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by Emily

Though it's a day off from school and work, New Year's Day is often seen as a day to get down to business.  While you're starting in on your New Year's resolutions, opening up a new calendar, and packing up the holiday decorations, there's one more thing that college students and college-bound high school students should consider doing.  The Department of Education starts accepting the 2009-2010 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (more commonly known as "FAFSA") on January 1.  State application deadlines start happening soon after, beginning with Connecticut's February 15 priority deadline.  So while you might not be starting school until August or September, you want to be applying for financial aid right now.

What You Need

In order to complete a FAFSA, you will need the following documents: 

     
  • your social security card
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  • a driver's license if you have one
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  • bank statements and records of investments (if you have any)
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  • records of untaxed income (again, if you have any)
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  • your 2008 tax return and W2s
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  • all of the above for your parents if you are considered a dependent (to determine dependency status, check here)
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  • a PIN number to sign electronically (go to pin.ed.gov to get one)
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 If you've applied before, you can fill out a renewal FAFSA, which will let you skip a few questions.  You will still need your tax, savings, and investment information for the new year, though.

If you do not have your tax information yet, and most likely you don't, you can use your 2007 tax information to estimate 2008.  That way, you have a FAFSA on file and once you've done your taxes for the new year, you'll be able to submit a correction online.  While that might seem like more work, it's the best recipe for maximizing your state and campus-based aid packages.  If things changed drastically for your family in 2008, apply for student financial aid with the information you have, then talk to your school's financial aid office to adjust your information accordingly.

Why You Should Apply

Completing a FAFSA is an important step in funding your education if you don't plan on paying for everything out-of-pocket.  The FAFSA is used by the Department of Education to determine eligibility for federal student financial aid for college.  This aid includes federal grant programs (such as the Pell Grant), federal work-study, and federal student loans.  It is also used by states to determine eligibility for their financial aid programs, such as state grants.  Colleges also use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for the need-based aid programs they administer.  Finally, many scholarship opportunities request FAFSA information as part of their application process.  Even if you think that you won't qualify for free money in the form of need-based college scholarships and grants, you should still apply.  At the minimum, the vast majority of students qualify for Stafford Loans, low-interest federal student loans that represent one of the best deals in borrowing for school.

Where To Get More Information

Start on the FAFSA homepage and go through the links under "Before Beginning a FAFSA" to get started, especially if this is your first time filing.  You'll find information about application deadlines, required documents, applying for a PIN, and other things you need to know about to begin.  If you don't want to wait until tomorrow, 2009-2010 worksheets are already available on fafsa.ed.gov.  The ambitious among us can even fill out a worksheet now, then copy the information into their FAFSA on the Web beginning tomorrow.

We also offer a wealth of resources on financial aid at Scholarships.com.  Check out the financial aid section on our Resources page for further reading.


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by Scholarships.com Staff

Fifth Third Bank could potentially lose its right to participate in the Federal Family Education Loan Program, the Department of Education's program that allows private banks to offer Stafford Loans and PLUS loans.  An audit by the Department of Education's Office of the Inspector General suggests that Fifth Third may have offered illegal inducements to third-party lenders.  Lenders that participate in FFELP, such as Fifth Third, are legally allowed to act as trustees for third-party non-FFELP lenders, allowing the non-FFELP lenders to make or purchase federal student loans.  Fifth Third's actions in some of these "eligible lender trustee" agreements have come under scrutiny, resulting in the audit and harsh recommendations from the Office of the Inspector General.

Fifth Third and the now-defunct Student Loan XPress entered into eligible lender trustee agreements with three lenders: MSA Solution Inc., Pacific Loan Processing Inc., and Law School Financial.  The two FFELP lenders then paid these three trustees premiums to generate higher volumes of student loans.  According to the audit, this violates federal law and could cost Fifth Third its status as an FFELP lender.  The Office of the Inspector General also recommended that the Department of Education further penalize Fifth Third through fines and the withholding of federal guarantees on the over $3 billion in loans generated through these agreements.

