When Thomas Darby applied to college, the University of Massachusetts wooed him to its Amherst campus with a rich financial aid package that included loans, work-study, a $1,600 campus grant and a $600 award from the federal government.
But the federal grant never came through, and in his sophomore year the campus award evaporated, while tuition and fees rose more than $2,000. With little financial help from his parents in New York, Mr. Darby dropped out until he could borrow enough money to return.
"If I knew it was going to cost me this much, I wouldn't have come," said Mr. Darby, who graduated last month $30,000 in debt. "I would have gone to the State University of New York."
Students at other area colleges complain of similar "bait and switch" techniques, in which grants offered to prospective students turn into loans, or vanish altogether, as students settle into their sophomore or junior years.
"It's a big problem," said Claudia Salguero, director of education for the Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation in Boston. "Colleges do anything to attract students. And once the students are hooked, they start giving them a lot of loans" instead of the outright grants made in the first year.
Financial aid administrators say they believe that "front-loading" of financial aid is occurring -- at other campuses -- but that their institution does not bait and switch. UMass officials declined to discuss the specifics of Mr. Darby's case.
"I know it's happening," said Christine Perry, director of financial aid at Suffolk University in Boston. "But it's a practice that we have definitely not engaged in. We don't want that kind of reputation."
The aid directors also say that such a tactic would be counterproductive since it could increase the dropout rate and hurt the institution in national rankings. But some -- including Suffolk, UMass and Simmons College -- also admit that on occasion, they just run out of money.
In some cases, however, students and their parents who accuse college officials of trickery don't acknowledge their own responsibility for a reduction in aid. If a sibling graduates from college, or a parent's salary increases, or the student's grades fall or she misses the application deadline, the aid may drop, under college and federal rules.
Part of the problem is a failure of communication. Colleges rarely promise four -- or more -- years of equal aid, in part because of yearly changes in federal and state spending on scholarships and loans. But all too often they may allow students to assume that the aid package will stay the same.
If colleges were upfront about the practice, a recent study by the federal General Accounting Office suggests, "front-loading" grant aid might not always be a bad idea. In a smalll sample, researchers found that providing more grants to low-income students in their first year reduced dropout rates even if loans replaced grants in subsequent years.
At Northeastern, students complaining about a drop-off in grants after the first year helped persuade the university to add $4.5 million this spring for aid to juniors and seniors.
For prospective college students and parents, the best defense is to ask for detailed explanations of any aid offered and to get commitments in writing. If the award subsequently changes for no apparent reason, students shouldn't hesitate to raise questions.