By Matt Krupnick
HAYWARD - Student aid requires significant reforms if colleges and universities are to fulfill the country's education needs, a group of college leaders, counselors and others said Monday.
The nation does not understand the complicated and confusing aid system, said panelists at a Cal State East Bay gathering. The country's economic problems make it essential that more families know they can afford college, panelists said.
Although lower-income students have applied for financial aid in record numbers, panelists noted disturbing trends. Fewer middle-class students applied to the University of California system this year, despite more applications overall, said Robert Birgeneau, UC Berkeley's chancellor.
"I predict that this portends the future," he said.
He told of a student who could not afford college but qualified for aid only after one parent lost a job. "This is a broken system. It's to your advantage for your parents to lose their jobs."
The discussion, sponsored by the College Board, came amid a national buzz surrounding student aid. President Barack Obama has proposed major increases to financial aid this year, and several organizations have released reports calling for reforms.
Several participants Monday said financial-aid education does not start early enough.
High school seniors often don't know basic information about paying for college, such as the need to fill out a FAFSA form that is required for all government aid, said Shannon Sakamoto, a counselor at San Jose's Lincoln High School. The form requires detailed information about a family's finances.
"When I have a senior asking, 'What's a FAFSA?'" she said, "or a parent arguing with me that I don't need their tax information, this is something that needs to be addressed earlier."
Some said they didn't learn about financial aid until they had started college - and had started panicking about money.
Several people said the federal government needs to help schools deal with such issues. Sakamoto, for example, noted that paper and ink costs keep many high school counselors from printing or copying forms, but the U.S. Department of Education does not have enough FAFSA forms to fill mail orders.
And attendee Jacqueline Bradley, Mendocino College's financial-aid director, lamented that each of California's 110 community colleges is responsible for letting students know every time federal aid changes."Why should each community college come up with a message?" she asked the panel. "That should be coming from Washington."