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The Humanist Essay Contest

March 9, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Students currently enrolled in grades 9-12 are eligible for this week's Scholarship of the Week, The Humanist Essay Contest.  The Humanist, a magazine published by the American Humanist Association, sponsors this annual scholarship essay contest for high school students.  Applicants are asked to submit an essay of 1,500 to 2,500 words dealing with humanist themes in any subject or field of inquiry.

Essay judging will be guided by the definition of humanism found in each issue of The Humanist magazine. Other criteria include originality of thought, sense of emotional engagement, clarity and quality of presentation, amount of research evidenced, and future potential shown by the author.

Prize: $1,000, a three-year membership to the American Humanist Association, and an invitation to present the winning essay at the annual AHA conference

Eligibility: Students residing in the United States or Canada who are currently enrolled in grades 9-12

Deadline: April 3, 2009

Required Material: A completed scholarship essay of 1,500 to 2,500 words submitted to The Humanist via email

Further details about the application process can be found by conducting a free college scholarship search on Scholarships.com. Once the search is completed, students eligible for this scholarship award will find it in their search results.

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Saving for College, Part II

March 6, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Continuing our theme from yesterday, today's blog post centers on more options for saving for college.  Yesterday, we discussed 529 plans, popular college savings vehicles that have been battered by recent financial troubles.  If you're considering saving for college but are not sold on a 529 plan, the most common alternatives are discussed below.

Coverdell ESA. Coverdell Education Savings Accounts are similar to 529 plans in most respects, but do have their own benefits and drawbacks. Rather than being sold by a state, they are sold by banks and brokerages, which can charge their own management fees. Because there aren't any state ties, there aren't any residency limitations, though there also aren't any state tax breaks for enrolling in a Coverdell ESA.

Coverdell accounts allow more flexible investment options and unlimited changes to investments. They can also be used to pay for high school and elementary school expenses, in addition to college costs. Otherwise, the expenses Coverdell and 529 plans can be used for are roughly the same: tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board if over half-time, and other qualified educational expenses.

One major limitation to the Coverdell ESA is the $2,000 annual contribution cap. This is the limit per account holder, not per contributor. Additionally, individuals must have an adjusted gross income of $110,000 or below to contribute, and $95,000 or below to contribute the full $2,000. Coverdell accounts are held in the beneficiary's name, so they can hurt the student on the FAFSA. They also must be used or cashed out by the time the beneficiary turns 30, and they go to the beneficiary no matter what, while 529 plans can be given back to the parent in charge of the account if the student chooses not to go to college.

Roth IRA. The Roth IRA, typically used as a retirement account, can also be used to save for school. As long as you're withdrawing contributions, rather than earnings, there is no penalty if you are using the money from your IRA for educational expenses. However, a college savings plan might be the better way to go if you're setting up an account specifically for your student (especially since contributions to a Roth IRA must come from income the beneficiary earned from working), and dipping into your retirement funds to pay for college is widely regarded as a less than ideal choice by financial experts. But if you choose to take it, the option is there.

UTMA. The Uniform Transfer to Minors Act allows assets to be given as gifts to minors without the establishment of a trust. While the options explored up to this point have been savings accounts or investments, UTMA covers everything, including property. An adult manages these assets in a custodial account until the owner reaches the age of 18 or 21, depending on the state. In the meantime, the funds in the account can be used to benefit the child, including taking care of educational expenses. Once the owner reaches the age of majority, the assets are theirs to use as they please. This can mean paying for school, or it can mean making less desirable financial choices.  Since these assets belong to the student, they would count against them for student financial aid.

Government Bonds. While typically regarded as the province of grandparents, government savings bonds (Series EE is the most common) are also an option for paying for college. Bonds can be purchased online or at banks, and redeemed later for cash. As opposed to stock market-based savings plans which can lose big during crashes, government bonds are going to continue to grow as long as there's a government to honor them. And if there's no longer a United States government, well, you might have more to worry about than paying for college.

Also, since no rules state that a savings bond must be redeemed for college costs, the money can be used towards paying off student loans, covering college living expenses...or partying it up during spring break in Mexico.

While EE Savings Bonds grow at a steady rate, they do grow very slowly. You're also limited to a purchase of $5,000 per calendar year. Since they're such a safe bet, they can be great gifts for high school students, but a market-based option might be a better way to grow savings and maximize returns for younger children.