This is not the first time an FFELP lender has come under fire for lending practices.  Over the past two years, numerous lenders have been investigated by the Department of Education or New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for questionable actions ranging from bribing schools for places on preferred lender lists to recycling loans through a loophole to claim millions of dollars in federal subsidies.


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by Scholarships.com Staff

While the focus for many students right now is planning for and paying for the next year of college, some students are still struggling with bills from the current or previous semester.  An e-mail survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers reports a perceived increase in unpaid tuition bills in the 2008-2009 academic year.  While being caught short on one semester's tuition can seem stressful enough, it can carry serious consequences for college students.

For students with the funds to easily cover tuition, either through family income, college savings plans, or financial aid awards, the figure on their bursar bill may be unpleasant, but it is soon forgotten.  However, carrying a bursar balance--in some cases, even a small one--can cut off your ability to register for classes, request transcripts, and even graduate, among other consequences.  Students who are unable to pay for a semester by the school's deadline may even find themselves dropped from their classes and kicked off campus.  These consequences can essentially derail your education, and many students who take a semester off from college to save money and pay off bills never go back to finish.

Luckily, as Kim Clark stresses in an article on the subject in U.S. News and World Report, universities are willing to work with students to keep them enrolled and get their bills paid, especially in the current economic climate.  Many schools are establishing or adding to emergency loan and grant funds to help students stay in school.  Federal student financial aid is also still available mid-term.  You can still complete the FAFSA for 2008-2009 anytime before June 30.  Even if you've already applied for the current year, talking to the financial aid office could still come through big time, especially if your circumstances have changed. Federal grants, as well as some campus-based programs may be available to students whose family contributions have significantly dipped.  While Clark's article emphasizes the surprising success networking and asking family for donations can bring, conducting a scholarship search may be a safer bet. Most importantly, be sure to stay in communication with your school. You may have to deal with three different offices on campus, but don't get discouraged.  The process may be more streamlined than you'd expect.  It is possible to stay enrolled regardless of the financial troubles you're facing.


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by Emily

During his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Arne Duncan, Obama's appointee for Education Secretary, disclosed broad ideas but few specific plans for education in America.  Much of the hearing before the U.S. Senate focused on elementary and secondary education, though questions related to paying for college did surface.  Duncan's primary focuses appear to be on college access and college affordability, moving away from the emphasis on accountability the nation has seen under Margaret Spellings, the current Secretary of Education.

According to coverage by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, Duncan's primary goal related to college aid is to guarantee access to student loans for everyone attending college.  Taking up one aspect of Spellings' policy, he also expressed an interest in simplifying the FAFSA to make applying for federal student financial aid more enticing for college students.  Additionally, Duncan pledged to work towards the goals of increasing Federal Pell Grants and instituting the $4,000 education tax credit that made up a major part of Obama's campaign platform.

Congress may already be taking steps towards some of these goals in drafting the next economic stimulus package.  Reports have abounded this week that plans are in the works to increase the maximum available Pell Grant by $500 and to consolidate two existing federal higher education tax options into one $3,000 tax credit for higher education expenses.


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by Emily

While it's still a long way from becoming law, the first published draft of the economic stimulus legislation created by the House of Representatives includes billions of dollars for higher education, including several provisions designed to make paying for school easier.  The bill still has to be approved by both the House and the Senate (which is drafting its own stimulus legislation) then signed by the President, so it remains to be seen how many of the following appropriations will make it into the final version of the stimulus package.

