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by Emily

The omnibus spending bill passed by the House of Representatives in February was approved by the Senate last night, and is expected to be signed by President Obama this week.  The bill includes more funding for Federal Pell Grants, fixing the maximum award at $5,350 for 2009-2010, a number that's already been widely publicized.

Other student financial aid programs also receive a funding boost for the current fiscal year, including the Federal Perkins Loan cancellation program and several federal scholarship and fellowship programs.  These increases aren't necessarily tied to larger award amounts, however.  Federal Work-Study, which received a boost in the stimulus bill, will see the increase put into effect in the 2009-2010 fiscal year under the omnibus legislation.

Funding was held steady for SEOG, another federal grant program, as well as new Federal Perkins Loans.  ACG and SMART grants actually saw a decrease in funding--now these programs have funding equal to the amounts they award, but no longer have large, unawarded funding surpluses.  The surplus money from these programs has been redirected towards Pell Grants.

The passage of this bill, which should represent pretty much the final word on education spending for the current fiscal year, comes just in time for colleges to begin sending out financial aid award notices to students who have completed the FAFSA.  If you still have your fingers crossed for a magic bullet for college costs, it's still not too late to kick your scholarship search into high gear and begin looking at ways to pay for school beyond federal aid.


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by Emily

More students are completing the FAFSA early for 2009-2010 according to data collected by the Department of Education.  By the end of February, more than 3 million students had filed their FAFSA for the next academic year, an increase of over 20 percent from the first two months of 2008.  As application deadlines approach, this flood of applications could slow, but right now it looks like there will be more demand for financial aid in the coming school year.

Federal student financial aid is becoming an increasingly attractive means of paying for college.  For starters, federal aid is up for 2009-2010--in the case of Federal Pell Grants, way up.  A combination of factors has boosted maximum grants to $5,350 in 2009-2010, while simultaneously raising the minimum award to $976 and the maximum qualifying Expected Family Contribution to $4,671.  Low interest rates and expanded federal loan cancellation and consolidation options are also making federal student loans more appealing.

Meanwhile, several other payment options aren't doing so well.  Private loans became harder to obtain in 2008, and also saw fairly substantial interest rate increases.  College savings plans, such as 529 plans, took big hits in the stock market, and even some prepaid tuition plans are struggling to guarantee payouts for upcoming years.  College endowments have also been affected by financial troubles, and some endowed scholarships may be reduced or unavailable for the coming academic year.

However, this doesn't mean the FAFSA is the only option for student financial aid.  Most states are maintaining funding for their scholarship programs, many colleges are increasing aid where possible, and scholarship opportunities are still out there--though many deadlines are approaching--for students who are willing and able to take the time to do a scholarship search and complete some scholarship applications.


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by Emily

Student loans are becoming increasingly difficult for the average college student to obtain.  However, it appears at least one group is able to borrow private loans with relative ease: 80-something hospice patients in Florida.  A student loan scam recently uncovered in St. Petersburg, Florida involved two stolen identities and between $15,000 and $18,000 in loans.

An 80-year-old woman and an 83-year-old man had their identities used to take out private student loans from Sallie Mae.  A news story in The St. Petersburg Times describes the fraud as "poorly executed," involving blatant and inconsistent forgeries, including a fake ID with nothing changed but the picture--not even the 80-year-old's birth date. Private student lenders have previously come under fire when student loan scams were revealed, as private loans are by far the easiest type of student loan to fraudulently receive.

While many student loan scams don't even involve the pursuit of a real college degree, this one appears to have been perpetrated by a nursing student who had previously cared for the two victims of identity theft.  The woman accused of identity theft successfully completed coursework at Keiser Career College and received her Licensed Practical Nurse certification in the fall. Bail is currently set at $40,000--already more money than she would have owed had she taken out the loans herself.


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by Emily

In a bad economy, many recent college grads and laid off workers decide to make the move to go back to school.  A number of current undergraduate students are also hoping to delay entry into the working world until the economy improves.  Many of these prospective students will apply to graduate programs, hoping to land financial aid like a fellowship or assistantship on their way to a master's or doctorate degree.  However, many programs that traditionally come with stipends attached are cutting enrollment, as their cash-strapped institutions try to find ways to reduce their operating costs.

A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed explains that while terminal master's degrees and other programs in which students commonly pay full tuition are still admitting large numbers of students, and in some cases even increasing enrollment, programs that typically give out more money than they receive, such as doctoral programs, are reducing admissions due to reduced budgets.  While some master's programs and professional degrees come with fellowships, assistantships, or scholarship awards, the bulk of graduate financial aid goes to PhD students.  These students typically serve as teaching or research assistants, receiving free tuition and a stipend in exchange.  With university-wide cost cutting measures and rapidly shrinking departmental budgets, many institutions simply can't afford to offer as many of these generous aid packages as they have in the past.  And rather than admitting and not funding doctoral students, these schools are choosing to admit fewer students in order to maintain their funding commitments to current and future students.

