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by Agnes Jasinski

A new study surveying community college students in Virginia shows that more attention should be paid by those schools, and perhaps at schools across the country, in making sure students are getting the proper guidance when making course decisions and are being placed in the appropriate classrooms.

The study, from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, tracked more than 24,000 students entering Virginia's community colleges in 2004. It found that most of those students never completed, or even reached, the important "gatekeeper courses" necessary to complete most fields of study. Gatekeeper courses are typically prerequisites that students must take - and pass - before moving on to more advanced courses that may have more to do with their intended degrees. These are considered the fundamental college courses, often in subjects like math and English, that often make up general education requirements at four-year institutions. Most of those students surveyed never made it past the remedial courses they were placed in when their academic records suggested core courses would be too intense for their first semesters on campus.

Academic credit is usually not awarded for remedial coursework. A long-standing criticism of remedial courses has been that the classes do little in the way of preparing students for college-level work. The study found mixed results on the issue. Students who were placed in remedial courses and completed them did just as well in the gatekeeper courses as those who didn’t need remediation, but the researchers suggest getting rid of remedial courses would be a mistake. Instead, students should take remedial courses at the same time as gatekeeper courses, to use what they learn in remediation in courses that may be more difficult for them.

So what kind of supports do community college students across the country need in place? Schools should consider having additional supports for those targeted for remediation. While those students may need more help in terms of developmental coursework, they should also be introduced to college-level coursework as soon as possible, as the study found that students who needed multiple remedial courses rarely reached the gatekeeper courses.

Schools should also maintain the financial supports many community college students rely on to attend those institutions. The new NBC comedy "Community" plays with the idea of a stereotypical community college and stereotypical community college population, but the reasons college-bound students choose two-year schools are much more complex, and often not as funny, than the show allows. Most often, cost considerations and personal responsibilities come into play when students are considering alternatives to four-year schools in their college search. If you're planning on attending a community college for your post-secondary education, make sure you and your study skills are prepared for the rigors of a college education just like any traditional four-year student so that you're successful, and that you know of the financial aid options available to you to pay for that education.


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by Agnes Jasinski

Pittsburgh city officials have received some criticism over the last few days on their latest plan to cover local budget deficits and shortfalls: a tax on college students.

The 1 percent tuition tax, described as the "Post Secondary Education Privilege Tax" or Fair Share Tax," would target local college students and, officials say, raise $16 million for the city to cover things like city employees' pension funds and costs associated with the public library system until the city is able to get a handle on its budget problems. Pittsburgh has 85,000 students in 10 colleges and universities that would be affected by the tax, attending schools like the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, and La Roche College.

City officials justify the measure with the argument that college students should be paying for the services they use as already residents do. According to a Wall Street Journal article on the issue this week, the tax would range from $27 for students attending the Community College of Allegheny County, to as much as $409 for students at Carnegie Mellon University.

The students don't seem to be taking the news lightly. On Monday night, about 100 students came to a Pittsburgh City Council meeting to protest the measure, calling the idea "Taxation Without Representation" and a "double tax" on those who already pay other taxes, such as property taxes, sales taxes, and fees associated with water use and tickets to sporting events. Critics also argue this is a terrible time to be imposing more fees on students, as post-secondary tuitions continue to rise, student loan debts continue to increase, and the job market only becomes more competitive for recent graduates.

As a response to the students' concerns, the state legislature is already looking for alternatives to the tuition tax through a proposal called the Non-Profit Essential Services Fee Bill. The bill would place a mandatory fee on nonprofit institutions' real estate profits. Many nonprofits already contribute to municipalities voluntary, so lawmakers hope this plan would be less controversial. The nonprofits would have to choose where to cover those costs of the additional fees if they do not already contribute voluntary, however, and if that nonprofit is a university, students could still be expected to cover that services fee bill.

Discussions now will explore whether such a tax is even legal, as tax attorneys disagree about whether a city may tax a population just for being in those city limits, usually temporarily. Also, is it fair to tax one student more than another, just because they attend a school with a higher tuition? If the tuition tax was approved, it could go into effect next year.


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by Agnes Jasinski

The U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments today on the intricacies of one student's 20-year-old debt that could change the way bankruptcy law handles student loan cases.

The case, United Student Aid Funds Inc. v Espinosa, goes back to 1992, when Francisco Espinosa, a technical school graduate, filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Espinosa by then owed nearly $18,000 in not only student loans taken out four years earlier, but interest on those loans to lender United Student Aid Funds Inc. He filed for bankruptcy to relieve him not of his loan debt, but the nearly $5,000 in interest accrued on the $13,000 he initially borrowed. Thinking he had reached an agreement with his lender, Espinosa eventually paid off the principal on the loan over a five-year period.

