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Three Universities Subpoenaed in Admissions Investigation

June 19, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Want to get into college but don't have the best grades?  Consider making friends with some prominent politicians, then apply in Illinois.

Earlier this month, The Chicago Tribune revealed the existence of a special admissions list at the University of Illinois main campus that consisted of politically connected applicants.  Now, records from University of Illinois, Northern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University have been subpoenaed in the ongoing federal investigation of corruption charges against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.  Investigators want to determine whether Blagojevich recommended candidates for admission into state colleges in exchange for money or favors.

While going for the wow factor of a big name is an understandable strategy when it comes to letters of recommendation, it looks like more may have been going on with some applications in Illinois. There are concerns that some well-connected applicants received extreme advantages in admissions, in some cases getting in seemingly solely based on who they knew, even over the objections of the admissions officials reviewing their college applications.  The University of Illinois has suspended its special admission list and claimed to have not followed practices out of line with what other colleges do in considering applications.

The practice of relying on political connections in the college application process is not unique to Illinois, but in light of recent scandals in the state, it is garnering a lot of attention.  Using clout to get into college is still a  highly contentious practice in any case, whether the applicant is connected to university officials or state government figures.  Hopefully, this scandal will influence colleges to think twice before overlooking merit in favor of connections in future admissions decisions.

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Gates Foundation Launches Community College Grant Program

June 23, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced new grants to help states and community colleges improve remedial education and college completion.  The grants, totaling $16.5 million, were awarded to five states and fifteen community colleges and represent the second wave in an effort the foundation began in 2004.

As college costs continue to rise, an increasing amount of attention is being paid to community colleges as a cost-effective alternative to the traditional four-year university.  Greater emphasis on higher education, such as President Obama's earlier urging for every American to receive some amount of post-secondary education, have also brought community colleges into focus.  In addition to being affordable and local, community colleges often focus on career-oriented education, which can help the unemployed or those who are looking for better job security quickly and effectively pick up skills and certification to achieve career goals.

Despite the benefits of a community college education, many students who enroll struggle to finish.  As many as 60 percent of community college students may need remedial courses, including up to 90 percent of low-income and minority students at these institutions, and students requiring remediation are currently at a disadvantage when it comes to successfully completing requirements to earn a degree. Grants from the Gates Foundation aim to help colleges continue to address this problem, building on the success of previous Gates-funded programs that saw the number of students successfully moving to college-level coursework rise by 16 to 20 percent.

Students will benefit from this grant money through increased access to support services, such as tutoring and academic advising, that can help them meet their college goals.  Improved remedial education, a federal focus on community colleges as vital educational institutions, and new state efforts to smooth the process of transferring from two-year to four-year state colleges all have the potential to help a greater number of Americans attain a higher education, and to do so at a lower cost.

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Financial Aid Changes Happening July 1

June 30, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

While it falls in the middle of summer on most academic calendars, July 1 marks an important date for financial aid each year.  On July 1, the Education Department switches from the 2008-2009 academic year to the 2009-2010 one, and new federal rules for financial aid go into effect. This means new loan consolidation and repayment options, lower interest rates on some federal student loans, among other changes for students receiving federal student financial aid.

One big change you likely already know about if you have applied for financial aid for fall is that Pell grants are going up from a maximum of $4,731 for 2008-2009 to a maximum of $5,350 for 2009-2010.  This change has already been widely publicized and is already reflected on your financial aid award letter.

Changes for current undergraduate students that you may not already know about include lower interest rates and lower loan fees on federal Stafford loans.  The interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduate students will drop from 6.0 percent to 5.6 percent on July first.  Rates will not change for unsubsidized loans, graduate students, or federal PLUS loans.  The upfront loan fees on all Stafford loans will fall from 2 percent to 1.5 percent. Students who have older Stafford loans or PLUS loans with variable interest rates will also see lower interest rates as of July 1, provided they have not already consolidated their loans.

Those who are considering loan consolidation will see one of the biggest changes on July 1, with the unveiling of a new consolidation program through the federal Direct Loans program.  It will allow students to participate in an income-based repayment plan that will forgive any outstanding debt after 25 years.  Payments will be capped at 15 percent of whatever you earn above 150 percent of the federal poverty level and no payments will be required if your earnings fall below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

Finally, since July 1 marks the start of the new academic year for financial aid, today is the last day to file a 2008-2009 FAFSA.  If you are planning to enroll in summer courses and have not yet applied for aid, you may want to check with your school to see whether summer is counted as part of 2008-2009 or 2009-2010 for financial aid purposes.  If your school counts summer as part of the previous academic year and you have not yet filed a FAFSA, you will want to do so right now.

