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March Madness Alternatives

by Darci Miller

They say that April showers bring May flowers but March brings March Madness. This is the time when college basketball fans feverishly compile brackets and glue themselves to their TVs. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all lost someone to March Madness, as the afflicted individual shuts themselves away from society for several weeks, but there’s always the chance that your bracketology wasn’t quite up to scratch this season. If your top seeds were eliminated early on, you may find yourself with a March entirely free from basketball obligations.

So what to do with yourself? Now that it’s officially springtime, you could always venture outdoors. Temperatures are rising and flowers are beginning to bloom, so there’s no better time to sit in a local park and take a break.

On the flip side, isn’t it just about time for midterms? I know it gets harder to study the warmer it gets (as I sit here watching interviews with “The Hunger Games” cast instead of writing a paper) but summer is on the horizon and I know you have some gas left in your tank, right? Hey, if I can write 2,000 words about Brutalist British architecture, you can handle your class assignments, too!

The coming of summer also means that the search for the perfect internship is in full swing. Though it’s fairly late in the season to be getting into the internship game, there are still countless positions looking to be filled. Now’s a great time to brush off your resume, hit up the campus career center and start applying.

Bank account looking a little dry? There’s never a wrong time to be applying for scholarships for next semester! (Though, if you’re reading this on the Scholarships.com blog, I’m sure you already know that!) Trust me: As someone who received a $4,500 stipend for a little extra study abroad wiggle room, I can tell you that it’s worth the effort.

See, just because your basketball team is a lost cause doesn’t mean March has to be!

Darci Miller is a New Yorker studying journalism and sport administration at the University of Miami. When she’s not writing for the school newspaper, you can find her at the gym, either working or working out. She loves all ‘80s pop culture (the cheesier, the better!) and glues herself to her TV when the Olympics are on. She dreams big and believes the sky’s the limit. This semester, Darci is studying abroad in London and will share her international experiences here.


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by Emily

In recent years, colleges have begun experimenting with a number of techniques to make textbooks more affordable for, and more likely to be purchased by, college students.  From on-demand textbook printing at the University of Michigan to on-campus and online textbook rental options nationwide, it seems like at least two or three textbook pricing revolutions roll out each year.  This year, however, Williams College in Massachusetts is trying something entirely different:  giving textbooks away for free.

Starting this fall, students who receive financial aid at Williams will be able to charge their textbooks to their bursar accounts--an option available to students at many colleges--and then will receive college-based grants for the amount of their textbook purchase, which as far as Williams officials know, is an offer unique to their campus. The textbook program, as well as the reasons for its inception, were highlighted in a recent blog post in the New York Times' college admissions blog, The Choice.

Williams previously offered financially needy students $400 book grants each semester, but found that some students still weren't buying all their required textbooks, as they felt the money they spent on books was still coming out of their own pockets. A textbook lending program through the library was used to supplement it, but there were concerns that students couldn't make full use of borrowed books. To allow students to highlight and annotate books, as well as reference them in subsequent semesters, the college decided to make sure students were able to purchase all required texts. Thus, the current grant program was born, which Williams officials expect to cost roughly the same as the combination of the previous grant and library lending programs but to serve students more completely and efficiently.

Little touches like free textbooks can go a long way towards swaying students still working on their college search. Regardless of the college you attend, you may want to factor textbooks into your scholarship search, as well. While textbooks don't seem like much individually, when the costs are added up, they can become a sizeable portion of a student's college costs. With many students paying for textbooks out-of-pocket, they can quickly create a problem with money management, increasing work burdens, credit card balances, or student loan debt.


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by Emily

Many community college students who appear to be eligible for federal student financial aid don't apply, according to a report released Monday by the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance.

The report indicated three major reasons for not applying for aid, with 20 percent of students reporting other reasons.  The main reasons students didn't apply for aid were:

  • They thought they were not eligible (39 percent)

  • They had sufficient funds to pay for college expenses (35 percent)

  • They found the FAFSA too complicated (6 percent)


Additionally, many community college students, including 28 percent of students with family incomes below $10,000 worked more than 30 hours a week.  The report cites previous research that has indicated that students who work more than 15-20 hours a week while attending college full-time see a negative impact on their academic performance.  This stresses the importance of these students learning of their financial aid eligibility, namely their increased Federal Pell Grant eligibility under the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007.

This is just the latest report stressing the need for students attending community colleges, especially those planning to transfer to four-year schools to complete a bachelor's degree, to investigate financial aid options thoroughly.  With lower rates of degree completion, higher rates of student loan defaults, and lower likelihood of applying for college scholarships and grants, community college students can easily find themselves in an unnecessarily difficult financial situation.

Hard work, perseverence, and a commitment to exploring all options for financial aid can keep community college students on the path to success.  If you're attending or planning to attend a community college, start by completing the FAFSA on the web, conducting a scholarship search, and meeting with a financial aid advisor to minimize student loans, avoid working yourself to death, and find money for college.

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by Emily

Texas A&M, Boston University, and Vanderbilt University have all recently announced expanded financial aid programs to help lower-and-middle-class students deal with the rising cost of college education and the tough economic situation the country currently faces. 

