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by Agnes Jasinski

As tuition and fees continue to rise and students need more financial aid to complete their college educations, ideas on how to both keep costs for students low and bring schools' budgets under control continue to crop up among lawmakers.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former president at the University of Tennessee turned Republican lawmaker, has an editorial on the topic in Newsweek this week, where he compares the three-year degree track to a fuel-efficient car. It would save students money, ease the dependence on federal and campus-based financial aid, and allow students  to move into the working world or to pursue an advanced degree in less time. And it would be up to the students to decide whether to complete their degrees in three years.

Many schools allow students to complete their degrees in three years, but few have official programs set up where students enter college knowing they'll be done in three years. Hartwick College has allowed students to complete their studies in three years for a while, but announced earlier this year a more official academic program for high-performing students that could be completed in three years. Students in that program will save about $43,000 in tuition and fees by forgoing a fourth year. This fall, 16 first-year students and four second-year students entered into the three-year program at Hartwick. Lipscomb University also unveiled a three-year option this year to students willing to attend classes in the summer. The state of Rhode Island has legislation on the table this month that would require all schools in the state to offer a three-year option.

On the other side, Waldorf College will stop offering the three-year programs it had set up as most students and staff preferred a traditional four-year track. Many students want the full four (or however many) years on campus. I still often wish I was back there. Students who have compressed a four-year program into three years have less time for what often makes the college experience memorable - time for friends, social outings and extracurricular activities that make you more well-rounded and able to juggle many aspects of your life at once. Alexander acknowledges possible obstacles in his piece, but maintains that something needs to be done to stay competitive and address an economic fallout that could affect schools for years to come.

Why not leave the choice to the students? What do you think of the opportunity to complete a college degree in three years? It could make sense for students looking at completing advanced degrees in addition to their master's. And the cost-saving aspect of the idea would turn many students on to the idea, especially returning adult students. Let us know whether you're planning on completing a degree in three years, and whether you think all schools should offer a three-year program as an option.


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by Agnes Jasinski

One thing has dominated the news and the world of politics for weeks - the health care-reform bill.  The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill, which would cover about 96 percent of Americans, last weekend. It now awaits a vote from the Senate side, with a good amount of compromising expected if the bill has a chance to pass at all.

But what does this mean for education? A focus on health care recently has highlighted the need for more primary care doctors, and any legislation that would expand access to health care would obviously lead to an increase in the number of medical professionals to care for that influx of patients. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week describes discussions that were being had among medical professionals at this week's Association of American Medical Colleges annual meeting. According to most, the equation is simple: more patients require more doctors, and more doctors require more residency programs to accommodate the kind of growth that would be needed with any expansions in health care access.

Despite the call for more doctors, medical school applications increased by just 0.1 percent this year according to that same association, even though four new medical schools opened at Florida International University, Texas Tech University, the University of Central Florida, and the Commonwealth Medical College. Another at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University will open next year. Many other schools added massive expansions to their medical school campuses. It also isn't just the possibility of expanded health care access that could spread doctors thin. The association worries about the impending wave of retiring baby boomer-physicians, and claims there would be shortage of as many as 159,000 doctors by 2025.

Obviously, not everyone can go to medical school and become a doctor. And not everyone can stomach the costs of going to medical school. According to the association, most medical students graduate medical school with about $156,000 in student loans, and primary care doctors make less money after they leave school with all that debt than other medical specialties.

If you're set on becoming a doctor, you do have options in reducing your student loan debt. Apply for scholarships. There are medical scholarships out there, including our own Scholarships.com Health Scholarship. The deadline for that one isn't until Nov. 30, so you still have time to fill out a profile and conduct a free scholarship search. If you qualify for that or other medical scholarships, those results will appear in your scholarship search results. Know your options, because even though there might be a job waiting for you once you graduate, you may be looking at quite a bit of debt post-college.


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by Agnes Jasinski

Congress has a lot going on right now, from the ongoing health care debate to a number of bills looking to improve student lending and credit card practices. But that doesn't mean college football fans shouldn't have their day in government.

Just in time for this season's Bowl Championship Series (BCS), a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee approved legislation Wednesday that would change the way the current championship series is run. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who introduced the bill, said college football champions should be crowned through a playoff method rather than a series of bowl games, such as the Fiesta, Sugar, Meineke Car Care and Rose Bowls, among others. The bill, named the College Football Playoffs Act, would ban the promotion of a postseason NCAA Division I football game as a national championship, which Barton called unfair, unless it's the outcome of a playoff.

An article in the Dallas Morning News today details how the subcommittee came to its decision, noting that even President Obama has voiced his displeasure over the lack of playoffs in college football. One legislator said the current process was less about finding the best team out of dozens but about revenue sharing. Another said schools with less fundraising power are less likely to find themselves in a Bowl game. The one dissenting vote, Rep. John Barrow of Georgia, said Congress had better and more important things to do than worry about college football.