The stimulus bill would increase funding to several federal student financial aid programs, as well as providing emergency funds to states to prevent further drastic budget cuts, and designating money to help colleges, especially ones affected by disasters, make needed improvements and repairs.  If the bill is passed, federal work-study will receive a boost in funding, as will Pell Grants, eliminating a projected budget shortfall for the program.  Unsubsidized Stafford Loans will increase by $2,000 per year, bringing the loan limit to $7,500 or more for undergraduate students.  The maximum Pell Grant award will also increase to $5,350.  In addition, lender subsidies will also increase, hopefully enticing more banks to remain in the FFEL program.  The Hope tax credit and a provision that allowed families to deduct up to $4,000 in educational expenses will also be combined into a new $2,500 tax credit, through which families with too little income to file taxes could still receive $1,000.

As Congress hammers out the details of the stimulus bill in coming weeks, these numbers will likely change.  A more detailed breakdown of these and other proposals affecting colleges and universities is available from Inside Higher Ed.


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by Scholarships.com Staff

A frequent feature of this year's college application season has been discussion and debate surrounding the CollegeBoard's new Score Choice program, which allows students to select which SAT scores they want to submit as part of their college application packets.  Schools are beginning to announce whether they will still require students to submit all SAT scores, and much ado is being made about whether students will use Score Choice and expensive and extensive standardized test prep to game the system.  At the same time, a number of college admission officials are talking, or in some cases cheering, about de-emphasizing standardized tests in the admissions process.

Meanwhile, numbers are emerging that suggest much of the hype surrounding the competitiveness of the college application process is a bit overblown.  As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported today, just over half the students who take the SAT take it a second time, and the vast majority stop there.  A study discussed last week in Inside Higher Ed says that despite the relatively small number of repeat test takers, 88 percent of college students surveyed were admitted to their first choice school.  In addition, students typically apply to only three or four colleges on average.  The high school students who spend years testing and retesting and compiling an extensive list of reach schools and safety schools may be well-represented in media, but prove to be scarce almost everywhere else.

To summarize, getting into college may involve a lot of work, but it doesn't have to involve a lot of worry. If you're a high school senior waiting nervously for an acceptance letter or a high school junior starting a college search, try not to stress.  If you write a strong application essay, maintain decent grades and some kind of extracurricular or community service activities, land a solid test score, and apply to a few colleges that seem to be good fits for you, or even if you just do most of these, you will most likely find yourself in the majority of students who wind up going where they want to go.  Now all that's left is figuring out how to pay for school.


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by Scholarships.com Staff

If you're planning to enroll in a community college sometime in 2009, be sure to plan ahead.  While in the past, late registration may have resulted in students not getting a class or two they wanted, increased interest in two year schools may produce an even more pronounced effect.  Community colleges across the country are receiving more applications and admitting more students for the 2008-2009 academic year than ever before, with some institutions reporting percentage growths in the double digits.  Many schools are seeing enrollment increases so dramatic that they lack the money and space to adequately accommodate the students turning up on their doorsteps.

Community colleges and four-year state colleges are contending with state budget cuts, declining endowments, and less fruitful fundraising efforts in the face of the worst economic situation in decades.  Meanwhile, the cash-strapped and the frugal are flocking to the least expensive educational options available, which are community colleges.  Community colleges are also seeing an uptick in nontraditional students, as the unemployed return to school for job training and certification to get back to work.  All of this adds up to a situation where more students need seats in classes, college services, and student financial aid than ever before, yet fewer resources are available to accommodate these needs.

While schools are doing their best to find space, add courses and sections, and increase campus-based aid where possible, budgetary difficulties are an unfortunate reality.  The economic stimulus bill currently in the works in Congress may help relieve some of this stress, but students should still be aware of potential snags in their college plans.  If you plan to enroll in a community college this summer or fall, here are some steps to take:

