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by Emily

While an increasing number of college students received financial aid in the 2007-2008 academic year, that calendar year students also ran up more credit card debt.  The average college student owed $3,173 on credit cards in March 2008, compared to $2,169 in 2004.  This information comes from the student lender Sallie Mae, which has been tracking students' credit card debt since 1998.

The study also found that student credit card debt increases with grade level.  The average freshman owed $2,038 on credit cards, while the average senior owed $4,138.  The money is not just being spent on beer and pizza, either.  According to a supplemental survey by Sallie Mae, the vast majority of students (92 percent) report charging at least one educational expense, such as books, to a credit card.  This figure is also higher than in 2004, as is the percentage of students charging tuition to a credit card, which now stands at nearly 30 percent.  Students reported charging an average of $2,000 in educational expenses to credit cards.

Higher tuition, a poor economy, and difficulty finding private loans may have already pushed these numbers higher for 2009.  With high interest rates and the need to begin repayment immediately, credit cards are one of the worst ways to pay for school.  Scholarship opportunities and federal student financial aid should definitely be explored before students resort to charging tuition to a card.  A variety of grants and scholarships, as well as low interest student loans, can help students avoid credit card debt while in college, and keep their debt from consuming their entire salary when they graduate.  Before you reach for the plastic to pay your campus bills, spend a few minutes doing a free scholarship search.  You may be very glad you did.


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by Emily

As college costs continue to rise, the percentage of students receiving financial aid also continues to grow.  As of the 2007-2008 academic year, a full two-thirds of undergraduate students received some form of student financial aid, with 47 percent receiving federal aid. This is according to the "First Look" report on the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study published by the National Center for Education Statistics yesterday.

The First Look report shows that the percentage of students receiving aid has continued to increase, from 63 percent in 2003-2004, and 55 percent in 1999-2000.  It also provides a breakdown of the percentage of students receiving different forms of financial aid, such as grants and scholarships, federal student loans, federal work-study, and federal PLUS loans.  According to the report, 52 percent of students received college scholarships and grants, while 38 percent of students borrowed federal student loans.  Relatively few students took advantage of work-study and PLUS loans.

NCES collects and publishes data on financial aid every three years and the First Look report is typically followed by a more in-depth analysis.  The National Postsecondary Student Aid Study draws from a sizable sample of students:  114,000 undergraduates and 14,000 graduates at 1,600 colleges and universities. Additional information is available on the NCES website.


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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

Here's an essay contest especially suited for all those history buffs who can't get enough of World War II documentaries on the history channel, as well as the English majors and budding political scientists fascinated by propaganda campaigns.  If you're interested in researching and writing about the invasion of Poland in 1939, you could win $2,000 in scholarship money through this week's Scholarship of the Week.

In recognition of the 70th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland, the Kosciuszko Foundation and the Polish Army Veterans of America are sponsoring an essay contest for American students ages 18-22.  On September 1, 1939, after waging a sustained propaganda campaign, the Nazis invaded Poland from the east, and on September 17, 1939, the Soviets invaded from the west without a formal declaration of war.  The Historical Essay contest asks students to research these events in Poland, paying particular attention the propaganda used by the Nazis and Soviets leading up to each invasion and the impact the 1939 invasion of Poland had on the international community.

Prize:

First prize: $2,000

Second prize: $1,000

Eligibility:

Must be a current U.S. resident and between the ages of 18-22 as of September 1, 2009 

Deadline:

July 1, 2009

Required Material:

An essay reflecting your own original ideas and research of no more than 10 typed, double-spaced pages, submitted along with age verification.

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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by Emily

So you've figured out your cost of attendance, your expected family contribution, and the total amount of aid you're being offered at each college.  However, not all aid is created equal, and a package that appears to meet your full need could actually get you into more debt than a package that leaves a substantial gap.  A useful move both in choosing a college and budgeting out what you need for the year is to separate the grant and scholarship aid you've been offered from all of the other financial aid.  This is going to involve some more math and record-keeping on your part. We'll delve into the best kinds of aid in the second part in our series on understanding your financial aid award letter.

Understanding Your Award Letter, Part II: Grants and Scholarships

College scholarships and grants are money you will not have to pay back.  They come from a variety of places and have different terms attached.  Grants are almost universally need-based, and will typically be awarded based on your expected family contribution and your estimated financial need.  Scholarships are given based on a variety of criteria, and while some may carry a need-based component, not all do.  Below are some of the most common varieties of grants and scholarships you're likely to see on your award letter.