In other college football news, a recent study released by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida showed that of the 67 schools surveyed, 57 had graduation success rates of 66 percent or more for white football players participating in bowl games. But 21 colleges (up from 19 in 2008-2009) graduated less than 50 percent of their African American football athletes; 35 colleges (up from 29 in 2008-2009) had graduation success rates for African American football athletes that were at least 20 percent lower than their rates for white football athletes. What's it all mean? Racial gaps remain between white and African American football student-athletes despite any progress with overall graduation rates. As the findings only looked at schools appearing in bowl games this year, it would be interesting to see what kind of data exists across the board.


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by Agnes Jasinski

New regulations that the federal government hopes will protect college students from excessive credit card debt by making it more difficult for young people to open multiple lines of credit go into effect Monday. The regulations, which fall under the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, were approved by Congress last May.

The key pieces of the act include the followin:

  • Creditors will be prohibited from issuing credit cards to anyone under 21 without the consent of that applicant’s parent or guardian, or proof that the consumer would be able to make the required payments on their own.
  • Creditors will be barred from offering students perks, such as coupons or T-shirts and book bags decorated with the companies' logos, for opening a new credit card account at campus events.
  • Companies will be required to disclose any existing relationships with colleges and universities annually to the Federal Reserve Board; colleges and universities will be required to disclose any existing relationships with credit card companies as well.

The regulations also included a strong suggestion to institutions of higher education that they provide education and counseling to students who may be struggling with credit card debt, or who may know little about managing credit card usage wisely.

Critics of the act since it was approved say that college students, who take on a slew of new responsibilities once they get on campus, should be treated as adults. For better or worse, students now are more apt to use credit cards to pay for their college expenses, and critics say they shouldn’t meet obstacles when using their credit cards for those costs. (According to a recent survey by student lender Sallie Mae, 84 percent of undergraduates have at least one credit card; 92 percent of those undergraduates use the cards toward college expenses. College students’ average balances are more than $3,100.) Some consumer advocates also say that while it's a good first step toward keeping students from incurring massive amounts of debt, it doesn't do enough, according to an article today in Inside Higher Ed. It fails to include any cap on the interest rate credit card providers can charge, for example.

We have a number of resources available to you about how to avoid credit card debt, make smart decisions about covering your college costs, and managing your money so that you're spending within your means. It may not mean much to you now, but it isn't all that easy to improve upon a credit score. The spending choices you make today will follow you down the line, so ideally, stick to one card if you need one, and if you find yourself in debt, pay off as much as you’re able to each month until you’re done.


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by Agnes Jasinski

To compensate for stalled negotiations on both health care legislation and a bill that would overhaul the country's student loan program and improve college students' access to federal aid, Democratic leaders proposed a solution yesterday that would move both of those hot-button issues forward—combine them, and pass them as one.

Both the comprehensive health care bill, which would guarantee health insurance to 30 million uninsured Americans, and the student loan bill, which would replace private lending with direct lending through the government and increase Pell Grant maximums, have faced opposition as Democrats work to pass both through Congress before the November mid-term elections. To kill two birds with one stone, Democratic legislators proposed bundling the two bills into one last night, not only to give the proposals a better chance at passage, but to keep them alive long enough for a vote by the full Senate and House.

An article in the New York Times yesterday describes the strong support a dual measure already has among the Democrats, suggesting that adding the student loan bill to the more expansive health care legislation would improve the health care bill's chances at passage. (Providing college students with more access to federal aid is undoubtedly more popular and less controversial than crafting a reasonable health care bill.)

The student loan bill had already passed in the House. Recent predictions have the government saving about $67 billion by going to direct lending; that new funding would go toward Pell Grants and other education programs. (A rise in the number of people attending college and seeking aid in the weak economy has raised the projected cost of new Pell Grants to $54 billion from $40 billion, according to the New York Times.) The student loan bill has been a consistent goal of President Obama's, as lenders have come under fire for a lack of oversight,  rising student loan default rates, and contributing to excessive debt among college students. Effectively, the bill would put an end to direct-to-student private loans, which students can borrow without even informing the financial aid office, and which can be taken out for more than the student’s cost of attendance for the academic year.

The private student loan industry has obviously not been very supportive of the bill, and Republicans have questioned whether giving the government control over the student loan industry is really a wise choice.


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by Agnes Jasinski

July 1 marks the official date that colleges, if they haven’t already, must transition to the recently approved Federal Direct Loans Program. Schools will no longer offer students the option of having private banks or credit unions handle their federal loans; federal loans will now be coming directly from the U.S. Department of Education. Advocates of the student loan bill have said this will make the process more seamless and fair, with the government taking responsibility for keeping interest rates manageable. And private loans will still be available via the traditional channels, although those loans are typically offered at higher interest rates.

