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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

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 Emily

Recent economic hardships have derailed many families' college plans, prompting some to stop saving and others to start considering less expensive colleges.  For students still determined to attend a prestigious university, another option has been gaining traction.  According to an article in The Boston Globe, applications from American students are up at many of Canada's top universities, indicating a new surge in an already growing trend. 

Since 2001, the number of Americans attending Canadian universities increased by 50 percent, and based on current trends in applications and increased recruiting efforts, growth is expected to continue.  Americans choosing to study abroad in Canada are still eligible for federal student financial aid, even if they attend college abroad for all four years.  And even international tuition in Canada ($14,487 on average) is cheap right now when compared to private college tuition ($19,337 on average) and even out-of-state tuition at some state colleges in the United States.

 Studying in Canada also removes many of the traditional barriers faced by international students.  Many Americans studying in Canada can cheaply and easily return home for holidays.  Students are instructed in English at the majority of Canadian colleges and universities, signs around town will also be in English, and for the most part, accents are not even very pronounced.  Despite their proximity to home, though, students still benefit from being immersed in another culture, and since many of Canada's top schools are situated in urban settings, Canadian universities also present an opportunity to experience life in a big city.

 However, the bargain is dependent on exchange rates.  When the American and Canadian dollars are approximately equal in value, studying in Canada becomes relatively more expensive, as does living in Canada.  Also, while some college scholarships can be applied to tuition at Canadian universities, many stipulate that applicants must be attending college in the United States.  While studying abroad in Canada is an option to consider when looking for ways to get the most educational value for your dollar, be sure to weigh all your alternatives.  Regardless of where you wind up, though, there are scholarship opportunities and other ways to help pay for school.


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by Emily

Providing incentives for good grades is an increasingly common policy for parents of elementary and high school students.  In my household, report card day meant personal pan pizzas and a reprieve from the topping battle among my sister who didn't eat cheese, my sister who only ate cheese, and my own vote for a supreme pizza with extra cheese.  After pizza ceased to be a point of contention, my parents switched to the popular plan of offering financial incentives for good grades.  I don't remember the pay scale exactly, but I do remember missing it once I hit college.  Many undergraduate students are probably in the same boat, thinking about how even $10 or $20 per A could mean fewer trips to the plasma bank or even an extra textbook or two next semester.

Two brothers, who also happen to hold economics degrees from Harvard and Princeton, had a similar idea.  Michael and Matthew Kopko launched the website GradeFund last month to apply a model similar to fundraising for a marathon, where sponsors pledge to donate a certain amount per mile completed, to finding money for college.  College students' friends and family members, as well as corporate sponsors and others interested in donating money to help deserving students fund their educations, sign up on the site to give a certain dollar amount per grade earned to a particular student.

Students create profiles donors can search, and are matched up with people interested in helping them finance their educations.  Rather than agreeing to provide student loans or cover tuition in exchange for work, like in other peer-to-peer financial aid programs we've mentioned on our blog, donors on GradeFund, like scholarship providers, don't require anything in return for their donations.  While it's unlikely that a student will pay for their entire university education this way (according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the current highest pledge per A is $400), they could easily pay for their books and possibly even a good part of other expenses that college scholarships or student financial aid might not cover.  Plus, since these payments are linked to concrete achievements by students already attending college, donors may feel less apprehensive about the recipients of their philanthropy floundering once they face the academic challenges of their undergraduate studies.


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by Emily

Every two years, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education releases a report entitled "Measuring Up," which grades states in six categories related to higher education.  This year's results were published today and many states are probably wishing they had been graded on a curve.  Out of 50 states, only California received a passing grade in terms of affordability, squeaking by with a C-.  Grades were higher in terms of preparation, participation, completion, and benefits, and all states received an incomplete in learning due to insufficient data.

A state's higher education affordability grade was arrived at by considering the following: family ability to pay at community colleges, state universities, and 4-year private colleges (based on percentage of income after financial aid is taken into account); the level of investment in need-based state financial aid programs (as compared to federal investment in Pell Grants); the presence of low-cost college options; and the average amount students borrowed per year in student loans.  Failing grades suggest that states are not doing enough to make college affordable for their students, especially those from poor and working class families.

If you're a student, you might be wondering what this means for you.  The answer?  Many students in most states may find it difficult to pay for college using their family income and state and federal student financial aid.  And since affordability grades are actually lower this year than two years ago, it may be even tougher now to attend college debt-free.  Be sure to explore student financial aid options beyond state and federal programs early, rather than waiting for your award letter and finding you've come up short.  You can start by doing a free college scholarship search right here at Scholarships.com.

Scores in other categories were not nearly as bleak as in affordability.  However, even though the majority of states received passing scores in four of the five categories in which grades were given, the distribution looks more like a required high school course than, say, a graduate seminar.  Statements that accompany the report further stress that in the center's opinion, states need to improve their contributions to higher education.  You can view the report card for your state on the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education's website.  The Chronicle of Higher Education also provides a chart listing each state's grade in each category.

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by Emily

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve and Treasury announced a new program to further shore up the banking industry in the face of a recession that appears to still be worsening.  The program would devote $200 billion to shoring up consumer credit markets, including credit cards, car loans, and student loans.  The hope is that this new program will make these forms of credit more widely available to people who need them, including students who depend on private loans to help pay for school.

The New York Times explains that this is the first time the federal government has intervened to finance consumer debt and describes the program as " com[ing] close to being a government bank."  Coupled with recent efforts to expand and sustain federal student financial aid programs, namely the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), the federal government has expended a fairly vast amount of resources on student financial aid.  However, some are questioning how the money is being spent.

