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Textbook Alternatives = Big Savings

Open Books, Rentals Preserve Students’ Funds

October 8, 2010

Textbook Alternatives = Big Savings

by Alexis Mattera

As a college student, my pockets were far from deep but they got even shallower when I stopped at the co-op to buy my books at the beginning of each semester. My wallet and I loathed the astronomical price tags (even for used copies!) with a passion because we both knew there had to be a way for me to get books and not be forced to subsist on Top Ramen until my next break. I was right…just kind of bummed it didn’t happen during my collegiate tenure.

Data from the Student Public Interest Research Group’s new survey disclose textbooks available for free online or sold in print for low cost could slash students’ textbook bills from $900 to $184 each year. Using eBooks and textbook rental services like BookRenter.com and Chegg.com can also reduce book costs by $300. Though 93 percent of students surveyed said they would rent “at least some of their textbooks,” Cerritos College student Donald Pass prefers the flexibility of open textbooks because he could read the material for free online, purchase a print copy with study aids or print it himself. (Daytona State's administration agrees and will begin offering eBook access to students this coming January.) Professors like Lon Mitchell of Virginia Commonwealth University, however, say this option is troublesome because students often bring only limited sections of text to class, making it difficult for instructors to review supplemental material in different chapters. Mitchell also said that a number of his students have resisted the online versions of the open textbooks because compared to the print versions, they felt the online text was lacking.

I hear what Mitchell is saying loud and clear but if a student can reduce their spending by up to 80 percent by using open books and textbook rentals, I have a feeling print editions are going to be seen less and less as the years go by. Students, are you utilizing eBooks and textbook rentals or are you still relying solely on hard copies you don't have to share or return? If you’re using both, is there a noticeable difference in the material quality like Mitchell said? What's your preference between these options?


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The Deal with Debt

Who Owes What, Where and Why

October 22, 2010

The Deal with Debt

by Alexis Mattera

$24,000. To a recent graduate, that five-figure number could be 1. their starting salary at their first entry-level job or 2. the amount of student loan debt they have accrued while in school.

We’re going to talk about the second choice this morning, as a study by Peterson’s and the Project on Student Debt just revealed it was the average amount owed by graduates of the class of 2009. The study broke down debt levels by state and school (D.C. graduates had the highest while Utah students had the lowest) but did not include debt levels for graduates of for-profit schools because of a lack of data.

Arriving at these tallies didn’t come easy for the Project on Student Debt, which adjusted the averages initially recorded by Peterson’s ($22,500 and 58 percent of students who borrowed) because it felt they were too low when compared to the statistics recorded last year by the National Post Secondary Student Aid Study ($22,750 and 65 percent).

You may be one of the lucky students who scored enough scholarships and grants to have a degree in hand and no debt in sight or you may be flipping couch cushions in search of change to put toward your next payment but what do you think of these findings? A college degree certainly doesn’t come cheap these days!


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Montana State Aims to Up Graduation Rate

by Alexis Mattera

Montana State University has a glass-half-full outlook when it comes to graduation rates but its students aren’t exactly sharing that mentality: Though the school announced it had enrolled record 13,559 students for the fall semester, only half that number will make it to graduation day.

Graduation rates aren’t that different nationwide – about 57 percent of students who enroll in U.S. four-year colleges earn a degree in six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics – but these low numbers are cause for concern and in order to reach President Obama’s goal of making America the leader in college graduates by 2020, the country’s public universities need to do whatever they can to shed the label of "failure factories." Things are looking up for MSU for the time being, though: The retention rate for last year's freshmen who returned this fall was 74 percent - 2 points higher than last year and a record for the past 10 years.

So what’s being done in the Treasure State? MSU President Waded Cruzado says she plans to renew attention to the goal of graduation with the help of the Montana Board of Regents by getting more people to earn two-year or four-year degrees. But why are so many MSU students are dropping out in the first place? Despite the less-than-favorable economy, finding money for college isn’t the issue; instead, students surveyed cited lack of direction, affinity/connection with the school and overall interest in college classes. MSU is responding by ramping up its career coaching with freshmen and advising to help undecided students pick a major and launching a campaign to lure back former students who have left the university in the last three years.

The university is doing much more than what’s listed above (check out yesterday’s article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle) but will any of it work? Students leave school for myriad reasons and sometimes no amount of advising, coaching or incentives can change that. Then again, an extra push can make a difference for many students on the fence about their education. How would you respond to MSU’s initiatives?


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How Expensive is "Too Expensive" for a College Education?

Students Willing to Spend More for Academics, Prestige

November 4, 2010

How Expensive is "Too Expensive" for a College Education?

by Alexis Mattera

The true cost of a college education is seldom the number that’s printed in school brochures and on various college comparison lists. When you figure in federal aid, scholarships, grants, room and board, books and supplies, that price fluctuates. One thing remains constant - higher education doesn’t come cheap - but a new poll finds students are willing to stretch their finances for several key factors.

