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Beans for Books Grants

September 22, 2008

by Emily

Lately, we've made a few blog posts about efforts to lower the amount students are forced to spend on college textbooks.  Professors are starting to turn to more and more online and open-source course material, Congress has legislated changes in the way textbook sellers do business, and students at the University of Michigan can now print a bound copy of a non-copyrighted book for $10.  However, cool stuff happening at other schools or scheduled to happen in the future doesn't necessarily help you afford that $150 biology textbook now.  For those of you still struggling with coming up with an additional $500 or more to buy books, this week's Scholarship of the Week can help.

Beans for Books, a non-profit organization started by students working at coffee shops, raises money to help top students afford the textbooks they need to continue to succeed in college.  Grants of $500-1000 are awarded each semester to be used solely for buying books.  The application cycle for the spring semester is just beginning, so if you're anticipating a semester laden with science, math, and foreign language classes, now is the time to apply!

Prize: Winners will receive a grant of $500-1000 to be spent on textbooks for the next college term.

Eligibility: Students who will be enrolled in college in the following semester, and who demonstrate financial need and maintain a GPA of at least 3.7 on a 4.0 scale.

Deadline: Varies by semester.

Required Materials: Completed online scholarship application, available on the Beans for Books website.

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

Congress will be in session only a few more days before breaking for the November election.  While a lot has already been accomplished this session in terms of educational spending, such as the passage and renewal of ECASLA and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, some education funding concerns still need to be addressed.  Primary among these is the education and research spending bill that will fund research and federal student financial aid programs for fiscal year 2009, which remains on the Congressional to do list.

When Congress reconvenes either in November or January, one of the most pressing financial issues they will have to contend with is finding the money to cover a projected $6 billion shortfall in the budget for the Federal Pell Grant program.  Lobbyists still worry that Congress may wind up having to cut the maximum grant award, as they did last year when the bill exceeded Bush's budgetary requests.  However, given the popularity of the program, such cuts are unlikely, especially after all of the attention financial aid has been receiving this election season.

Another issue Congress may contend with is whether to combine higher education tax credit programs, such as the Hope and Lifetime Learning credits into a single, partially refundable credit.  The idea has received widespread support and is expected to come up during the next Congressional session.

You can read more about the educational issues still on Congress's plate in today's Chronicle of Higher Education.


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by Emily

The U.S. Department of Education released a series of new statistical reports last week showing a dramatic increase in participation in the federal direct lending student loan program.  Motivated largely by the economic downturn and the credit crunch of the last year, 400 new colleges joined the federal direct lending program.  Overall, student borrowing through the program has increased by 50 percent in the last year.

The federal direct lending program provides students at participating schools with Stafford Loans directly, instead of going through the intermediary of a bank, as is done in the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP).  In previous years, borrowing through FFELP could land students with lower interest rates, as well as significant repayment incentives, but that has changed significantly since 2007 as a result of subsidy cuts and economic difficulties faced by FFELP lenders.  Since direct loans are serviced directly by the Education Department, they are largely exempt from the fallout of the credit crunch and are currently more appealing to many colleges.

There is good news for students at schools that continue to participate in FFELP, though.  Lenders are participating in the loan buyback program enacted as part of the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act passed earlier this year.  About 40 percent of the student loans in the bank system have been sold to the Education Department, with paperwork being completed on much of the remaining balance.  This move appears to have worked to allow lenders to fund loans for students, as the Education Department also reports that not a single student has had to participate in the federal "lender of last resort" program.

In other financial aid news, Congress recently approved $2.5 billion in Pell Grant funding, to help tide the program over through March 2009, at which point most spring semester grant awards should have been disbursed.  All of this news suggests that students are highly likely to be able to continue to find federal student financial aid for college, at least for the forseeable future.  Of course, finding scholarships and avoiding student loans is still a smart plan, but this news suggests that despite growing fears about the economy, federal financial aid will still be available to students who need it.