The Project on Student Debt is one organization that has encouraged the federal government to exclude private student loans from rescue packages.  While the lending industry has been hit hard in the last year, this organization is one of several voices urging that students be steered towards more affordable means of financing their educations.  The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, while supporting the Treasury's decision, also called for a reevaluation of the role of private loans in paying for college.  Private student loans, which carry higher interest rates than federal loans, are intended to be used as a last resort after Federal Stafford Loans, campus-based aid programs, and scholarship money have been exhausted and students are still coming up short on their education expenses.


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by Emily

Interested in online courses?  You may want to look into attending college in Minnesota.  Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and David Olson, the chair of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) board of trustees, announced a plan to make 25% of the university system's courses available online by 2015.  Other state universities, including the University of Minnesota campuses, are strongly encouraged to work towards this goal, as well.

Online courses can benefit students in multiple ways, most notably by saving students living off-campus the cost of commuting and giving them a more flexible schedule so they can more easily juggle work and family commitments in addition to coursework.  Additionally, in the cold Minnesota winters, being able to attend class from the comfort of your home is a definite plus (though still having class on those rare snow days could also be seen as a drawback).  While online learning requires students to be more self-motivated than those in traditional classes, more and more students are finding such courses appealing.

Online degree programs are gaining popularity across the country.  A recent study revealed that over 20 percent of American college students took at least one online course in 2007 and that distance learning enrollment continues to increase.  A number of colleges and universities are interested in increasing their online course offerings, and the MnSCU system hopes to beat them to the punch.

Posted Under:

College Costs , College News


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by Emily

Amid news of tightening budgets and declining endowments, several colleges and universities are putting a greater focus on shoring up financial aid programs and helping their students find money for college.  While reports of hiring freezes and halted construction plans has come from numerous institutions, keeping students in school has remained a priority.

This focus on student financial aid is reflected in recent fund raising shifts, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.  Several schools are introducing or ramping up fund raising efforts directed at providing college scholarships and grants for their students.  Among the private colleges increasing fund raising efforts are Cornell University and Barnard CollegeState universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin, are also increasing effort to meet students' growing financial needs.

College presidents at multiple institutions are even dipping into their own salaries and savings to help their schools.  A recent news post in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis has taken a voluntary 10% pay cut to help reduce operating costs, and the president of the University of Pennsylvania has donated $100,000 to help fund undergraduate research at her university.

All of this goes to show that despite economic trouble, scholarship opportunities are still out there.  Keep plugging away at your scholarship search and you can still afford a college education.


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by Emily

A struggling economy, shrinking endowments, turmoil in the student loan marketplace, and state budget cuts have all raised questions about students' continued ability to pay for school.  However, despite economic troubles, at least one state has plans to launch a new program to help its students find money for college in the form of low-interest student loans.

Connecticut students will soon have one more source of student financial aid, thanks to a new partnership between the state and its credit unions.  The loan program, announced yesterday by the governor's office, would provide up to $17.5 million in student loans for college students from Connecticut and students attending college in the state.

Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell met with officials from the state's credit unions on Tuesday to discuss the partnership.  Under the proposed college loan program, students would borrow directly from the credit unions at interest rates of 5.75 or 6 percent.  Each credit union would be required to offer at least $100,000 in student loans to participate in the program.  The loans are designed to help families who don't have access to sufficient amounts of financial aid, such as federal Stafford loans, to cover their tuition bills.  The governor's press release did not make mention of borrowing limits or requirements.

Posted Under:

Financial Aid , Student Loans


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by Emily

Are you considering a career in public service, such as working for the government or a non-profit organization, but more than slightly overwhelmed by the thought of repaying your student loans with an often minuscule salary?  Realizing that you may actually be taking a pay cut to transition from your summer job to your "grown up" career can be demoralizing, and dealing with debt on top of that certainly doesn't help.  While many noble individuals certainly make this sacrifice, perhaps you were hoping to forget where the grocery store kept its "manager's special" items after you graduated.  And who can blame you?  The college budget diet, and the accompanying lifestyle of cramming half a dozen people into one run-down apartment, eventually does get old.  Luckily, there are forms of financial aid out there to minimize or relieve your debt and help you stretch that public servant salary a little further.

Some of the most well-known career-based assistance programs are designed for teachers.  The TEACH grant contributes $4000 a year towards the tuition of students who agree to teach a high-need subject at a low-income school for four years. Other programs such as Teach for America offer teaching certification, a stipend, and assistance with student loan repayment to individuals agreeing to teach in certain schools.

Teachers and other public servants can also qualify to have their Federal Perkins Loans canceled, saving up to $16,000.  Nursing students and other medical students can get in on this program, as well.  The federal government also launched a public service loan repayment program a year ago that will forgive qualifying federal student loan debt for those who commit ten years to public service.  In addition, a variety of government scholarships provide incentives for students in various majors to consider federal work.

An article appearing in USA Today this week also mentions some university-specific programs to help steer students towards public service careers.  Harvard Law School will waive tuition for one year for students who commit to five years in government or non-profit fields, and Princeton University will provide free master's degrees to eight 2008 graduates who first put in two years in federal jobs.  Tufts University is also helping its undergraduate students pay down debt or pursue graduate degrees if they commit a few years to public service work.

If you're leaning towards a career with a government agency or non-profit organization, be aware of the scholarships, grants, fellowships, internships, and loan repayment programs out there.  Include a free college scholarship search in your research to find out about many of your options for funding your education and minimizing your debt.


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