In April, right up until enrollment deadlines, students were still considering “too expensive” schools and were willing to stretch to pay for their education, poll conductors the College Board and the Art & Science Group report. While it would be more financially sound to select the school with the lower tuition and better financial aid package, “too expensive” colleges remained in play if they had strong academics in students’ fields of interest, were places students felt comfortable, had prestigious academic reputations or had excellent records of graduate school acceptance or good job placement after students graduated. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Twenty-six percent of students surveyed said their family would have to stretch a lot, but “I think we’ll make it.”
  • Twenty-two percent chose “I’m not sure how my family will afford to send me to college, but I believe we’ll work something out when the time comes.”
  • Eleven percent said, “I don’t think my family can afford to send me to college, but we are going to try.” Nearly 40 percent of students surveyed did not have a sense of long-term costs, citing “no idea” what their likely monthly payment on student loans would be after graduation.

If you think back to every award show you’ve ever seen, you’ll recall those who do not win always say it is an honor just to be nominated. The same can be said for college admissions: It’s an amazing achievement to be accepted to a prestigious college but is attending worth it if the cost of attendance is going to drive you and your family into debt?


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Nobody’s Business

Interest in the Once Most Popular Major Stalling, Falling

December 13, 2010

Nobody’s Business

by Alexis Mattera

One would think that the condition of the U.S. economy would have undergraduates declaring business as their majors in droves. One would also, however, be wrong: Federal and college data show interest in the field is mimicking the Metrodome roof and falling.

Inside Higher Ed reports business is no longer the big man on campus in terms of majors and interest appears to be static and even waning at many schools. Since 2008, Pennsylvania State University has recorded a 30-percent decline in undergraduates accepting offers from its Smeal College of Business – a trend that’s far from isolated: Though rates have remained stable and even increased at the University of Oregon and Indiana University, the share of business majors at University of Central Florida is down by nearly 15 percent this semester relative to 2008 and 13 percent fewer students are enrolled in Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management this semester compared to two years ago; last year, the number of applicants dropped 26 percent from the previous year.

John Pryor, director of the survey-conducting Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California Los Angeles, suggested student loan debt and the perceived lack of career stability in business may be fueling this shift. "Even though students have higher debt, some are seeing that business is not as likely to help them pay that debt back," he wrote. "We also saw business employees losing jobs and having lower incomes, so perhaps students see business as not providing as sure a track towards economic freedom as in the past." The survey also suggested undergraduate interest in business peaked long ago – 1987 to be precise, the same year Gordon Gekko famously declared "greed, for lack of a better word, is good” in the movie “Wall Street.” Coincidence?

Students, has the economy influenced what you’re majoring in? Are you more likely to take pages from the books of computer science majors Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg instead of emulating good ol’ Mr. Gekko?


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A Deal with the (Sun) Devil

ASU Placed on NCAA Probation for Scholarship Violations

December 17, 2010

A Deal with the (Sun) Devil

by Alexis Mattera

Imagine working hard throughout high school, getting accepted to the college or university of your choice and receiving a scholarship covering all or part of your tuition. Now imagine being asked to give back even a tiny percentage of that award.

Wait...WHAT?! Exactly...but that's what happened at Arizona State University when former baseball coach Pat Murphy requested a number of his players relinquish all or part of their athletic scholarships for the 2006-2007 academic year so that the coaching staff could enroll several transfer students they had been recruiting through a program Murphy called Devil-to-Devil. His actions may not have been discovered unless a parent of a player complained about the process to ASU’s athletics director and after an investigation, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) agreed that this practice was problematic and violated rules. The punishment: ASU has been banned from the college playoffs this coming season and must vacate numerous wins, including the team’s 2007 Pacific-10 Conference title and trip to the College World Series; the school also received three years' probation, scholarship reductions and recruiting limitations. Though ASU has taken responsibility for not monitoring the baseball program more closely, it intends to appeal the NCAA’s decision.

As for Murphy – who echoes the name of his program with several other questionable practices – he’s not coaching anywhere at the moment but will not go unpunished. He was forced to resign last year and the NCAA bestowed a one-year show-cause penalty upon him so that any institution interested in hiring him in the next 12 months must not only defend why it is hiring him but also how it will monitor his behavior to prevent further violations.

This situation is shady any way you slice it but I do feel for the ASU students and coaches who are being penalized for events they had no part in. The beauty of college scholarships is that they don’t have to be repaid, allowing students to graduate with little to no student loan or credit card debt. To be clear, what Murphy did was wrong but by limiting the amount of scholarship awards and financial aid ASU can disperse, he’s not the one being truly punished – it’s the deserving students that are being hurt the most.


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Mind the Gap

Should You Take a Year Off?

December 30, 2010

Mind the Gap

by Alexis Mattera

The road to college – once thought to be straight and narrow – is detouring into uncharted territory. It was once expected for all high school seniors to matriculate to an institute of higher education the semester after they graduate but today, many students (and their parents) are considering the notion of taking a year off from formal schooling first.

