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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 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 Emily

The student loan rescue plan that will allow the Department of Education to buy up student loans issued since 2003 will begin operating in February.  The plan will set up a bank to act as a "conduit" for purchasing older student loan assets and will also allow the Treasury to become the buyer of last resort for assets the conduit bank is unable to refinance.  The Treasury will buy up student loans through this program for the first 90 days, after which the Department of Education will take over.  The Bank of New York Mellon is currently the only authorized conduit, though more could be added later.

This plan will hopefully allow banks that have had to leave the FFEL program to find the capital to reenter it through selling some of their older student loans to the conduit bank.  While students borrowing Stafford Loans through the FFELP had few problems finding loans in 2008, this program should help the student loan marketplace continue to stabilize and should help prevent potential problems down the road.

Another $200 billion program announced by the Treasury in November is also set to begin operations in February.  This one targets consumer credit in general, but also includes private student loans.  Between these two programs and the proposals contained in the economic stimulus package currently working its way through Congress, students entering college in 2009 may have an easier time finding financial aid.


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by Emily

The recession seems to be bringing an almost constant stream of stories about people in all sorts of circumstances who are facing new and varied financial troubles.  These stories could easily be read as a guide for "things not to do in a recession."  The latest addition?  "Default on your student loans."

While neglecting even one payment is a bad idea at any time, borrowers who have found themselves in default on their loans are facing an even more difficult time as a result of the credit freezeThe Chronicle of Higher Education published a story today about this particular aspect of the trouble facing participants in the Federal Family Education Loan Program. Currently, 19 of the nation's 35 guarantee agencies (the companies that service student loans in the FFEL program) lack a buyer for their student loans, including rehabilitated loans.

People who borrowed Stafford loans, defaulted on their payments, then agreed to "rehabilitate" their loans, or make consistent payments until the loan can be repackaged and resold and thus brought out of default, are finding that there's currently no market for their rehabilitated loans, so they're stuck in default status longer than necessary. This hurts their credit score and also keeps them from being eligible for federal student financial aid if they choose to go back to college, as many people affected by the recession are doing.

Currently, the federal government cannot buy up these loans, though legislation may be in the works to fix this.  While students do have other options, such as consolidation through Direct Loans (the federal government loan program), students were typically pushed toward rehabilitation before the credit crunch, as it was most profitable for the lenders, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education article.

If you have a student loan currently in repayment, be sure to work with your lender if you're having trouble making payments.  Look into consolidation loans, and ask about extended payment plans, in-school deferments (if you're planning to go back), loan forgiveness programs for certain career paths, and hardship forebearances.  Student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, so if you default, you're stuck with the consequences--possibly for much longer than you'd think.


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by Emily

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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by Emily

Student loan default rates increased in 2008, according to a preliminary report released by the Department of Education.  The numbers, which still aren't finalized, indicate an increase from 5.2 percent last year to 6.9 percent this year in the two-year default rate on federal student loans. The increase in default rates is likely due to continued economic difficulties facing new graduates.

The report also shows a difference in default rates between the Federal Family Educational Loan Program and the Federal Direct Loans Program, though FFELP advocates are arguing that the differences are largely due to different makeups of the schools participating in each program (For example, students at for-profit schools are more likely to default, and are also more likely to participate in FFELP).  However, even among similar groups, FFELP still had a slightly higher default rate.

Typically, reports on default rates are released around September and don't compare FFELP and Direct Loans, but Congress had requested data earlier to aid with the federal budget decision-making process.  This is only the latest bit of bad news for FFELP, which President Obama urged Congress to eliminate in the 2010 federal budget.  The Congressional Budget Office has said that eliminating FFELP could save more money--$94 billion, double the previous estimate.  Additionally, a report by two interest groups states that the proposed increases in Pell Grants, some of whose funding is tied to cutting FFELP, would increase the average grant award by $121 and would make 260,000 more students eligible for the program.

If you're a college student looking to minimize student loan debt and reduce your risk of default, it's still not too late to start your scholarship search and find free money you won't need to pay back.


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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

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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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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by Emily

A little over a week after announcing his plans to gear up for battle with student lenders over the future of the Federal Family Education Loan Program, President Obama has begun calling in the troops.  An e-mail message sent to young Obama supporters by the Democratic National Committee is urging students to speak up in favor of the President's proposal to switch all federal lending to the Direct Loans program and to use the savings to expand Federal Pell Grants.

Students have been asked to call, write, or e-mail their Representatives and Senators to let them know what they think of the proposal to eliminate FFELP for Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans.  The text of the e-mail, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, urges students to stand against "special interests" and to help "fix a broken system."  Rhetoric on the other side has focused primarily on preserving jobs and preserving choice (technically, the choice is primarily left to schools, not students, as students aren't able to choose freely between DL and FFELP until they graduate and consider consolidation loans).

Regardless of whether you favor or oppose this plan, now is a good time to let your people in Congress know how you feel, since changes in federal student financial aid are likely to affect you directly.  So, what do you think?  What changes, if any, should Congress make to student loans? Do you plan on writing to Congress about this issue?


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