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Making College More Affordable

February 17, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Reducing college costs continues to be a hot topic of discussion, especially given survey results that show that college affordability is a growing public concern.  Recent congressional acts, including the education provisions in the stimulus bill President Obama will sign today, the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008, and last year's reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, have kept the issue in focus, as have economic events, such as losses to 529 plans, rising unemployment, and new financial troubles for colleges.  A wide range of ideas have attracted the attention of lawmakers and the media, including several suggestions making the rounds this month.

Jesse Jackson recently wrote an article in the Chicago Sun-Times suggesting that Congress pass a law to offer a 1% interest rate on federal student loans, including Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans.  The Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran a column in January that went even further, suggesting that the federal government forgive all student loan debt.  Meanwhile, Lamar Alexander, a republican Senator from Tennessee, has gotten some publicity for suggesting that more colleges offer three-year paths to degrees, as one of many potential cost-saving measures.  Some states are looking into "no-frills" universities, and partnerships between state colleges and community colleges are also gaining traction as cost-saving options.

So we were wondering what people who are in the process of paying for college think.  What would you like to see happen to make college more affordable and reduce the burden of student loan debt on college graduates?

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Colleges in Three States Tackle Affordability

March 4, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

As college affordability continues to be a major issue for many Americans, more states and colleges are implementing policies to save students money.  Three recently unveiled programs tackle different aspects of the college cost dilemma confronting different groups of students, parents, and graduates.

A partnership between the University System of New Hampshire and businesses in the state could pay up to $8,000 of New Hampshire residents' student loan debt.  The program is set to take effect this fall and the University System of New Hampshire hopes to recruit at least 30-40 businesses to participate in its first year.  Students will be eligible to receive payments of $1,600 per year for the first two years of employment and $2,400 per year for the next two if they graduate from a New Hampshire college and remain in the state to work for four years.

Meanwhile, in New York, one college is formalizing a program to save students one year of loan debt by offering a clear three-year path to graduation.  Hartwick College has long offered students the option of taking more classes per semester and graduating in 3 years, but now the practice has been turned into an official academic program for high-performing students.  Students must have a strong high school GPA to qualify, and will be expected to take 18 credits in the fall and spring, plus four credits during a J-term each year, finishing with 120 credits in three years.

Three Nebraska state colleges are also trying to minimize student loan debt, but are targeting a group of low-income students to receive more university grant funding.  Wayne State College, Peru State College, and Chadron State College have announced plans to pay freshman year tuition and fees for all students eligible to receive Pell Grants.  Students would still be responsible for room, board, and books, but removing the worry of paying tuition and fees may encourage more low-income students to attend college in Nebraska, as well as enable them to stay enrolled past the first year.

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The Changing Face of Community Colleges

April 7, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

For current and future college students, April is a time for big, and potentially painful, decisions. Right now prospective college students are beginning to sort through their acceptance letters and financial aid offers and current students are starting to think about how to pay for school next year.  If the financial picture is much bleaker than you'd hoped, but you're hesitant to commit to the two-year school as a money-saving option, here's some information you may not have known about the community college experience.

Just like four-year schools, different community colleges offer vastly different experiences, and in fact, depending on your major and location, you can potentially get many of the things four-year schools offer for much less money.  For example, did you know that some community colleges offer on-campus housing, and others offer a selection of four-year degrees?  Other community colleges have articulation agreements with area universities, as well, so you can spend two years paying next to nothing for credits that can potentially transfer to some of the most expensive and prestigious schools in your area.

These programs can be a great deal, since community college tuition tends to be much lower than private colleges, or even four-year state colleges and universities.  With on-campus housing, international student classmates, innovative educational programs, numerous online courses, and challenging coursework, the right community college can start to feel a lot more like the "traditional" college experience, but at a fraction of the price.

So how do you find community colleges with sweet deals like fancy apartments or four-year nursing degrees? Just do a little research.  Start with a college search in your area and see what's available. You could land the educational deal of a lifetime.