But what do students do during this time, often called a gap year? Not catching up on “Extreme Couponing” or trying out online dating: Students use this time to volunteer abroad or build their resumes and schools are adopting formal programs allowing incoming freshmen to defer admission for a year to do so. According to the Wall Street Journal, "gap fairs" are becoming just as common as campus job expos. The results? Mixed. While most students end their gap years better prepared to attend college, some get so waylaid that they abandon a collegiate education all together.

It may sound tempting to take a year off to explore the unknown but there are a few confounding variables. First, the price tag is far from alluring – unless you feel $35,000 is a reasonable figure. (The upside is that costs can be defrayed by stipends, grants, research fellowships and scholarships or the agreement to work in a very remote area.) Next, the hazy direction of your future. I won't deny that your late teens and early 20s are the best times to gain life experience but if said experience is going to leave you in debt or questioning once-important educational goals, is taking the time off worth it?


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5, 4, 3, 2, 1…Happy New FAFSA!

2011-2012 Application Available Tomorrow

December 31, 2010

5, 4, 3, 2, 1…Happy New FAFSA!

by Alexis Mattera

Ladies and gentlemen, prospective and current college students, I (or the federal government, rather) give you the 2011-2012 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Hooray!

Vacuum up the confetti because it’s time to get down to business. January 1st marks the first day college-bound seniors, continuing undergraduate and graduate students, and their parents can begin filling out the FAFSA online. Completing the FAFSA is a vital part of the college process: The Department of Education uses it 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 college aid programs, such as state grants. Colleges also use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for the need-based aid programs they administer and, finally, many scholarship opportunities request FAFSA information as part of their application processes. 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 and paying for school.

Submission deadlines vary by state (verify yours sooner than later here) so, as with any sort of college funding, we recommend you complete the FAFSA as early as possible because funds do run out. For more information, visit the official FAFSA website or review our federal aid pages. Happy filing (and New Year)!


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Fee Increase? No Problem!

Students Willing to Pay Up for Needed Projects

January 13, 2011

Fee Increase? No Problem!

by Alexis Mattera

Scenario: You’ve been accepted by College A and College B - your two top choice schools - and have been awarded generous financial aid packages by both. You decide to attend College B but one year in, a project is announced that would increase the fees you’re paying...on top of the already hefty sums of tuition, books and housing. Are you on board? If so, you’re in good company.

State funding for colleges isn’t what it used to be so when a school needs new dormitories, laboratories and classrooms, students have become more willing to fund these endeavors because they will benefit their educational experience. In Colorado, mandatory student fee increases range from 18.5 percent (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) to 611 percent (Mesa State) since 2006 but current students are readily handing over the cash…even though the majority will have graduated long before the projects are finished.

"I won't be a student here when the projects are complete, but I do know my degree will only gain in value," said Sammantha O'Brien, a student at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Brad Baca, vice president of finance and administration at Western State College in Gunnison, agrees. "We're in a very competitive environment and having high-quality amenities and facilities is an important factor," he said. And if the upgrades aren’t reward enough, students at these schools are more informed and involved: At Western State, for example, 40 percent of the student population participated in the fee vote – a record turnout.

What do you think, readers? Would you pony up the dough for a dorm you won't live in or an academic building in which you’ll never hear a lecture?


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And the Best Value Colleges Are…

Kiplinger Ranks Top Private and Liberal Arts Schools

November 15, 2010

And the Best Value Colleges Are…

by Alexis Mattera

True or false: Public schools are always a better value than private schools or liberal arts schools. Have your answer all bubbled in? Let’s see if it’s right.

A school’s value isn’t solely determined by cost; though it does play a significant role, if you factor in curriculum caliber and overall quality of life, it turns out that many private and liberal arts schools are indeed better values than their public counterparts. That and the amount families actually have to pay after financial aid is only around $20,000. Nice.

According to Kiplinger’s annual lists, Swarthmore College and Princeton University lead the pack for liberal arts and private institutions, respectively. Why? Swarthmore’s most qualified applicants only pay $18,791 – that’s nearly two-thirds off the school’s $52,650 sticker price and a huge reason why almost all Swatties return for sophomore year – and Princeton graduates leave its hallowed halls with the lowest average debt, due in large part to a tuition bill less than $50,000 and the elimination of student loans from its financial aid package. Here are the top 10 in each category:

Best Values in Liberal Arts Colleges

  1. Swarthmore College
  2. Pomona College
  3. Williams College
  4. Washington and Lee University
  5. Davidson College
  6. Bowdoin College
  7. Claremont McKenna College
  8. Amherst College
  9. Hamilton College
  10. Vassar College

Best Values in Private Colleges

  1. Princeton University
  2. Yale University
  3. California Institute of Technology
  4. Rice University
  5. Duke University
  6. Harvard University
  7. University of Pennsylvania
  8. Columbia University
  9. Brown University
  10. Dartmouth University

Students and parents, does this information have you rethinking the possibility of private and liberal arts schools?


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