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by Emily

In a speech delivered yesterday at Harvard University, U. S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced that her department had managed to whittle the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) down to 27 questions.  The FAFSA is currently 120 questions long and described as Spellings as more complicated than an income tax form. A shorter FAFSA has been called for by Congress and advocated by virtually everyone aware of the form's existence.

Spellings stated in her speech that the length of the FAFSA may be preventing many families from filling it out, despite the fact that they might qualify for federal student financial aid. While part of this phenomenon is likely due to the prevalence of financial aid myths, the complicated nature of the FAFSA likely does play a role.  Although fafsa.ed.gov states that the form should take less than an hour to complete, even for first-time filers, the assessment has always seemed a bit overly optimistic to me. I remember my first encounter with the FAFSA taking hours, and while I ultimately submitted it, I definitely did so under duress and only after repeatedly begging my parents to fill it out for me.  An effort by the Education Department to make it simpler and less stressful to pay for school is definitely welcome.

While Spellings' speech didn't address whether this was the final incarnation of the FAFSA or when changes would debut (let's all cross our fingers for January), a shorter financial aid application is undoubtedly good news for students.  In the meantime, if you're struggling with applying for financial aid, check out some of the resources offered by Scholarships.com.  We have a breakdown of FAFSA and other daunting financial aid acronyms, some tips for completing the FAFSA, and detailed instructions for filling out the FAFSA on the Web.

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by Emily

While many stories right now are focusing on financial aid programs finding themselves strapped for cash to award an increased of needy applicants, this is not universally the case. Data published by The Chronicle of Higher Education shows that two federal grant programs that were added in 2006 still have more awards than applicants.  The Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG) and Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant have gained some participation, but still they're still falling short of enrollment goals.

Both grants are intended to supplement Federal Pell Grants for students who are both academically talented and financially needy. The ACG is a grant of $750 to $1,300 for college freshmen and sophomores who have completed a rigorous high school curriculum and excelled academically, while the SMART Grant is an award of up to $4,000 per year designed to support college juniors and seniors who are enrolled in a science, math, engineering, technology, or critically needed language program.  Approximately 465,000 students received the ACG and SMART grants in the 2007-2008 academic year, up 95,000 from the first year they were offered.

In order to attract more applicants and meet their goal of doubling participation by the 2011-2012 academic year, the department is pushing financial aid administrators to become more aware of award criteria and to make sure the grants are being fully awarded.  In addition, requirements have also been loosened and students enrolled in eligible five-year programs will be able to receive a SMART grant in their fifth year of school beginning in July.


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by Emily

While it's still a long way from becoming law, the first published draft of the economic stimulus legislation created by the House of Representatives includes billions of dollars for higher education, including several provisions designed to make paying for school easier.  The bill still has to be approved by both the House and the Senate (which is drafting its own stimulus legislation) then signed by the President, so it remains to be seen how many of the following appropriations will make it into the final version of the stimulus package.

The stimulus bill would increase funding to several federal student financial aid programs, as well as providing emergency funds to states to prevent further drastic budget cuts, and designating money to help colleges, especially ones affected by disasters, make needed improvements and repairs.  If the bill is passed, federal work-study will receive a boost in funding, as will Pell Grants, eliminating a projected budget shortfall for the program.  Unsubsidized Stafford Loans will increase by $2,000 per year, bringing the loan limit to $7,500 or more for undergraduate students.  The maximum Pell Grant award will also increase to $5,350.  In addition, lender subsidies will also increase, hopefully enticing more banks to remain in the FFEL program.  The Hope tax credit and a provision that allowed families to deduct up to $4,000 in educational expenses will also be combined into a new $2,500 tax credit, through which families with too little income to file taxes could still receive $1,000.

As Congress hammers out the details of the stimulus bill in coming weeks, these numbers will likely change.  A more detailed breakdown of these and other proposals affecting colleges and universities is available from Inside Higher Ed.