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Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter

April 9, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Along with acceptance and rejection letters, colleges are sending out another nerve-wracking piece of mail this month: the financial aid award letter.  For many families who have only recently discovered the "joys" of completing the FAFSA, the financial aid letter can bring about a whole new kind of terror and confusion.  Even for people who are somewhat familiar with aid, deconstructing the naming conventions and occasionally less-than-detailed explanations on various colleges' award letters can be frustrating, as can mounting an effective comparison among differing aid packages.  Below is the first part in a series on understanding your financial aid award letter.

Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter, Part I: COA and EFC

Two of the most important numbers on your award notice will be the cost of attendance (COA) and the expected family contribution (EFC). These are instrumental in determining your award, and they also have some of the most obscure and misleading meanings. Despite their prominence, they're occasionally tucked in strange places on the letter, such as near the bottom or in a box in the middle. Finding them can kind of be a Where's Waldo moment.

Cost of Attendance

The cost of attendance, often abbreviated COA, is occasionally referred to by other names, such as your "budget."  This number is not what you owe the school, nor what a year of education will necessarily cost you there. Instead, it is the average amount paid by a student in your situation: dependent living on campus, independent living off-campus, part-time living rent-free at home, etc. The COA will include tuition, student fees (these could change if you later register for classes with special fees, such as art or aviation), room and board (either what the school is charging you or what the average student in your housing situation pays), books, and miscellaneous living expenses.  Your school's financial aid office will likely have a detailed breakdown of this number available online or in the office if you ask.

The important thing to realize here is that this number is significantly higher than the amount of money you will actually owe the school. If you plan on working your way through college or receiving assistance from your parents for living expenses, you may not need aid to cover your full COA. It can still be a good tool for comparing among colleges, though, especially since they factor in handy things like average living expenses in the area.

Expected Family Contribution

The other big number on your award letter will be the expected family contribution, or E FC. Again, this is not the amount your family actually owes the school or is expected to pay out-of-pocket. Instead, this is the amount that, according to the information you submitted on your FAFSA, a family in your situation should ideally be able to contribute towards a college education. This is used to determine your eligibility for "need-based" aid, which includes state and federal grants, work-study, and even subsidized loans. Certain grants and scholarships can only be awarded to students with an EFC below a specific number (for example, 4671 for Federal Pell Grants), so if you are not eligible for grants but your financial circumstances have changed since 2008, talk to your financial aid office to see if your EFC can be adjusted downward.

Your EFC should be the same at pretty much every school, since they're using the same information to determine it (some schools require both a FAFSA and a CSS profile, so there could potentially be some differences).  However, it's still useful for comparisons among schools, since you can use it to determine whether your full "financial need" has been met by each school. Like nearly everything else in student financial aid, this term does not necessarily mean what one might think it should mean. Your financial need is a number calculated based on the two numbers we just discussed.  Your full financial need is your COA minus your EFC, and your unmet financial need is generally your COA minus your EFC minus any need-based aid and scholarship awards you've received.

So, how do you determine what the need-based awards and scholarships are on your award letter?  Check out Part II for that information.

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Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter II

April 10, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

So you've figured out your cost of attendance, your expected family contribution, and the total amount of aid you're being offered at each college.  However, not all aid is created equal, and a package that appears to meet your full need could actually get you into more debt than a package that leaves a substantial gap.  A useful move both in choosing a college and budgeting out what you need for the year is to separate the grant and scholarship aid you've been offered from all of the other financial aid.  This is going to involve some more math and record-keeping on your part. We'll delve into the best kinds of aid in the second part in our series on understanding your financial aid award letter.

Understanding Your Award Letter, Part II: Grants and Scholarships

College scholarships and grants are money you will not have to pay back.  They come from a variety of places and have different terms attached.  Grants are almost universally need-based, and will typically be awarded based on your expected family contribution and your estimated financial need.  Scholarships are given based on a variety of criteria, and while some may carry a need-based component, not all do.  Below are some of the most common varieties of grants and scholarships you're likely to see on your award letter.