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Saving for College, Part I: 529 Plans

March 5, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Paying for college can be a struggle.  Nobody wants to repay student loans forever, not everybody is going to land a full-tuition scholarship, and federal student financial aid seldom takes care of all college costs.  If you're a parent or relative looking ahead to cover college costs for a child, finding scholarships is a great step now, but you may also want to consider college savings plans.

Read below for information on 529 savings plans, which are one of the most popular and diverse options for college savings.  If this is not for you, check back tomorrow for more information on other savings options.

529 Savings Plans While 529 plans have sustained average losses of 21 percent in the last year, they can still be a good idea, especially if you choose your plan carefully and have plenty of time to save.  Many 529 plans allow you to move your savings into a much more conservative portfolio when the student nears college, an option they're sure to publicize based on the recent behavior of the stock market.  While there are limits on how many changes can be made to a 529 plan per year, the plans are otherwise quite flexible and varied, so it's easy to find one that works for your situation. Plus, 529 plans can be taken out in the parent's name, rather than the student's, so they will only minimally affect a student's financial aid eligibility.

Additionally, contribution limits are high, income limits are nonexistent, minimum contribution requirements tend to be low, and many states offer a variety of incentives for residents who contribute to their plans.  As an added bonus, many 529 plans can accept contributions from anybody anywhere, not just the people named on the account, and several programs have been created to take advantage of this.  For example, some plans allow a portion of credit card purchases or purchases at certain stores to go towards a particular student's 529 plan.

Prepaid Tuition Savings Plans If you're hesitant about sticking money for college in the stock market with uncertain returns, another type of 529 plan is also gaining popularity.  Prepaid tuition plans allow families to contribute a fixed amount now in exchange for a certain portion of tuition being covered in the future.  Many states do this for their state colleges and universities, and the Independent 529 plan, which is accepted by over 200 private colleges, also fixes contributions to portions of future tuition.  Both of these varieties eliminate worries about tuition inflation, though if tuition actually goes down between now and when the student starts college, a prepaid plan might not be the most lucrative option.

The Down Side 529 plans do have drawbacks and limitations.  Money must be spent on education, and the expenses that qualify are limited to undergraduate tuition, fees, educational expenses like books, and now computers. However, if the student is enrolled at least half-time, money from a 529 plan can also go towards room and board, so even if your student earns a full-tuition scholarship, it's possible to still take advantage of 529 savings.  Money must stay in a plan for at least 3 years, so if you're saving for a college sophomore, you're out of luck with these.  However, you can transfer the unused portion of a 529 plan to another family member without incurring the heavy withdrawal penalties, and it may also be possible to use the funds towards graduate or professional school.

Plans also vary from state to state, so your state's plan might not have the best benefits for you, or might not offer as sweet a deal in terms of tax breaks or low fees as the next state over offers its residents.  Luckily, you can shop around among a variety of plans, including ones offered by several other states.

529 plans are not the only college saving option, though they remain the most popular and perhaps the most well-known.  Check back tomorrow for information on the rest of the pack.

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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 State of Federal Student Financial Aid

March 3, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

With all the talk about spending and stimulus legislation and bailouts, it can be easy to lose track of what benefits taxpayers can actually expect to receive. Most likely, everyone knows that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, perhaps better known as “the stimulus,” will create jobs through funding “shovel-ready” projects and will put a little extra in paychecks through a tax rebate that will take effect this summer.  You probably also know that there’s also financial aid in there for education, but you may not be sure exactly what.

Frankly, so much federal legislation and talk of change has been floating around in the last two years that anyone who last paid a tuition bill as recently as 2007 probably doesn’t even recognize financial aid in 2009.  To help, we’ve prepared a breakdown of where student financial aid stands currently.

Pell Grants. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increased the maximum Federal Pell Grant award from $4,731 for 2008-2009 to $5,350 for 2009-2010.  The maximum Pell award will go up again in 2010-2011 to $5,500 under this legislation.

The income threshold to qualify for federal grant programs also increased.  Now students with an expected family contribution (a number determined by completing the FAFSA) of up to $4,671 (up from $4,041 this year) can qualify for Pell grants.  They will not receive the whole award, but even the minimum award has increased—from $400 for full-time students in 2007-2008 to $976 for the same group in 2009-2010, due in part to the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which increased all Pell awards by $490.

Students qualifying for Federal Pell Grants can also pick up additional college funding through Academic Competitiveness Grants or SMART grants, which include Pell eligibility in their criteria.  Many non-federal college scholarships and grants also use Pell eligibility to determine awards, so the newly Pell-eligible will definitely want to do a scholarship search to see what’s out there.

