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Sequestration cuts imperil aid to college students

Sabia Taj, 19, of Elmont, a freshman at

Sabia Taj, 19, of Elmont, a freshman at Nassau Community College, works at the school's information desk as part of the federal work study program. (March 15, 2013). Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Thousands of college students on Long Island and across the nation who rely on financial aid, such as the federal work-study program, could feel the sting of Congress' across-the-board spending cuts in the coming academic year.

An estimated $71.2 million would be carved out of the Federal Work Study Grant program and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, a program for the neediest undergraduate students, unless the funds are restored through federal action.

Locally, about $660,000 in undergraduate financial aid money, typically sent to the colleges and universities and given to students each semester, is expected to be lost beginning with the fall semester, according to campus-by-campus estimates from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Prospective and returning students now reviewing financial aid packages and looking at colleges' sticker prices are having to make decisions based on information that could be changing, advocates said.

"This is the time of year financial aid offices are sending out information to tell students and their families what they can expect to spend on their education," said Megan McClean, NASFAA's director of policy and federal relations. "Some schools are having to put asterisks and include caveats because it is still too early to know the impact of the cuts."

Officials at some Long Island colleges said they will be able to absorb the reductions for now, supplanting the lost federal dollars with other scholarships and grants.

But others, like Nassau Community College, said the move would force them to reduce students' work-study hours -- offering less money to the same number of students -- or tighten eligibility requirements, allowing fewer students into the federal program.

The series of across-the-board federal spending cuts that took effect March 1, known as sequestration, represents a $1.2-trillion savings plan over 10 years.

"We can handle year one," said David Mainenti, associate vice president for student financial services and compliance at LIU Post. "The question is whether this is going to happen year after year until these programs are gone."

Big cuts in work study

LIU expects to lose about $140,000 in federal dollars that would have gone to 1,200 work-study students at its Brookville and Brooklyn campuses, Mainenti said.

The school's financial aid office uses other institutional funds to match the federal money to pay students between $1,500 and $3,000 per semester, depending upon their campus job. Beginning next semester, they will have to increase their portion of the match, Mainenti said. LIU will not lose SEOG funds, according to NASFAA.

Hofstra University stands to lose the most federal money of any single Long Island campus, according to NASFAA estimates -- $98,250 in federal work-study and $32,602 in SEOG funds.

Before sequestration, the private Hempstead institution would have received $1.28 million to give their work-study students and $509,530 to give SEOG students.

Hofstra officials declined to answer questions about work-study, but said they have increased the university's institutional scholarship budget 51 percent -- $33 million -- over the past five years.

"Federal resources are an important part of how students pay for their education, and while we are concerned by a potential loss in federal aid, we also remain committed as an institution to helping our students and their families finance this critical investment in their future," the university said in a statement.

Adelphi University, too, said it has the financial resources to "hold students harmless."

But Sandra Friedman, associate vice president of financial affairs at Nassau Community College, which could lose nearly $70,000 between the two programs, said the cuts will "hinder or delay educational goals."

Funds critical for students

Nassau Community College student Sabia Taj, who works at the college's information desk answering phones and directing students to campus resources, said the money is critical to her and her family.

The 19-year-old lives in Elmont with her parents, Afghan immigrants. The family suffered a financial blow this year when her father, a New York City cabdriver, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her mother, who doesn't work outside the home, drops Taj off and picks her up at the Garden City college each day.

Without work study, earning a degree and working off-campus would be nearly impossible, Taj said.

"I help out with my family and buy groceries," she said. "This money doesn't seem like a lot, but it is going to a good cause."

In 2010-11, the most recent years for which data are available, there were 718,427 undergraduates and graduate students in the work-study program in the United States, with students earning an average of $1,668.

In the same year, about 1.6 million undergraduates in the United States received SEOG. The average grant award was $620, according to NASFAA and federal Department of Education records.

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