Several years later, however, he received notice from his lender that he still owed the remaining interest. The lender claimed Espinosa had not sufficiently shown "undue hardship," a requirement under bankruptcy law for students to qualify their student loans under Chapter 13. Espinosa says he fell on hard times when the hours for his baggage handler job through airline America West were cut, and he was unable to find a job that fit his degree in computer drafting and design through the technical college.

That's when the legal battle began. Espinosa won on the bankruptcy court level, but the district courts ruled in favor of the lender and demanded a hearing to show whether Espinosa met the criteria for a bankruptcy filing. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was too late for the lender to challenge the filing, which then landed the case in the U.S. Supreme Court.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education previewing the case this week looked at the implications of the court's eventual ruling. If the Supreme Court overturns the last appeals court's decision, lenders could feel free to collect back interest on student loans that have already been approved for Chapter 13. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Espinosa, lenders could be open to abuse by borrowers taking advantage of the law to get out of their student loan repayments. The article suggests that the Court should consider redefining the "undue hardship" criteria to make it easier for judges to apply that criteria across the board, as many say it is already too subjective.

The case is an important one for students, especially in a difficult economic time when college students are not only borrowing more, but having a tougher time finding jobs to make payments on their student loan debt. Student loan default rates are also on the rise for both federal and private loans as tuitions only continue to rise. If you're worried about the amount of debt you'll accrue going to that dream school, consider all of your options. Factor college cost into your college search, and make sure you have a good idea of financial aid and scholarship money available to you before taking out student loans.


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Discover Scholarship Program

November 30, 2009

by Agnes Jasinski

Corporate scholarships award some of the most generous funding out there, and while competition can be fierce for these awards, you could be looking at an impressive financial aid package if you're chosen as the winner of such an award.

This week's Scholarship of the Week is no exception. The Discover Scholarship Program awards up to 10 scholarships of $40,000 each annually to high school juniors who show a passion for leadership and community service, and who have faced some significant roadblock in their lives. The program has been offered since 1991, with more than $16 million awarded in scholarships to nearly 6,500 students since then.

Prize: Up to 10 scholarships of $40,000 each

Eligibility: Applicants must be current high school juniors enrolled in an accredited U.S. high school, with plans to graduate from that high school. Homeschooled students and students attending military base high schools in or outside the United States are also eligible. Applicants must also have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.75 over their freshman and sophomore years.

Deadline: January 31, 2010

Required Material: An online application is available starting in December on the Discover website. Scholarship money may be used for any type of post-secondary education, training, certification, or licensing programs, including two-year trade and technical colleges. Judging is based on outstanding achievements in areas beyond academics.

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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Alternatives to Going Home for Thanksgiving

by Agnes Jasinski

Not everyone will be saying grace and sitting down to football and multiple helpings of turkey and pie on Thanksgiving Day tomorrow. Some of you will be spending the holiday in the dorms, or elsewhere on campus. Perhaps you're an international student who doesn't celebrate the holiday. Or maybe home is too far away to justify the costs of flying back for both the turkey dinner and winter break. You may then be wondering how you can make the most of your time off from class. Well, don't fret. You won't be the only one seemingly stranded, and there are on-campus alternatives to the traditional Thanksgiving Day meal.

If you know of others sticking around for the holiday, consider getting together. Your college could be hosting Thanksgiving Day-related events for students like you who are staying in town. Or, if you feel like you'll be missing out on that home-cooked meal, consider a potluck with those other students to eat on a budget. You don't need to break the bank for a Thanksgiving meal, especially if you're sharing the duties, so look for tips on Thanksgiving on a budget. Pick up the boxed stuffing and canned cranberry sauce rather than making things from scratch like  Mom might. If you're in the dorms, consider checking out the Thanksgiving meal deals on campus. If you're really lucky, you've made a good enough friend who wouldn't mind having you over to their family's Thanksgiving. Don't be shy about taking leftovers back to the dorm, which you'll surely be offered if you play the "I miss home" card.

Take the time to get acquainted with your college. You've probably been in too much of a rush balancing work and college or getting used to larger loads of homework to appreciate what the student center has to offer, or that new walking path on the outskirts of campus. Explore your surroundings, so that you have plenty to share when your friends come back from their long weekends home.

Study at your own pace. You'll probably have finals week on your heels shortly after this mini-break is over, so take advantage of a quieter campus and emptier student lounges to get the bulk of your studying done before everyone comes back and the chances of procrastination and distraction are greater. Enjoy the time off, but try your best to be productive, too. You'll feel a lot less stressed than everyone else when they're cramming and pulling all-nighters before their big exams.

Don't forget about your family. If Thanksgiving is typically a big deal at home, but you just couldn't swing the costs of the trip, make sure you check in once in a while over the next few days. Chances are your family will be missing you just as much as you're missing them, and while you don't want to be moping around or hiding away in your dorm room the entire weekend, you want to make sure everyone knows you're thinking of them. Talk about how excited you are about the upcoming winter break, and your plans for your own alternative Thanksgiving Day on campus. It could be a pretty good time if you're a little creative.