Grants

There are state grants, federal grants, and institutional grants, but they will likely all be listed in the same place.  The most common type of grant is the Federal Pell Grant.  For 2009-2010, Pell Grants come in amounts from $976 to $5350 for full-time students.  Especially needy students may also receive an SEOG, which stands for Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant.  Award amounts vary, but they are usually a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.  First-year students may receive an Academic Competitiveness Grant, or ACG, which carries an award of $750 to $1,300.

There are also federal grants for people in specific fields.  SMART grants and TEACH grants reward students pursuing training in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and education.  SMART grants are only available to juniors and seniors who meet eligibility requirements.

Most states have at least one state grant program, and students who met deadlines and other criteria may see an additional state grant award on their letter.  Many states also offer major-specific grant programs, as well as grant programs for other specific student populations.  You can talk to you financial aid office or visit your state board of higher education's website to find out more about these programs.

Scholarships

Most universities offer at least one need-based scholarship, which is roughly the same thing as a university grant.  Numerous varieties of university scholarships exist, but the most common are need-based, academic, major-specific, and athletic.  If you've received a grant or scholarship award from your college, you will likely receive a letter explaining it in more detail.  Make note of the terms of the award, including whether it's renewable and what conditions have to be met to receive it.  This is especially important for college academic scholarships, as many require a fairly high GPA or heavy course load to renew.

It's also important to keep track of the grants, scholarships, and other institutional aid you receive because sometimes the awards may not appear on your first award letter, or they may show up under a different name.  Many scholarships come from endowed funds, and you may get a letter giving the more general name of the award, but may see it on your letter under the donor's name.  This can cause confusion and disappointment if you think you got a bonus scholarship but actually did not, and if your award is missing, adding it on later may result in your financial aid being recalculated if you're funded beyond your financial need or your cost of attendance.

Finally, if you've received any scholarship money through places other than the university or the state (such as awards you found through our free scholarship search), make sure it's represented on your award letter.  Many scholarship providers send the check to your school, and the school will need to make sure it doesn't alter your aid package before they disburse it. If you need the money to pay tuition or buy books, you want to make sure everything's set up so the check can smoothly make its way from the scholarship provider to your account.

If you're comparing offers from different schools, tally up the grant and scholarship aid you will receive this year, as well as the aid you can anticipate in future years.  Compare what your total award over four years will be for each school for the most accurate picture of who has given you the best deal.

Now that we've gotten through the free money, we can get to everything else.  Check out Part III for information on work-study and loans.

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Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter III

April 14, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Today we move on to the final part of our Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter series.  If you were lucky enough to have your entire tuition paid through free money for college, then you can stop reading now.  But the vast majority of students who apply for aid will be awarded at least one less ideal form of financial aid.  Sorting through the rest of your award letter is the tough part--this is where difficult choices may need to be made, including whether and how much to borrow.

Understanding Your Award Letter, Part III: Work-Study and Student Loans

While you probably would not want to decline any of the free money we discussed last week, you may want to turn down some of the aid covered today.  You are allowed to decline any assistance on your award letter if you feel you will not need it, and you can also elect to take a smaller amount than what is given.  Keep this in mind when budgeting for the year, and don't feel obligated to borrow more than you need.  If you change your mind and need this aid later, you can usually get it back.

Federal Work-Study

If you have remaining financial need after any grants and scholarships you've been awarded, you may see an award of federal work-study on your letter.  This is a federally subsidized program for students working certain jobs on, and occasionally off, campus.  Work-study is not money you will receive up front.  You need to get a job that is funded through the work-study program to receive this money, and it will be given to you as a paycheck, not as money off your bill.  Since many jobs on campus are reserved for work-study students, it can be a great option if you're planning to work while you're in college.

However, if you already have a job that is not funded through work-study or you do not plan to work, you may want to decline this award.  There's no penalty for failing to use your work-study, but if you've been funded to your full need or cost of attendance, canceling your work-study may free up space for more or better student loans than you would have otherwise received.