Grants

There are state grants, federal grants, and institutional grants, but they will likely all be listed in the same place.  The most common type of grant is the Federal Pell Grant.  For 2009-2010, Pell Grants come in amounts from $976 to $5350 for full-time students.  Especially needy students may also receive an SEOG, which stands for Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant.  Award amounts vary, but they are usually a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.  First-year students may receive an Academic Competitiveness Grant, or ACG, which carries an award of $750 to $1,300.

There are also federal grants for people in specific fields.  SMART grants and TEACH grants reward students pursuing training in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and education.  SMART grants are only available to juniors and seniors who meet eligibility requirements.

Most states have at least one state grant program, and students who met deadlines and other criteria may see an additional state grant award on their letter.  Many states also offer major-specific grant programs, as well as grant programs for other specific student populations.  You can talk to you financial aid office or visit your state board of higher education's website to find out more about these programs.

Scholarships

Most universities offer at least one need-based scholarship, which is roughly the same thing as a university grant.  Numerous varieties of university scholarships exist, but the most common are need-based, academic, major-specific, and athletic.  If you've received a grant or scholarship award from your college, you will likely receive a letter explaining it in more detail.  Make note of the terms of the award, including whether it's renewable and what conditions have to be met to receive it.  This is especially important for college academic scholarships, as many require a fairly high GPA or heavy course load to renew.

It's also important to keep track of the grants, scholarships, and other institutional aid you receive because sometimes the awards may not appear on your first award letter, or they may show up under a different name.  Many scholarships come from endowed funds, and you may get a letter giving the more general name of the award, but may see it on your letter under the donor's name.  This can cause confusion and disappointment if you think you got a bonus scholarship but actually did not, and if your award is missing, adding it on later may result in your financial aid being recalculated if you're funded beyond your financial need or your cost of attendance.

Finally, if you've received any scholarship money through places other than the university or the state (such as awards you found through our free scholarship search), make sure it's represented on your award letter.  Many scholarship providers send the check to your school, and the school will need to make sure it doesn't alter your aid package before they disburse it. If you need the money to pay tuition or buy books, you want to make sure everything's set up so the check can smoothly make its way from the scholarship provider to your account.

If you're comparing offers from different schools, tally up the grant and scholarship aid you will receive this year, as well as the aid you can anticipate in future years.  Compare what your total award over four years will be for each school for the most accurate picture of who has given you the best deal.

Now that we've gotten through the free money, we can get to everything else.  Check out Part III for information on work-study and loans.


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by Emily

Along with acceptance and rejection letters, colleges are sending out another nerve-wracking piece of mail this month: the financial aid award letter.  For many families who have only recently discovered the "joys" of completing the FAFSA, the financial aid letter can bring about a whole new kind of terror and confusion.  Even for people who are somewhat familiar with aid, deconstructing the naming conventions and occasionally less-than-detailed explanations on various colleges' award letters can be frustrating, as can mounting an effective comparison among differing aid packages.  Below is the first part in a series on understanding your financial aid award letter.

Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter, Part I: COA and EFC

Two of the most important numbers on your award notice will be the cost of attendance (COA) and the expected family contribution (EFC). These are instrumental in determining your award, and they also have some of the most obscure and misleading meanings. Despite their prominence, they're occasionally tucked in strange places on the letter, such as near the bottom or in a box in the middle. Finding them can kind of be a Where's Waldo moment.

Cost of Attendance

The cost of attendance, often abbreviated COA, is occasionally referred to by other names, such as your "budget."  This number is not what you owe the school, nor what a year of education will necessarily cost you there. Instead, it is the average amount paid by a student in your situation: dependent living on campus, independent living off-campus, part-time living rent-free at home, etc. The COA will include tuition, student fees (these could change if you later register for classes with special fees, such as art or aviation), room and board (either what the school is charging you or what the average student in your housing situation pays), books, and miscellaneous living expenses.  Your school's financial aid office will likely have a detailed breakdown of this number available online or in the office if you ask.

The important thing to realize here is that this number is significantly higher than the amount of money you will actually owe the school. If you plan on working your way through college or receiving assistance from your parents for living expenses, you may not need aid to cover your full COA. It can still be a good tool for comparing among colleges, though, especially since they factor in handy things like average living expenses in the area.

Expected Family Contribution

The other big number on your award letter will be the expected family contribution, or E FC. Again, this is not the amount your family actually owes the school or is expected to pay out-of-pocket. Instead, this is the amount that, according to the information you submitted on your FAFSA, a family in your situation should ideally be able to contribute towards a college education. This is used to determine your eligibility for "need-based" aid, which includes state and federal grants, work-study, and even subsidized loans. Certain grants and scholarships can only be awarded to students with an EFC below a specific number (for example, 4671 for Federal Pell Grants), so if you are not eligible for grants but your financial circumstances have changed since 2008, talk to your financial aid office to see if your EFC can be adjusted downward.

