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Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG)

June 12, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

The Higher Education Reconciliation Act of 2005 created two new grant opportunities for college students—the Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG) and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant (SMART). Though these grants have already been in effect for two years, few students know about them. Below you will find information about the Academic Competitiveness Grant. For details concerning the SMART Grant, you may visit the Scholarships.com Blog or the Federal Student Financial Aid for College Section.

Academic Competitiveness Grant Overview

The Academic Competitiveness Grant is available to undergraduate students who are US citizens and who are enrolled in their first or second academic year at a two or four-year degree-granting institution. This grant is called competitive for a reason. To receive the award, students must have demonstrated their academic potential by having completed, successfully, a difficult program of study during high school. Those who are found to be eligible during their sophomore year of college must also maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA.

What one considers competitive can be a matter of option, but the Department of Education has set up some guidelines. Students who have completed a minimum of two AP or IB courses and those who have participated in the State Scholars Initiative or a similar program may be eligible for the grant. Students who meet the eligibility requirements can receive up to $750 for their first year of study and up to $1,300 for their second year of study.

Those interested in receiving the grant will have to submit a FAFSA. (Financial need is one component.) The Student Aid Report, a summary of answers reported on the FAFSA, will indicate whether a student is eligible to answer further ACG questions. If an ACG is granted, it will be awarded as a supplement to the Pell Grant money received by the student.

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College Grants , FAFSA , Financial Aid



Financial Aid Available to Graduate School Students

June 17, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

The government recognizes the dire financial circumstances of numerous undergraduate students, and slowly, steps are being taken to change things for the better. Three new federal grants have been created within the past two years, the maximum Pell Grant award has risen and interest rates on undergraduate Federal Stafford Loans will begin their gradual descent this fall. But…where does that leave graduate school students?

According the Council of Graduate Schools, the number of students seeking master’s and doctoral degrees is expected to rise by 12% between 2006 and 2014, and many of these students will need financial aid. While certain aid does not apply to graduate school students, plenty of assistance is available to those who know where to look. Here are just a few options:

Federal Aid Unfortunately, graduate school students are not eligible to receive federal grants, but federal aid in the form of federal work study and low-rate student loans (Stafford and PLUS) are still an option. And while the recently passed College Cost Reduction and Access Act will not lower loan interest rates for graduate school students, those who borrowed before July 1, 2006 will see a substantial drop in their bill. Variable interest rates on federal loans will decrease from 7.22%to 4.21 % this year.

Scholarships and Grants Numerous scholarships and non-federal grants are not just available to graduate school students, they are restricted to them. Companies and organizations frequently offer aid to graduate school students who display an interest in work that aligns with their goals. After all, these scholars can be the future innovators of their industry. To find scholarships you may be eligible to receive based on your year in school or major of interest, try conducting a free college scholarship search.

Employer Assistance Students who commit to working for a certain employer may be lucky enough to receive full or partial compensation for an additional degree. This is often the case with hospital staff, educators and employees who could help their companies profit through new skills and certifications.

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DOE Report Stresses Early Planning for College Funding

July 22, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

The Department of Education Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance recently released a report entitled Early and Often showing the financial aid community what can be done to help students and families better prepare to pay for school.  The report provided recommendations on what information students needed to know before deciding whether to attend college, when the students needed to know it, and how it could best be disseminated to students and their families, stressing four categories of knowledge that students need to make informed decisions about attending college

Students need to understand:

  1. The benefits of higher education: Why go to college?
  2. The costs of college: What can you expect?
  3. How to pay for college: What's involved in funding your education?
  4. How to navigate the forms and processes involved: What exactly is a FAFSA?

The Early and Oftenreport states that this process needs to begin as early as the sixth grade to ensure that students and families have enough time to devise a strategy for getting into and paying for college. 

According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, "Possessing timely and accurate information at each juncture of a student's college preparation timeline can dispel the hyperbole in the media and alleviate complexity, inform students of financing options, and ensure they make sound decisions." 

The report asserts that "early information on the availability, eligibility, and variety of financial aid is essential to promote access and persistence. Every student should learn that funding an education requires a reliance on many sources: federal and state governments, institutions, private resources, and personal financial resources. Each of these sources can provide financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships, loans, and work-study opportunities.

Delivering information on the differences between need-based aid and merit-based aid will help students better predict which aid options will be available for them. Understanding the intricacies among such options is vital to successfully financing higher education."

Working with the strategies suggested by the Department of Education, websites such as Scholarships.com already provide the public with a wealth of free resources regarding a variety of financial aid

By browsing our website's Resources section, students can find information in all four of the Department of Education's vital categories, especially paying for college and applying for financial aid.  Additionally, our scholarship search can fill an important role, even early in the college planning process.  Students can fill out a profile and conduct a free search, gaining valuable information on which scholarships may be available to them.  This will help students get a better idea of how they will be able to afford college.

The full Early and Often report is available on the Department of Education website.

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Potential Financial Aid Changes for Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin

July 25, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

Students in three states could be seeing major changes in their funding for college in the next two school years. Colorado students attending religious schools will now have access to additional state funds, based on a U. S. Court of Appeals ruling that overturned a state law limiting funding to students attending "pervasively sectarian" institutions. Colorado Christian University successfully appealed a state decision to deny its students access to state financial aid programs based on the university's emphasis on religion. Colorado also may be changing admissions and scholarship criteria at state universities. If Amendment 46, an anti-affirmative action initiative passes in November, the state will have to do away with all educational programs designed to benefit minorities specifically.

Additionally, faced with an inability to fund all of the students who qualify for TEXAS grants, the state of Texas is looking at increasing eligibility requirements to target grants at higher-performing students, instead of simply high-need students, according to a Dallas News article.

Meanwhile, private colleges and universities in Wisconsin plan to ask the state for a $4 million increase in aid to help students with the greatest financial need afford college in the 2009-2010 school year, a plan the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel backs. 

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More Lenders Back Out of Student Loans

July 29, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

Brazos Higher Education Service Corporation, Inc., the fourth largest holder of guaranteed student loans and the largest nonprofit loan provider, will not be able to issue new student loans to college students this fall. The company had initially announced in March that it would suspend providing Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) student loans, but after emergency legislation passed this summer to help FFELP lenders, it looked like Brazos may be able to stay in the game. However, they recently issued a news release stating they would not be able to provide new loans to students this fall, citing the short amount of time between the passage of the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act and fall semester loan disbursement dates. "We have simply run out of time to secure financing to disburse loans as soon as they are needed," said Brazos CEO Murray Watson.

In another blow to many families' pocketbooks, the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA), the state's nonprofit student loan agency, also announced that it would be forced to suspend its student loan services in the fall. With continued uncertainty in the availability of FFELP Stafford Loans and private student loans, now more than ever students are encouraged to keep in touch with their financial aid offices, and also to explore alternate ways to find money for college.  Many universities and state governments are continuing to look at adding new grant programs, with North Dakota being the latest to introduce legislation to provide a new $2000 state grant to its residents attending college in-state.

In addition to grants, scholarships remain excellent resources to pay for school.  Students can conduct a free college scholarship search on Scholarships.com to find out instantly which scholarship opportunities may be open to them.

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Conference Committee Approves Higher Education Act

July 30, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Congress Passes Higher Education Act

August 1, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Pell Grants Face a Potential $6 Billion Budget Shortfall

September 18, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Beans for Books Grants

September 22, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Pell Funding, Education Tax Credits Still Up in the Air As Congress Breaks for Election

September 26, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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