Work-Study. More students will also see “federal work-study” on their financial aid award letter in 2009-2010 thanks to the economic stimulus legislation.  More money is available to work-study programs that allow students to get a part-time job on (or occasionally off) campus and count the income as financial aid.  Work-study programs provide great job opportunities for student workers, and since the money is given in the form of a paycheck, students can use these funds to pay their tuition bills or to cover living expenses.

Tax Benefits. One of the biggest perks of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is the creation of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which replaces the Hope Credit.  The tax benefits under Hope only went up to $1,800 and only could be taken for two years.  The American Opportunity Tax Credit can be used for four years, can fund up to $2,500 of college costs (100% of the first $2,000 plus 25% of the next $2,000, for a total of $2,500), and up to 40% is refundable, so people who don’t pay as much in taxes as they would qualify to receive in the credit can still get something.

Additionally, the income level at which the American Opportunity Tax Credit phases out is higher than the Hope credit, allowing individuals with incomes of up to $90,000 and married couples with incomes of up to $180,000 to take it.

Families will be able to start taking advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit on their 2009 taxes.

Other Benefits. Much more is included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  For example, students with 529 savings plans can now use that money to purchase a computer for school.  Additionally, states will receive billions of dollars over the next two years, with a portion of the money devoted specifically to funding projects at public institutions of higher education, as well preventing or reversing massive reductions in state education spending.

While student loans stayed the same in the stimulus, they did receive a boost in the fall through the continuation of the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act, as well as other recent legislation, including some new aid to lenders.

If you’d like to read more about how recent legislation has affected paying for college, our blog archives feature breakdowns of the 2007 College Cost Reduction Act, the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, the 2008 Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act, the 2008 GI Bill, and more examples of what's going on with college in Congress.

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Scholarships.com College Art Scholarship

March 2, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Painting, sculpture, music, photography, theater and film all come to mind when the word "art" is mentioned, a fact reflected in the criteria for many art scholarships.  In today’s world, students who major in commercial arts, graphic design and photojournalism are all considered artists in their respective fields. To recognize and support artists working in diverse media, Scholarships.com has created this week's Scholarship of the Week.

Students who apply for the Scholarships.com College Art Scholarship will have the chance to earn $1,000 towards their college education—and it couldn’t be easier. Just respond to the following question in a 250 to 350 word essay (entries that fall outside of this word range will be disqualified): "What has influenced your decision to pursue a career in art?"

Prize: $1,000

Eligibility: Applicants must be U.S citizens and registered users of Scholarships.com.  To apply, users must be undergraduate students or high school students planning to major in one of the following areas of study at an accredited two-year or four-year college or university in the fall of 2009:

  • Art
  • Art History
  • Commercial Arts
  • Cosmetology
  • Dance
  • Design
  • Fashion
  • Film Studies
  • Fine Arts
  • Graphic Design
  • Interior Design
  • Music
  • New Media
  • Photographic Studies
  • Theatre
  • TV News
  • Photojournalism
  • Voice
  • Web Design

Deadline: April 30, 2009

Required Material: A completed Scholarships.com profile and a 250 to 350-word scholarship essay written in response to the question, “What has influenced your decision to pursue a career in art?”

Further details about the application process can be found by conducting a free college scholarship search on Scholarships.com. Once the search is completed, students eligible for this scholarship award will find it in their search results.

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Yet Another Boost to Pell Grants in 2010 Budget Proposal

February 27, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Details of President Obama's proposed 2010 budget are emerging, with education being one of the first sections unveiled.  In the budget proposal are increases and structural changes to Federal Pell Grants, changes to Federal Perkins Loans, and the potential elimination of the Federal Family Education Loan Program, so that all new Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans for 2010-2011 would be originated by the federal Direct Loans program.  The president's budget also recommends that the new $2500 American Opportunity Tax Credit be made permanent, and that $2.5 billion be devoted over the next five years to programs to increase college access and completion.

After remaining nearly stagnant between 2002 and 2007, the maximum award for the Federal Pell Grant has increased significantly over the last few years.  It shot up from $4050 in 2006-2007 to $4310 in 2007-2008, then $4731 in 2008-2009 and now stands at $5350 for 2009-2010.  If this provision in President Obama's 2010 budget is adopted by Congress, the maximum Pell Grant will be set at $5500 for 2010-2011, and from there on out, it will increase in step with the consumer price index, plus 1%.  This award amount would become mandatory, as well, saving Pell funding from being at the whim of Congress.  This is good news across the board for now, but may be a problem later, since tuition and fees have steadily outpaced inflation for most of recent memory and it is entirely possible that they will soon leave the Pell Grant in the dust, despite this new funding commitment.