This news comes as many other colleges are announcing budget cuts and tuition hikes in order to break even in the face of declining state funding. Proposed cuts to higher education funding currently range from a one percent cut in Maryland to a reduction of funding by more than 14 percent in Nevada, according to a recent write-up in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Despite financial concerns, though, more and more schools are digging into their pockets to find additional scholarship and grant money for their students.  Texas A&M will provide free tuition to all freshmen with a family income below $60,000 and a GPA above 2.5.  Boston University plans to meet all financial need for every Boston public school graduate admitted to the university.  Vanderbilt will replace all need-based student loans with grants for its students starting next fall, though it still needs to raise an additional $100 million to fully fund the program.

U.S. News and World Report provides more information on these new financial aid programs.  You can find out more about these and other generous institutions by conducting a college search on Scholarships.com.


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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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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

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

The new version of the Higher Education Act (HEA) is at last moving to the floors of the House and Senate for a vote. After seven years of waiting and debating, Congressional reauthorization of the HEA could finally happen in the next week, setting the stage for a number of changes in federal student financial aid for college students.

Among other things, the reauthorized HEA would:

  1. Set a ceiling on the maximum Federal Pell Grant of $9,000, and allow for students to receive Pell Grant funds year-round, instead of just during the traditional academic year. (The current maximum Pell Grant is $4,731.)
  2. Implement changes to make it easier for students to get information about their financial aid awards and to generally simplify the process by which students - particularly those from low-income families - can find money for college.
  3. Expand the Academic Competitiveness Grant program to part-time students as well as those seeking certificates and puts states in charge determining whether a high school program qualifies as a rigorous course of study.
  4. Make several changes in private student loans, such as: requiring lenders to provide up-front disclosures of loan rates and terms, require private loans to be certified by higher education institutions, and requiring colleges to establish Codes of Conduct to prohibit financial aid employees from receiving anything of value in exchange for advantages sought by lenders, such as placement on colleges' preferred lender lists.
  5. Require more disclosure of costs from both colleges and textbook publishers.

Many other changes appear in the 1,158 pages of the bill, which has been a long time coming.  The Higher Education Act is supposed to be reauthorized every 5 years, but it has been 10 years since the previous version passed.  The new HEA should help financial aid programs adapt to the present situation students face, and should help students better assess and plan for the costs of a college education.


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by Emily

The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEA), approved by a joint committee earlier this week, passed both houses of Congress yesterday.  While members of the Bush Administration have expressed some reservations about the bill, the President is still expected to sign it into law.

Reactions to the HEA have been mixed, with many universities and organizations critiquing the bill's broad scope, increased requirements for schools, and timing, as it may be nearly impossible to implement all of the changes required by the bill in time for the 2008-2009 school year.  Especially under attack is the act's mandate for schools to provide students with legal alternatives to illegally downloading media, where possible.  While this could be good news for students, many critics fail to see how this provision relates to the bill's intended purpose of dealing with education funding and federal student financial aid.

Aspects of the HEA that have been praised are the allowance for a substantial increase in Federal Pell Grants (awards could reach $6,000 next year and $8,000 per year by 2014), the adoption of a code of conduct for financial aid offices when dealing with student loan agencies, the mandated simplification of the FAFSA (a two-page "FAFSA EZ" form should debut soon), and the general push for increased transparency regarding college costs, ranging from tuition increases, to student fees, to textbook prices.  All of these changes should make it easier for families to pay for school.

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by Emily

According to a Department of Education memo cited by the New York Times, the Federal Pell Grant program could face a budget shortfall of up to $6 billion in 2009 due to increases in grant amounts and numbers of applicants.  The cap on Pell awards has risen from $4050 to $4731 between 2006 and now, and will increase to $6000 for the 2009-2010 academic year (if funding is available) according to the recently reauthorized Higher Education Act.  Meanwhile, the number of FAFSA applications has risen by nearly 17 percent in the last year alone, driven by a worsening economic situation.

While data has not yet been released on whether more students are qualifying for Pell Grants or other need-based federal student financial aid this year, increasing college enrollment and unemployment rates, coupled with an overall economic downturn and increased cost of living for Americans, certainly suggest the possibility exists.  According to the Department of Education memo to Congress, tough choices or an unpopular announcement regarding Pell Grant funding may have to be made shortly after the next President's inauguration.  While it's speculated that Congress will ultimately find the money to fully fund the popular grant program, the federal government is by no means exempt from economic strain.

This announcement comes at the same time as the release of the results of an audit of 14 student loan guaranty agencies, which suggests the government may have lost over $1 billion to FFELP student loan companies taking advantage of a now-closed federal funding loophole.  Lenders had been recycling new student loans through a loan program that guaranteed a 9.5 percent return from the government on student loans made before 1993.  Lenders had been taking advantage of this loophole as late as 2006, claiming in some cases hundreds of millions of federal dollars for which they should have been ineligible.

When these loan recycling programs came to light, the Department of Education settled with lenders, allowing them to keep the money they had gained up to that point in the 9.5 percent program, but requiring them to immediately cease using the program or submit to an audit in order to continue receiving the subsidies on loans actually eligible.  So far, 14 lenders have agreed to these audits.  Based on the results, if the loan agencies audited are representative of all lenders that participated in the 9.5 percent program, federal losses could total $1.2 billion.  Several of the lenders involved in this settlement, including Nelnet, a company that also recently settled with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo over other questionable business practices, have also announced that they are unable to completely fund their student loan programs for the 2008-2009 school year.


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