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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)
  •  
 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

Earlier this summer, it came to light that for some students in Illinois, being accepted by state colleges was less about what they knew than who they knew, as an investigation into admission practices revealed the existence of a special clout list of well-connected applicants to the University of Illinois. Now, the Associated Press is reporting that some college scholarships in the state may be governed by a similar principle.

Each Illinois state representative is given the equivalent of two four-year full-tuition scholarships to award to his or her constituents each year. Some representatives choose to break up their scholarship awards into eight one-year full-tuition awards, while others choose to hand out two-year or four-year scholarships. At least 83 of these scholarships went to students with some form of political connections between 2008 and 2009. Of these scholarships, 41 went directly to the children of donors to the politician making the award.

While the lawmakers award the scholarships, the universities are responsible for finding the funding for each award. After state colleges and universities, as well as the majority of the state's grant programs for low-income students have faced steep budget cuts this year, these General Assembly scholarships have drawn substantial ire from critics who feel the $12.5 million currently allocated to the program could go to better use elsewhere.

Representatives deny impropriety, but it seems that families in Illinois who have seen their 529 plans shrink in the recession may want to consider taking their college savings and investing them in their representative's next reelection campaign.


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by Emily

The House of Representatives just passed the compromise version of the economic stimulus package.  Now there are just two stop left for it before it becomes law: the Senate and President Obama's desk.  The Senate plans to vote later this evening, putting it on track to be signed on Monday.

As the dust settles, more detailed accounts of what's actually in the bill are emerging.  While the final totals have not yet been made public, Inside Higher Ed has an updated version of their stimulus chart online today, featuring many of the stimulus provisions related to higher education.  The $787 billion stimulus package will include: 

     
  • $17.1 billion to increasing the maximum Pell Grant award by $500 and eliminate a shortfall in funding
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  • $200 million to college work-study programs focused on community service
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  • A $2,500 education tax credit available for four years of college.  The credit is 40 percent refundable, so people who don't make enough to pay taxes can still receive $1000.
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  • A provision to allow computer purchases to count as qualified educational expenses for 529 plans
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  • $39.5 billion to offset state budget cuts to education, including money to modernize facilities
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  • $8.8 billion for states to award to high-priority needs, including education
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 While several items related to federal student financial aid were cut from earlier versions of the stimulus, the final verison will hopefully minimize tuition hikes by giving states more money for education, help the neediest students deal with tuition increases through an increase in grants and work-study, and help all college students a little with the tax option included.  The stimulus package also includes tax rebates, increased funding to several social welfare programs, and changes to unemployment benefits, which could further aid struggling students and families.


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by Emily

An omnibus appropriations bill for the current fiscal year passed the House yesterday and is on its way to the Senate.  This piece of legislation will raise the maximum award for Federal Pell Grants to $5350 for 2009-2010.  The bill was put on hold last year due to threats of a veto from President Bush.

While Pell Grants received a funding boost, SEOG grants will remain at 2008 funding levels, as will work-studyPerkins Loan cancellation programs will receive a boost in funding to cover shortfalls.  Additionally, TRIO and Gear Up programs, aimed at helping low-income students get into college, also received more funding.

The first draft of the budget for the 2010 fiscal year is also heading to Congress soon after being unveiled by President Obama this morning.  While details are still emerging, based on an address the president delivered Tuesday, it's likely that further funding for financial aid programs and higher education in general will be included. 

While budgets are being hashed out and college aid is generally on its way up, more trouble may be brewing for student loans.  A PLUS loan auction program slated to go into effect this summer could reduce the availability of these loans that parents take out on behalf of their students, at least at schools participating in the FFEL program. Financial aid officers have petitioned Congress to delay the scheduled cut in PLUS loan subsidies so as not to jeopardize students' ability to pay for school in the midst of a recession that has already driven dozens of banks away from one form of student lending or another.


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