TAMPA — Far from the chaos of Wall Street, Jessie Barber is living his own private version of economic apocalypse.
The University of South Florida junior moved to Virginia on an hour's notice last spring to deal with a family crisis. Shortly after he returned in June, his employer cut his hours. Then his live-in girlfriend broke up with him.
He spent the summer sleeping on friends' couches.
Figuring there was no way he'd be able to come up with $1,700 for tuition — plus books — he resigned himself to sitting out a semester or two.
Barber's story is not unique. Rising food and gas prices, job layoffs and declining home values are forcing college students nationwide to take drastic measures. A record number are applying for financial aid. More students are now receiving food stamps. And others are cutting back on credit hours or dropping out altogether.
Barber isn't standing in the food stamp line, but he did apply for financial aid after learning about a new USF initiative aimed at keeping students in school regardless of their financial woes.
Counselors in the "Don't Stop, Don't Drop" program helped him fill out the paperwork for a loan, arranged for a temporary fee waiver and got him registered for fall classes so he could stay on track for graduation.
"They listened to my story," Barber said. "They directed me to the proper places and kept giving me the encouragement to keep moving forward."
The program has helped 69 students so far, but USF administrators fear that many continue to fly under the radar.
"They're black, they're white, they're freshmen, they're Ph.D. students," said Les Miller, a former state senator who oversees the program. "Being a former legislator, it really concerns me."
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Signs of financial duress are everywhere. From January through June, nearly 9-million students filed federal financial aid forms, a 16 percent increase over the same period in 2007.
Florida applications jumped from 383,247 to 481,259. The 26 percent increase was the second largest in the country.
Closer to home, USF saw an 8 percent increase in federal loan applications, as well as a 15 percent jump in the number of students who had to amend their forms because of downturns in their financial situation, according to Billie Jo Hamilton, USF's director of financial aid.
"We don't know if it's a situation where we have more that are applying or if they're applying earlier in the year," Hamilton said. "But we're pretty much assured a lot of it has to do with the economic situations families are finding themselves in."
Statewide, more college students are applying for food stamps, a trend apparent in the Tampa Bay area. The Department of Children and Families reports that the number of students receiving food stamps in Pinellas County jumped from 2,142 to 2,758, a 29 percent increase from August 2007 to August 2008. Hillsborough County saw a 49 percent increase, from 3,152 to 4,699.
All of this is happening as college enrollment nationwide has jumped to more than 18-million in the past decade, an increase of nearly 4-million. In Florida, part of the increase can be traced to older students returning to school in the hope of securing better-paying jobs.
"Floridians understand the value of additional education," said state Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith, "particularly in times of economic stress."
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USF president Judy Genshaft says she saw the warning signs last spring. That's when she broached the idea of a one-stop service center that could help students with everything from applying for on-campus housing to filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a document that takes hours to complete.
USF officials heading up the "Don't Stop, Don't Drop" program began compiling a list of social service agencies. They also reached out to the office of housing and residential life, the counseling center and the office of academic affairs.
Among their first clients was a student who was living out of her car and one who was having trouble getting money transferred to the United States from an island affected by a hurricane.
Then there was Richard Comerford, a 48-year-old computer programmer whose job with Verizon was outsourced to India. Comerford wanted to return to school for a graduate degree in bioengineering but was having trouble applying for federal aid, a process he likens to the La Brea Tar Pits.
"Don't Stop, Don't Drop" personnel helped him cut through the red tape and enroll.
Kent Kelso, regional vice chancellor for student affairs at USF St. Petersburg, wants students like Comerford to know help is available.
"They're feeling the financial crunch just like the rest of us," Kelso said.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.