Student Loans

There are two main categories of student loans: federal loans and private loans.  Federal loans include subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford Loans, as well as Perkins Loans and PLUS Loans.  Private loans come from banks and typically carry higher interest rates, though some states offer their own low-interest student loan programs.  Depending on whether the school you attend participates in the Federal Direct Loans Program, or the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program, your federal Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans may be issued by a bank, but their terms are still set by the federal government.  We have more detailed breakdowns of the different forms of student loans on our site, but here's a quick refresher, in rough order of desirability.

Federal Perkins Loans

Currently, Perkins Loans have limited funding and are often reserved for students with higher financial need.  Schools award these at their discretion, but you apply for them through the FAFSA.  However, if you receive one, you may want to take it, as they currently carry the lowest interest rates and some of the most favorable repayment terms.  Perkins Loans have a fixed 5 percent interest rate and a 10 year repayment period.  They are subsidized loans, which means interest does not accrue while you are in school.  They also have a 9-month grace period before repayment begins.  The current Perkins Loan limits are $5,500 per year for undergraduates and $8,000 per year for graduate students.

Federal Stafford Loans

Federal Stafford Loans come in two varieties, subsidized and unsubsidized.  Subsidized loans won't accrue interest while you're in college, while unsubsidized loans will.  These are awarded automatically if you indicated on your FAFSA that you are interested in student loans.  The interest rates on Stafford Loans are set by Congress, and are currently fixed at 6.0% for subsidized loans and 6.8% for unsubsidized loans for the life of the loan.  Stafford Loans come with a six-month grace period and a variety of repayment plans, most in the range of 10 to 15 years.  The amount you can borrow each year is based on your grade level, and ranges from $5,500 for dependent freshmen to $20,500 for graduate students.

PLUS Loans

You may or may not see a PLUS Loan listed on your award letter.  This is a federal loan program that allows parents to borrow for their students, up to the student's full cost of attendance.  Some schools include these to fill the gap between your financial aid and your cost of attendance, as a way of letting you know the option exists.  While you are guaranteed to receive a Stafford Loan regardless of your credit, so long as you complete a few basic requirements, PLUS Loans, like private loans, require an application and a credit check (if your parents are denied a PLUS Loan, you can apply for additional Stafford Loans through the financial aid office).

Whether or not you see a PLUS Loan on your award letter, if you still need to borrow money to pay for school, this loan can be an option for many.  PLUS Loans currently carry a fixed interest rate of 7.9 percent for Direct Loans and 8.5 percent for FFEL.  Loans can be repaid immediately or starting six months after graduation, but interest will accrue while you're in school.  Research the relative merits of PLUS Loans and various private loans and discuss with your family which option will be best for you.

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More Students Receiving Financial Aid

April 15, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

As college costs continue to rise, the percentage of students receiving financial aid also continues to grow.  As of the 2007-2008 academic year, a full two-thirds of undergraduate students received some form of student financial aid, with 47 percent receiving federal aid. This is according to the "First Look" report on the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study published by the National Center for Education Statistics yesterday.

The First Look report shows that the percentage of students receiving aid has continued to increase, from 63 percent in 2003-2004, and 55 percent in 1999-2000.  It also provides a breakdown of the percentage of students receiving different forms of financial aid, such as grants and scholarships, federal student loans, federal work-study, and federal PLUS loans.  According to the report, 52 percent of students received college scholarships and grants, while 38 percent of students borrowed federal student loans.  Relatively few students took advantage of work-study and PLUS loans.

NCES collects and publishes data on financial aid every three years and the First Look report is typically followed by a more in-depth analysis.  The National Postsecondary Student Aid Study draws from a sizable sample of students:  114,000 undergraduates and 14,000 graduates at 1,600 colleges and universities. Additional information is available on the NCES website.