The student loan debate has been a constant in the world of higher education, as legislators and administrators look for ways to reduce the debt of graduates. This week, The Christian Science Monitor considered student loans in a different way. Is it ethical to send students out into the world with all this debt, especially when they may not be making enough in their chosen careers to pay back those loans in a timely fashion? Are student loans moral?

The Christian Science Monitor piece looks at the history of the student loan industry, questioning whether it was ever right for Congress to increase borrowing amounts to current levels, or to offer students described as “in need” much easier access to federal loans through the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act in the 1990s. According to the Project on Student Debt, student loan totals only continue to rise. The average national debt for graduating seniors with loans rose from about $18,650 in 2004 to $23,200 in 2008. Meanwhile, employment prospects have not increased at comparable levels; by 2009, the unemployment rate among new graduates hovered near 11 percent, the highest on record.

It isn’t just a case of telling college students not to borrow so much. Student loans are often a necessary evil, and while debt can be minimized some through scholarships and grants, most students will end up taking on some amount of debt. The Monitor questions whether there should be more strict limits on borrowers that exist in other scenarios where credit checks and expectations that borrowers will be able to pay back what they borrow are enforced. There is no guarantee of a job after college, after all, so why shouldn’t the fact that a student is unable to pay off more than the minimum on their credit cards be taken into account more when they take out loans? (On that note, the U.S. Senate has approved an amendment that would lower “swipe fees” that banks charge college bookstores when students use their credit cards for purchases.)

Student loans are a hot topic, and will continue to be. What do you think? What else can be done to reduce graduates' debt, especially among those graduates who are not entering high-paying fields?


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by Agnes Jasinski

Offering students a formal path toward a three-year degree has been a popular proposal for the last few years, with proponents of the idea describing it as a way to save college students some money, at least on room and board.

In an article in Inside Higher Ed today, one national organization has spoken out against formalizing three-year plans for students. Carol Geary Schneider, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, issued a statement today that was critical of cutting the college experience short. In her statement, Schneider said the higher education system can do better working on those struggling—or unwilling—to graduate in the traditional four years. (About 27 percent of students at public institutions and 48 percent at private institutions finish in four years.)

Beyond that, Schneider said it takes longer now to prepare students for the world off college campuses than it has in the past. Students are expected to know more today about global knowledge, for example, and need to boast a wide range of experiences outside of the classroom that would be difficult to fit in if colleges began offering three-year degrees. A criticism has been that offering students the three-year degree option might lead to some unprepared graduates who spent their summers working toward their accelerated degrees, rather than spending time at internships or other experiences that could not only serve as resume boosters, but as ways for them to explore fields of study.

Supporters of shortening students’ time spent in college have included Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former president of the University of Tennessee who wrote an editorial on the topic in Newsweek last fall. He said in his piece that the move would ease the dependence on federal and campus-based financial aid, and would free up precious time for students interested in moving into the working world faster or pursuing advanced degrees. Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, said in Inside Higher Ed that pushing for a three-year degree could lead to positive changes in higher education. This leads to another debate: how useful general education requirements are to a student not majoring in the liberal arts.

Many schools already offer three-year degrees, whether officially via accelerated programming targeting those who have dual enrollment or AP credits or unofficially to highly motivated students. What do you think?


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by Agnes Jasinski

For-profit colleges have been the talk of the town in Washington over the last week, with legislators concerned by their rapid growth and what they consider a resulting lack of oversight. 

Yesterday, a group of Democratic lawmakers called for a federal review of for-profit colleges, their recruitment strategies, and the value of what they provide students. In the letter they sent to the Government Accountability Office, the lawmakers were especially concerned about the fact that the for-profit sector accounts for less than 10 percent of total enrollments but about 25 percent of federal financial aid disbursements. According to an article in The New York Times this week, for-profit colleges collected $26.5 billion in federal funding last year, compared to $4.6 billion in 2000.

The letter came just after the U.S. Department of Education’s proposal that for-profit colleges be more forthright about students’ potential loan debt relative to their incomes, even going so far as to propose limiting federal aid to those colleges with the most uneven debt-income ratios. The for-profit colleges themselves have said that they would be comfortable with disclosing graduation- and job-placement rates and median debt levels, but that limiting federal aid would certainly force many of them into insolvency.