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by Agnes Jasinski

Not everyone can or wants to become a chemical engineer or mathematician, but the White House wants to make sure the country's doing all it can to give students the opportunity to explore all of their options before they're ready to make decisions about their future career paths.

President Obama announced a new campaign Monday called "Educate to Innovate" that aims to encourage more middle and high school students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math. (His remarks can be read here, courtesy of the Washington Post.) The program will call on outside organizations to spend their own money and time to educate students on the kinds of things they could do in those fields, and improve their skill sets in those areas. It's no secret that the United States has lagged behind other countries in math- and science-based fields, despite the kinds of resources already available in those fields. (Another government initiative, the Race to the Top Fund, was announced last July to in part provide more money to states for innovative science programs.)

If you're good at math or science and are still undecided about what you'd like to be when you grow up, consider this: the vast majority of highest-paying college majors involve some degree of math or science skill. Those fields of study tend to be more specialized - not everyone can be a computer engineer, for example, and often require some study beyond that undergraduate degree. But in addition to the generous salaries, advances in many of those fields make it an exciting time to pursue a career as a researcher or scientist.

There's also plenty of scholarship money to go around if you're planning on or already pursuing a math or science field. The National Science and Mathematics Access to Retail Talent (SMART) Grant is awarded to undergraduates in their third or fourth year. Eligible recipients must already be Pell recipients, and the maximum award is $4,000. If you're interested in competitions, the Intel Science Talent Search targets high school seniors with original research. Scholarships.com also awards Area of Study College Scholarships to students interested in computer science, engineering, technology, and general science. To see whether you qualify for any of these or thousands of other scholarships, many of them related to the maths or sciences, conduct a free scholarship search to see the kind of awards you're eligible for.


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by Agnes Jasinski

The latest group of Rhodes Scholars was announced by The Rhodes Trust yesterday, with 32 Americans chosen to receive two to four years of study at the University of Oxford in England, all expenses paid.  The Rhodes scholarships were created in 1902 through the will of Cecil Rhodes, who hoped to broaden leaders' minds by exposing them to different cultures, and the first group of Americans entered Oxford in 1904. It is now the oldest international fellowship offered, and the number of applicants who apply make it one of the most competitive academic and merit-based scholarships out there. This year, more than 1,500 students sought their college or university's endorsement into the program, and 805 received those endorsements, just the first step in the application process. The winners will enter Oxford next October.  So how do you apply for the prestigious award?

  • Candidates for the award must be endorsed by their college, and any rules or deadlines regarding that endorsement will be set by your Rhodes Scholarship institutional representative.
  • In addition to that endorsement, applications will require five to eight letters of recommendation, a personal essay, a certified transcript, a list of activities, photograph, and proof of citizenship. Deadlines fall in October annually, but as the process is involved, it's best to get an early start.
  • Committees in 16 U.S. districts across the country invite the strongest applicants to appear for interviews, where questions will explore the information you've given on your application.
  • Applicants are chosen based on the following criteria, set forward by Cecil Rhodes: high academic achievement, integrity of character, a spirit of unselfishness, respect for others, potential for leadership, and physical vigor. (You don't need to be a star athlete to fulfill that last criteria, just show a "fondness for sports.")

A group of international students is also chosen annually, with 80 scholars joining the Americans this year. If you're interested in an international experience but aren't interested studying at Oxford, there are hundreds of study abroad opportunities available in nearly every discipline, and nearly every country. Broaden your horizons, and know there are also study abroad scholarships out there to help you fund your time abroad.


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by Agnes Jasinski

Two Chicago-area community colleges are using zombies to urge students to consider their options before applying solely to four-year schools. Harper College and Elgin Community College, with some help from email provider Abeedle.com, are using a cartoon short featuring fictional high school seniors Lynette and Theo in a common predicament among the college-bound: to save money, or not to save?

In the short, Lynette goes to community college, is free of student loan debt, and uses the money she saved to become a filmmaker and purchase a sporty convertible. Theo, on the other hand, chooses the four-year university, and is depicted wandering around with the other "college zombies," saddled with a large amount of debt.

This isn't the first time the zombie hype has hit college campuses. The University of Florida recently posted a zombie preparedness plan on its e-Learning website, alongside more likely disaster scenarios. But this is a unique way to address the high costs of higher education and invite students to examine all of their options when considering where to go to school.

Enrollments at community colleges have increased by about 25 percent over the last year, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. The big decisions aren't only about filling out those college applications, but figuring out how you're going to pay for tuition at your intended school. If you're concerned about how you're going to cover the costs, consider a community college where you'd be able to complete your general education requirements and then transfer to a four-year college if you want that traditional college experience. Many community colleges and trade schools specialize in certain fields, so narrow down your college choices by your intended field of study, as well.