If you applied this year and didn't get in, at least you can console yourself with the knowledge that it was a particularly bad year for PhD applications.  Whether it's your first time through the process or your second, if you're thinking of applying next year, start your college search early and consider sending out extra applications, especially if you're hoping for university funding.  Competition may be fierce, and if the schools you want to attend decide to admit fewer students, applying to more schools will boost your odds of being admitted and winning scholarships, fellowships, or assistantships.  If you're seeking a degree that may or may not have funding attached, such as a master's degree or professional degree, be sure to look into outside aid, such as scholarships for graduate students.


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by Emily

Yesterday, the House and Senate both passed outlines for the 2010 federal budget.  Both propose about $3.5 trillion in spending and preserve many of the priorities of President Obama's budget, including more spending on federal student financial aid. A conference committee will hammer out the differences between the two packages and create a compromise budget.

On financial aid, the main point of contention continues to be the proposal to eliminate the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program and switch to federal Direct Loans for Stafford and PLUS loans.  The language of the House budget outline paves the way for the elimination of FFELP by instructing the Committee on Education and Labor to find $1 billion in savings through the budget reconciliation process.  The Senate bill does not include such a provision, and instead includes (largely symbolic) language promoting a student lending system built on competition and choice.

After an outline is agreed upon, then specific spending legislation will start to emerge, and the fate of FFELP, as well as the proposed expansions to Pell Grants and Perkins Loans, can be determined.  So far, it appears that many of these changes, as well as healthcare and environmental reform, are on their way to becoming reality.


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by Emily

In the past few weeks, at least nine universities have received donations of at least $1 million, with instructions that the money be used primarily to fund scholarship programs. The donations, which total at least $45 million, have been given to colleges across the country since March, according to the Associated Press.

While anonymous donations happen from time to time, this circumstance is still highly unusual, since no college officials know who provided the gifts.  Typically, the college knows the donor's identity but agrees not to reveal it.  However, schools benefiting from this wave of anonymous donations have been contacted by representatives of banks or law firms, rather than by the donors themselves, and have been asked not to attempt to ascertain the donor's identity.

The donations have largely been met with gratitude. They are well-timed, given the state of the economy and many colleges' current attempts to meet the increased financial need of students.  Families are experiencing greater need for financial aid, and colleges' endowment funds, including endowed scholarships, have lost large amounts of money, giving them fewer resources to use.

For students at these colleges, as well as other schools that have recently benefited from generous donations, the scholarship opportunities they provide could mean the difference between attending college and staying home.  However, these anonymous donors are not the only people out there dedicated to making a college education possible for students in tough times.  You can do a free scholarship search for information on more scholarship awards.


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by Emily

Yesterday, President Obama signed into law a bill to expand Americorps, a national service program that provides small stipends to people of all ages engaged in volunteer work throughout the country.  The act, officially known as the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, paves the way for Americorps to grow in size from its present 75,000 volunteers to as many as 250,000 volunteers by 2017.

In addition to creating more volunteer positions, the Serve America Act will also increase the education stipend for volunteers to $5,350, the same amount as Federal Pell Grants.  This will enable more recent graduates and people currently attending college to participate in Americorps programs, which are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to employment in the current economy.

The national service bill, sponsored by Senator Kennedy, quickly made its way through both houses of Congress, receiving bipartisan support, as well as a ringing endorsement from President Obama, who has long been a proponent of community service.  Congress still needs to find funding for Americorps to begin to expand, but a provision to provide an immediate 25% increase in funding to the program was included in Obama's 2010 budget proposal.


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by Emily

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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by Emily

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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by Emily

As Congress moves forward with a federal budget plan for 2010, rhetoric is ramping up on both sides of what is proving to be one of the most contentious budget debates so far:  whether or not to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program.  President Obama initially proposed this move in his budget outline, saying that a move to Direct Loans would result in a savings of $48 billion, money that could be put towards expanding the Federal Pell Grant program.

After the Congressional Budget Office revised the estimated savings to $94 billion over 10 years, many members of Congress and several higher education professional organizations have been offering up tentative support for the plan.  Democrats on the joint budget committee have even begun paving the way for this portion of the budget to be eligible for reconciliation, a filibuster-proof process that will allow portions of the budget to pass with a simple majority vote in the Senate.

However, lenders and other groups have begun suggesting and campaigning for alternatives that would allow the bank-based student loan program to continue to exist while still cutting costs to some extent.  Concerns have been raised that Direct Loans will not be as efficient or as kind to borrowers in the long run, though the credit crisis has made the program especially appealing as FFELP has required repeated government interventions to avoid grinding completely to a halt.  With many schools voluntarily making the switch to direct lending based on the program's current stability, concerns have also been raised about a rapid expansion in Direct Loans overwhelming the program as it currently stands.  Others worry that eliminating FFELP may speed lenders' exodus from private loans, ultimately leaving many students in a worse place financially than they find themselves in now.

What's emerging is a war of words between banks and the President.  In a speech on Friday, Obama characterized lenders as, "gearing up for battle," to which he responded, "So am I. . . And for those who care about America's future, this is a battle we can't afford to lose."  Considering the President's popularity and lenders' tarnished reputations from crisis after scandal after crisis over the last two years, we may see big changes happening soon in student loans.


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