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College Students' Credit Card Debt Increasing

April 16, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

While an increasing number of college students received financial aid in the 2007-2008 academic year, that calendar year students also ran up more credit card debt.  The average college student owed $3,173 on credit cards in March 2008, compared to $2,169 in 2004.  This information comes from the student lender Sallie Mae, which has been tracking students' credit card debt since 1998.

The study also found that student credit card debt increases with grade level.  The average freshman owed $2,038 on credit cards, while the average senior owed $4,138.  The money is not just being spent on beer and pizza, either.  According to a supplemental survey by Sallie Mae, the vast majority of students (92 percent) report charging at least one educational expense, such as books, to a credit card.  This figure is also higher than in 2004, as is the percentage of students charging tuition to a credit card, which now stands at nearly 30 percent.  Students reported charging an average of $2,000 in educational expenses to credit cards.

Higher tuition, a poor economy, and difficulty finding private loans may have already pushed these numbers higher for 2009.  With high interest rates and the need to begin repayment immediately, credit cards are one of the worst ways to pay for school.  Scholarship opportunities and federal student financial aid should definitely be explored before students resort to charging tuition to a card.  A variety of grants and scholarships, as well as low interest student loans, can help students avoid credit card debt while in college, and keep their debt from consuming their entire salary when they graduate.  Before you reach for the plastic to pay your campus bills, spend a few minutes doing a free scholarship search.  You may be very glad you did.

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Study Shows Substantial Increase in Private Student Borrowing

April 23, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Analyses of the data published last week by the National Center for Education Statistics are already starting to emerge.  The Project on Student Debt has announced that a significantly larger portion of students borrowed private loans in the 2007-2008 academic year than in 2003-2004, according to the NCES survey.

Private loan borrowing increased by 9 percentage points, with 14 percent of students now relying on private loans, as opposed to 5 percent in 2003-2004.  Not surprisingly, more expensive schools saw the biggest increase in private student loans.  At for-profit colleges, the percentage of students borrowing private loans increased from 14 percent to 43 percent, while private non-profit colleges also saw a substantial increase.  Overall, 32 percent of students at schools charging more than $10,000 per year in tuition wound up borrowing private loans in 2007-2008.

While the credit crunch may slow the rate of private borrowing in the near future, these student loans still are regarded as the best or only option by some students.  According to the Project on Student Debt's analysis, 26 percent of private loan borrowers did not take out any Stafford Loans first, and 14 percent did not even complete the FAFSA.

Private loans generally carry the highest interest rates and least flexible repayment terms out of all student loans and most experts encourage students to avoid them if possible.  Explore other options for financial aid first, especially grants and scholarships.  You will also want to consider your potential debt loand when choosing a college.  Since students at more expensive schools are more likely to have to borrow private loans, students with limited financial resources should think carefully about the relative merits of a private college as opposed to a state college or community college before committing themselves to private loan debt.

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Student Loan Default Rates on the Rise

April 24, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Student loan default rates are rising for both federal and private loans as more recent grads struggle to find work.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the federal default rate is nearing 6.9 percent, the highest it's been since 1998.  Similarly, some private lenders are experiencing default rates that have already nearly doubled in just a year or two.

Loan repayment woes are expected to get worse as tuition continues to rise and the job market remains depressed.  Since student loans cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, borrowers are stuck with their debt no matter what happens.  Add in continued increases in the number of students borrowing to pay for school and the amount they borrow, and student loan defaults are poised to be a serious long-term problem whether or not the economy recovers quickly.

Borrowers do have some flexibility in negotiating their loan repayment terms, especially with federal Stafford Loans.  Borrowers of federal and private loans are also able to apply for a temporary forbearance, halting payments but not the accrual of interest, if they find themselves unable to pay.  However, reduced monthly payments now will mean either larger payments or more payments in the long run.

If you are looking at ways to pay for college, the best strategy is still to avoid student loans to the greatest extent possible.  Do a free college scholarship search and be sure to factor cost and available financial aid into your college search, as well.

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