If you know community college isn't for you, there are other ways to save. Compare the costs of in-state versus out-of-state tuition. Depending on your home state, you could still go to a state university that is far enough away that you get that "away at college" experience, while still enjoying the perks of in-state tuition. (In-state tuition is often half that of out-of-state tuition. Do the numbers!) Whatever you do, don't assume that college is out of your reach because of the costs. While paying for college can take some creativity and persistence, it can be done, especially if you have some scholarship money padding that financial aid package.


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by Agnes Jasinski

Students participating in Division I athletics boast higher graduation rates than other student populations, according to a new round of data.

In a report released yesterday from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), nearly 80 percent of freshman student-athletes who started college in 2002 graduated. The same was true of the graduation rate among student-athletes who entered college between 1992-2002. The numbers showed an increase of one percentage point over the last year, and six percentage points since the last time the same kind of study was released eight years ago. The national graduation rate for 2005-2006, when many of those student-athletes surveyed would be graduating, was about 54 percent, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. (That figure includes students who graduate in any amount of time, as only about 36 percent did so in four years.) According to the federal government, however, the graduation rate of all students entering college in 2002-2003 was about 62 percent.

While the numbers could change the next time students are polled by the NCAA - this one took place before the organization instituted more stringent academic requirements for students to participate in college sports - NCAA officials are boasting that this is the result of more of an emphasis on academic achievement among student athletes. And while the federal graduation rate among athletes is different than that of the NCAA's figures - the NCAA accepts transfer students in its numbers - no matter how you skew the numbers, more student athletes are graduating than non-athletes.

So why is this happening? The NCAA credits tougher eligibility standards for freshman. If you can't handle the academic rigor of college, you won't get a place on the team. While other student populations are required to have certain minimum academic achievements to gain acceptance into most colleges, the oversight in sports programs into how a student continues to perform academically is much greater for those athletes than for other students.

The data also showed that:

  • the kinds of sports pursued by student athletes mattered. Lacrosse players posted the highest graduation rates, with men's baseball and basketball players posting the lowest rates.
  • female athletes fared better overall than the men, reaching nearly 100 percent graduation rates in skiing, and 94 percent in gymnastics.
  • teams, rather than individual athletes, that posted the lowest graduation rates were men's basketball teams.

If you're a student-athlete preparing for the college transition, remember that financial aid awarded by your college isn't the only aid out there. Consider outside athletic scholarships to supplement your financial aid package, especially if your intended school only awards partial scholarships to athletes.


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Are You Ready for Finals?

November 18, 2009

by Agnes Jasinski

Although you're probably ready to sit down and enjoy a big Thanksgiving meal, you may be feeling some dread about what you'll be facing once you return to college after that turkey coma. Finals Week Many of you will have been procrastinating up to this point, falling behind on the study skills you honed in your high school AP classes to prepare for this moment. Luckily, it's not too late.

If you're really behind, chances are you may need to pull an all-nighter or two to catch up with your studies. Do it.  Even if you're just a freshman getting used to your first year on campus, you should still focus on making your grades the best they can be. There are still a ton of scholarships out there if you're a sophomore, junior, even a graduate student, so don't assume the loot you won to pay for your first year is out of your reach once you complete your freshman year.

If you're in better shape than I was in college, you haven't fallen too far behind and actually have notes from most of your lectures. Make a list and check it twice of all that you need to do before finishing off the semester. Talk to your professors if things aren't clear before final exam time to feel more prepared and more confident going in to those testing sessions. If you've been fairly responsible up to this point, you probably don't need to be reminded not to cram, but don't catch the procrastination bug now.

Here are some of our other favorite tips on improving your study skills in time for college exams:

  • Stay focused. If you're less distracted at the library, go to the library. Dorm rooms and apartments are full of potential time-wasters - TV, video games, snacks, chatty roommates. If you can't study in silence, bring your books and headphones to a less distracting place.
  • Figure out your learning style. What may have worked for you in high school may not be relevant anymore. You probably have more work to do, with more opportunities for distraction and non-academic related activities. Figure out how you manage your time best and what makes you the most successful learner, because the study method that works for your friend down the hall may not be the one that will work best for you.
  • Keep everything. That syllabus you used as a coaster the first week of class? It could have some important information about final exam week buried in between the professor's introduction and the required textbooks. File away every handout you get from every class, because they could be useful later. Toss them once the course is over and you've turned in that exam.
  • Don't panic. If this is your first experience with finals week, put things in perspective. Yes, you'll need to do well so that you're around for finals next semester, but panic will only stress you out and potentially cause you procrastinate even more. Focus, breathe, and take care of yourself. You want to be feeling healthy and alert when you're staring down at that college exam, and, as prepared as you're able to be.

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