Your EFC should be the same at pretty much every school, since they're using the same information to determine it (some schools require both a FAFSA and a CSS profile, so there could potentially be some differences).  However, it's still useful for comparisons among schools, since you can use it to determine whether your full "financial need" has been met by each school. Like nearly everything else in student financial aid, this term does not necessarily mean what one might think it should mean. Your financial need is a number calculated based on the two numbers we just discussed.  Your full financial need is your COA minus your EFC, and your unmet financial need is generally your COA minus your EFC minus any need-based aid and scholarship awards you've received.

So, how do you determine what the need-based awards and scholarships are on your award letter?  Check out Part II for that information.


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by Emily

Nervous about shelling out big bucks for a college degree in this economy? Here's a compelling reason to go to college: data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2008 indicates that higher education attainment still translates to a lower rate of unemployment and a higher salary.  A handy graphic here breaks it down.

The annual average unemployment rate for adults over 25 with only a high school education was 5.7 percent in 2008, 5.1 percent for adults with some college but no degree, and 9.0 percent for those with no high school diploma or GED.  Just finishing a degree at a community college drops the average unemployment rate to 3.7 percent, and getting a bachelor's degree reduces it to 2.8 percent.  The drop in unemployment was less substantial for master's, professional, and doctoral degrees, with rates for those ranging from 1.7 to 2.4 percent.

Graduate and professional degrees really pay off in terms of increased salaries.  Median full-time earnings for 2008 ranged from $426 per week for those with no high school diploma to $1,555 per week for those with doctoral degrees. Those with a diploma or GED but no degree could expect to make $591 to $645 per week working full-time, compared to $736 with an associate's degree. Median income rises rapidly from there, with four-year degree recipients making $978 per week and master's degrees and professional degrees resulting in median earnings of $1,228 and $1,522.

While these figures are for all adults age 25 and older in a wide variety of lines of work, they still present a compelling argument to at least consider a degree.  Choosing the right college and doing a thorough scholarship search can help make higher education affordable, as well as lucrative.


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by Emily

For current and future college students, April is a time for big, and potentially painful, decisions. Right now prospective college students are beginning to sort through their acceptance letters and financial aid offers and current students are starting to think about how to pay for school next year.  If the financial picture is much bleaker than you'd hoped, but you're hesitant to commit to the two-year school as a money-saving option, here's some information you may not have known about the community college experience.

Just like four-year schools, different community colleges offer vastly different experiences, and in fact, depending on your major and location, you can potentially get many of the things four-year schools offer for much less money.  For example, did you know that some community colleges offer on-campus housing, and others offer a selection of four-year degrees?  Other community colleges have articulation agreements with area universities, as well, so you can spend two years paying next to nothing for credits that can potentially transfer to some of the most expensive and prestigious schools in your area.

These programs can be a great deal, since community college tuition tends to be much lower than private colleges, or even four-year state colleges and universities.  With on-campus housing, international student classmates, innovative educational programs, numerous online courses, and challenging coursework, the right community college can start to feel a lot more like the "traditional" college experience, but at a fraction of the price.

So how do you find community colleges with sweet deals like fancy apartments or four-year nursing degrees? Just do a little research.  Start with a college search in your area and see what's available. You could land the educational deal of a lifetime.


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The Brower Youth Awards

April 6, 2009

by Emily

Environmental issues are becoming increasingly important to people and governments worldwide.  Not surprisingly, many scholarship opportunities exist for students committed to improving their environments and the lives of those around them.  One such scholarship is this week's Scholarship of the Week, The Brower Youth Awards.

Since 2000, the Earth Island Institute has been sponsoring the Brower Youth Awards, which recognize young activists for environmental and social justice with $3,000 monetary awards and other resources to further their education and activism.  The awards were created in memory of David Brower, an environmental activist and the founder of the Earth Island Institute.  Students interested in applying should be between the ages of 13 and 22, and should be able to show previous leadership in an activist or community service campaign that has had a demonstrable impact on environmental or social welfare.

Prize:

$3,000 plus a trip to California for the awards ceremony and a wilderness camping trip, and the opportunity to continue working with the Earth Island Institute on future projects

Eligibility:

Students ages 13-22 who reside in North America and are current youth activist leaders 

Deadline:

May 15, 2009

Required Material:

Completed Brower Youth Award scholarship application, which can be requested online through the Brower Youth Award website.  Your application should demonstrate your leadership role in your project, as well as your project's environmental or social impact.

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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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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