One case in Illinois serves as a cautionary tale, and an example of what is so troubling to legislators. The Illinois State Board of Education has launched an investigation of the Illinois School of Health Careers’ patient care technician program in Chicago after a group of students decided to file a class-action lawsuit against the institution. The students say they were misled into thinking that they would be able to take the state’s certified nursing assistant exams upon completion of the program. In fact, the program lacks the proper approvals from the Illinois Department of Public Health, leaving students with student loan debt and instruction in a field they say offers few, if any, job prospects.

Supporters of for-profit colleges say the schools are important in serving a population looking to learn a particular trade or get out into the workforce more quickly. Republican lawmakers on the other side of the issue have said Congress should be more concerned about looking for ways to monitor the bad eggs among the bunch and not be so skeptical of an entire industry, according to The New York Times article. Representatives for the Career College Association have said accredited institutions that focus on career-preparedness are critical in meeting President Obama’s goal of getting the United States on top in terms of higher education by 2020.

Most for-profit schools don’t report the kinds of dissatisfaction felt by those students at the Chicago school described above and are a good option for many students, especially those seeking flexible alternatives. The key is quality control. If you’re interested in a career college or an online degree university, do your own research. Make sure your intended school is accredited, as this means it meets a set of standards set forth by the U.S. Department of Education. Make sure the college you’ll be paying for—and may be paying for years down the line, even after graduation—is not only legitimate but worth paying for.


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Senate Approves Bill to Protect Against Lending Abuses

President Obama Expected to Sign off On Overhaul Legislation

July 16, 2010

by Agnes Jasinski

The financial overhaul bill approved last night by the U.S. Senate won’t only increase government oversight to prevent another economic collapse. Students who use debit and credit cards or who have taken out or plan to take out private student loans will also benefit.

The bill includes the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent entity that will exist within the Federal Reserve to protect borrowers. What does this mean for students? The bureau will be there to protect students from abusive lending, and gives students a point of resolution if they feel they have issues with their private lenders, according to an article on the measure in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The bill also requires that debit and credit card companies lower the fees that colleges must pay when students use the cards. Currently, companies are charging “swipe fees” of 1 to 2 percent of transaction amounts, according to The Chronicle, putting quite a bit of pressure on struggling college bookstores. The legislation next goes to President Obama, who is expected to sign off on it. Also in the bill, the government will get more power to shut down companies that pose a threat to the country’s financial system. As the troubled economy has led to marked changes in higher education, including increases in tuition and fees, the introduction of wait lists at colleges that had never used them before, and, in worst-case scenarios, the shuttering of colleges, the bill could even give struggling schools some sense of hope.

Pell Grants could also see a boost if a spending bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee yesterday continues to move through Congress. According to another article in The Chronicle, the bill would raise spending on Pell Grants by $5.7 billion for the 2011 fiscal year, keeping the federal grants at the maximum levels of $5,550 per eligible student. The Federal Pell Grant, which is available to those students with the highest unmet financial need, has increased significantly over the years; students were able to receive $4,050 in the 2006-2007 academic year. The panel also approved an additional $1 billion for the National Institute of Health. According to The Chronicle, legislators hope that funding could go toward “translating basic research results into practical and available cures and treatments.”


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by Agnes Jasinski

In response to recent criticisms of for-profit colleges, the U.S. Department of Education announced a rule today that will cut off federal aid to those schools that leave students with loan debts they are unable to handle once they receive their degrees and certificates. The new “gainful employment” rule would also penalize those programs with the lowest loan-repayment rates, meaning for-profit colleges will be more on the hook to make sure those enrolled in their programs are being prepared for the job search and for entering the workforce.

The for-profit sector currently accounts for less than 10 percent of total enrollments but about 25 percent of federal financial aid disbursements. Congress has also been looking at the issue this summer, with some legislators concerned by the large amounts of debt students were being saddled with at some for-profit colleges when compared to the comparably low salaries they could expect to receive upon completion of those programs, or the difficulty they may have finding work at all. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education today, officials with the Education Department said this was a way to both protect students and taxpayers, as the measure could help prevent both groups from incurring the high costs of student-loan defaults. 

According to the article, the new rule would consider the number of borrowers repaying their federal student loans against the ratio of total student loan debt to average earnings. About 5 percent of for-profit programs nationwide may be affected by the new rule, and thus would become ineligible for federal aid. About 55 percent on the cusp of ineligibility might need to become more forthright with potential students about excessive borrowing. The new rule doesn’t go as far as the Education Department had initially proposed; that first proposal would have cut federal aid to those programs where a majority of students’ loan payments exceeded 8 percent of the lowest quarter of students’ expected earnings over 10 years of repayment, according to The Chronicle.

Most for-profit schools do serve an important purpose, especially for students changing careers or looking for a flexible alternative. If you’re interested in a career college, just make sure you do your research. There are programs out there that are accredited, or that meet a set of standards from the Education Department, and qualified to give you an advantage in the job market.


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