  1. Research costs and payment options now.  Do a scholarship search.  Many scholarships are available to community college students and some are awarded specifically to students at these institutions.
  2. Apply for admission and financial aid as early as possible.  While most community colleges have rolling admission, students who wait until the last minute to get in may find classes full and aid exhausted.
  3. Whether you're a new or returning student, register for classes as soon as you can and be sure to pay your bill on time, or early if possible.  If you get dropped or prevented from registering due to late payment, there's no guarantee a seat will still be there when you get your finances in place.
  4. Complete the FAFSA soon, even if you're not sure if or when you'll start college in 2009. FAFSA applications are up this year, as are most varieties of financial aid applications.  This could mean a lengthier processing time, both at the Department of Education and in your college's financial aid office.  The FAFSA is worth doing--many community college students don't apply for aid, even though they qualify.  Applying is free and having one on file can't hurt, even if you don't go to school right away.
  5. If your employer helps with tuition, find out beforehand whether they pay up front or reimburse you after the fact.  The earlier you know whether you need to come up with money on your own or the more warning they have before they need to pay, the better your chances are of being able to register on time.


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by Scholarships.com Staff

If you're wondering what to expect in college or how you measure up against the students already there, an annual survey of college freshmen may help answer your questions.  The Cooperative Institutional Research Program, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute and UCLA, annually surveys college freshmen, asking a broad spectrum of questions ranging from their reasons for their college choice to their religious and political views.  The results from this year's survey have just been published on the Higher Education Research Institute's website.

The results indicate that--at least for now--the class of 2012 is the most politically engaged group of college students ever surveyed by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program.  The report found that 85.9 percent of freshmen at least occasionally discussed politics, and fewer students than ever describe themselves as middle-of-the-road politically. Individual issues are also important to many students, with universal healthcare, same sex marriage, and protecting the environment among the issues with the broadest support among first year students.

In addition to politics, students are also more concerned about finances than they have been in the past, likely due to the poor state of the economy. Ability to pay is becoming an increasing concern and mores freshmen indicate plans to work their way through college.

Students are also becoming more concerned with financial aid.  More students than ever are describing offers of financial assistance, such as college scholarships and grants, as being essential to their college choice.  This year, 43 percent of freshmen based their decision heavily on this factor, with cost of attendance also rating highly for nearly 40 percent of freshmen.  Fewer students who were accepted to their first choice school chose to attend in 2008 than in recent years, likely due to issues of affordability and funding.


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by Emily

The University of California system's board of regents is considering a proposal to extend financial aid covering full tuition to families earning under $60,000 per year.  The change, suggested by University of California President Mark Yudof, is still under review and will likely be voted on next month.

The concerns that motivate this move are becoming more pressing and are shared by many figures in higher education.  The University of California, like other state university systems, is facing budget cuts and plans to increase tuition in response.  California is also one of the states hardest hit by the recession, especially the collapse of the housing market.  There is widespread concern that these factors may put a college education out of reach for many.  The University of California system also serves a relatively large number of low-income and moderate-income students, so Yudof's proposal could potentially benefit a substantial portion of the student body.

Despite economic hardship and shrinking endowments, California is not alone in considering increases to college scholarships and grants for students struggling the most financially.  A number of prestigious schools have eliminated student loans for less affluent students in recent years.  These significant financial aid packages may be becoming more of a draw students this year, as many of the most prestigious and most generous schools are reporting double-digit increases in applications for the 2009-2010 academic year.


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by Scholarships.com Staff

Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef announced his plans for a new online university that will use free online course material, volunteer professors, and social networking to instruct students worldwide.  The University of the People will not charge tuition, but will charge some small fees for enrollment and testing, likely to range between $10 and $100, with students from poor countries paying the least and students from rich countries paying the most.

The university will officially open in the fall of 2009 with an anticipated enrollment of 300 students in two degree programs:  business administration and computer science.  Reshef plans to soon apply for accreditation and to eventually build enrollment to over 10,000.

While there is some skepticism about the university's ultimate success, the groundwork on which its offerings are based is well-established.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched its Open Courseware Consortium in 2001, and since then universities have made a wide range of course material accessible for free online, through that program and others.  Already, undefinedonline courses are widely popular, as are online degree programs.  Even without free tuition, attending college online can save money for many students, as it allows for a more flexible schedule and eliminates the need for an extensive commute or on-campus housing.


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