While the president's plans for Pell Grants and tax credits have largely been met with enthusiasm, the proposed changes to student loans have received mixed reactions.  Changes to Perkins Loans would be good for some schools and students and bad for others, but would increase access to the loans overall.  The move from FFELP to Direct Loans also has its ups and downs.

Channeling all Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans through Direct Loans would save money and streamline the process, and it may even reduce confusion about federal versus private loans, since students would no longer be borrowing both from the same bank.  However, some worry that despite the extent to which incentives have already disappeared and the FFEL program has been subsisting off temporary goverment support for the past two years, abolishing it entirely may hurt students in the long run.  Moving to a single lender system would eliminate what little competition in the student loan market remained, doing away with the possibility of future repayment or loan consolidation incentives.  Others worry that some of the counseling and support that FFELP funding provided to borrowers would disappear, though a new $2.5 billion grant program would likely supplement these programs.

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House Approves 2009 Appropriations Bill

February 26, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

An omnibus appropriations bill for the current fiscal year passed the House yesterday and is on its way to the Senate.  This piece of legislation will raise the maximum award for Federal Pell Grants to $5350 for 2009-2010.  The bill was put on hold last year due to threats of a veto from President Bush.

While Pell Grants received a funding boost, SEOG grants will remain at 2008 funding levels, as will work-studyPerkins Loan cancellation programs will receive a boost in funding to cover shortfalls.  Additionally, TRIO and Gear Up programs, aimed at helping low-income students get into college, also received more funding.

The first draft of the budget for the 2010 fiscal year is also heading to Congress soon after being unveiled by President Obama this morning.  While details are still emerging, based on an address the president delivered Tuesday, it's likely that further funding for financial aid programs and higher education in general will be included. 

While budgets are being hashed out and college aid is generally on its way up, more trouble may be brewing for student loans.  A PLUS loan auction program slated to go into effect this summer could reduce the availability of these loans that parents take out on behalf of their students, at least at schools participating in the FFEL program. Financial aid officers have petitioned Congress to delay the scheduled cut in PLUS loan subsidies so as not to jeopardize students' ability to pay for school in the midst of a recession that has already driven dozens of banks away from one form of student lending or another.

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Obama Urges Americans to Attend College

February 25, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

In a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress, President Obama called for every American to complete at least one year of postsecondary education and pledged greater financial support for those attending college.  He also urged that America become the "best educated" nation and set the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

In addition to healthcare and alternative energy, the president declared education to be a top priority for improving America's economy and its place in the world.  He called on families, schools, and Congress to embrace this priority, and to better prepare citizens for careers that increasingly require some amount of  education or training beyond high school.

President Obama promised greater funding for higher education in the federal budget for 2010. This may include the educational tax benefits he advocated in his campaign, as well as other increases to federal student financial aid. He once again mentioned community service or other national service as requirements for future financial aid.

In addition to pledging greater state support, he also asked for an individual commitment by each American to not only graduate from high school, but to set college goals and attend a college, university, community college, or vocational training program for at least one year.  In addition to helping people succeed individually, greater education and training can lead to greater success for society.

Obviously, problems with paying for school will not disappear overnight.  But with help from schools and the government, individuals who work hard and make higher education a priority can reap the benefits, despite the challenges that remain.

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Most Stimulus Jobs Require Postsecondary Education

February 24, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

In yet another sign that a college education is becoming a necessity, rather than a luxury, a recent study of the stimulus legislation reveals that many of the jobs the stimulus is expected to create will require some education or training beyond high school.  In fact, at least 54 percent of the estimated new positions will require at least a postsecondary certificate according to analysis by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce.  Considering a major goal of the stimulus package was to create jobs for less-skilled workers who are usually hardest hit by economic downturns, this figure is especially telling.

It appears that despite the calls for "shovel-ready" projects, few workers will be expected to merely wield shovels. Many of the "non-college" jobs created by this legislation still may require some employer-provided training or time spent at a community collegeInside Higher Education has more complete information, including a chart of the percentage of anticipated stimulus jobs that will require various education credentials.

While some required training will be covered by grants to employers and the increased Pell Grants and college tax benefits in the stimulus, those hoping for job security but apprehensive about college costs may be left with little choice but to go to collegeCollege scholarships and grants, as well as student loans and other financial aid can help.  A postsecondary education is becoming increasingly necessary in our economy, and it appears that this trend will continue.

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