going to do next."

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