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Education Secretary Duncan Proposes Changes to FAFSA

June 24, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

As part of his campaign's focus on education, President Obama pledged his administration would address issues of the financial aid application process, such as the length and complexity of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has previewed some of the administration's proposed changes, with a formal announcement expected today. While not as sweeping as the two-page FAFSA EZ Congress already mandated when renewing the Higher Education Act last year, these changes are still a step towards simpler financial aid applications.

Changes will be rolled out in phases, with the first phase being a smarter FAFSA on the Web.  Rather than forcing students to read fine print to determine whether they need to provide information requested by each question, as of next January, the application will use the information students have provided to determine which questions they need to answer.  Students with independent status will not be shown the questions about parental income and low-income students will not be shown certain questions about assets that they don't need to complete.  This is a fairly simple step to save time and hassle, and eliminate some of the barriers that keep students most likely to be eligible for federal grant programs from applying.

A pilot program has also been initaited to test the feasibility of allowing students to access their tax information online to complete the FAFSA.  If successful, it could be expanded to all users, saving headaches involved in finding their 1040s, W2s and related forms, then scouring each for the correct lines to copy into the FAFSA.

Duncan also stated that the administration will seek permission from Congress to begin taking steps that could eventually result in eliminating the FAFSA entirely and relying solely on tax information to apply for federal student financial aid.  While not explicitly stated by Duncan, it could be an end result of his request to Congress to remove questions from the FAFSA that do not pertain to information reported to the IRS on a student's (or their parents') 1040.  Once the complicated need analysis formula of the FAFSA has been set aside in favor of this simplified process, the idea of allowing students to apply for aid by checking a box on their tax return seems almost within reach.

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Survey Examines New Community College Students' Perceptions of First Year

March 30, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

A new survey looking at entering community college students' opinions on the obstacles they face during their first year found that those students need more guidance to succeed as they transition from high school to higher education.

The study, released yesterday, was the ongoing Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE), which was first given to poll students in 2006. Since then, more than 91,000 students have been polled, with the results used by community colleges to improve preparedness programs and tactics to help new students achieve. The survey this time around looked at data from more than 50,000 students at 120 participating community colleges in 31 states and the Marshall Islands.

The survey looks to examine the first three weeks of new community college students' experiences at their respective colleges. Most of the respondents felt their colleges were doing a good job with the welcome wagons, and making them feel comfortable in their new surroundings. But others still felt more could be done to help them prepare for college, and to navigate administrative processes that seemed complicated at times. The findings included the following:

  • About 72 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they felt welcome the first time they came to their colleges; 25 percent expressed no opinion on this item, which concerned the providers of the SENSE survey.
  • About 49 percent said they agree or strongly agree that their colleges provided them with adequate information about financial aid, while 25 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.
  • About 33 percent agreed or strongly agreed that a college staff member helped them determine whether they qualified for financial assistance; 40 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.
  • About 45 percent agreed or strongly agreed that at least one college staff member (other than an instructor) learned their names, compared with 37 percent who disagreed or strongly disagreed.
  • About 23 percent said that a specific person was assigned to them so they could see that person each time they needed information or assistance.
  • About 90 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they have the motivation to succeed in college, but about a quarter of those students also admitted to skipping class or failing to turn an assignment in at least once.

According to an analysis of the survey from Inside Higher Ed yesterday, the results point to the missed opportunities that face students and administrators on a daily basis on community college campuses. When students were asked to elaborate on their answers using short answers, some said they were forced to make decisions on choosing college courses, for example, with little guidance from their counselors, something they could well enough do on their own. The article also pointed to contradictions in the study; for example, students responded that they enjoyed the access they had to college staff members, but still felt unprepared to navigate college processes.

The providers of the survey suggest more needs to be done to engage students, and that administrators should take regular looks at their processes to make them even more easy to access by students who may need more help as first-year community college students.

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Seton Hill Full-Time Students to Receive iPads Come Fall

March 31, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

Whether it's about a little cross-promotion or getting students' hands on the latest technologies out there, Seton Hill University will join a handful of other colleges across the country in offering students the iPad, Apple's newest tablet computer.

The school will begin distributing the iPad to its 2,100 students this fall; every full-time student is eligible to receive one. (Often, similar offerings are limited to incoming freshmen.) According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the effort is part of the school's Griffin Technology Advantage program, which will expand hybrid and fully online course offerings at the college. The program does come at a cost. Students will see an additional $500 fee tacked on to their tuition and fee bills to cover a wireless campus. The school will absorb the costs of the iPads themselves.

Many schools currently offer their students laptops and computers to supplement course curricula or level the playing field for those who come onto their campuses unable to afford new technology. At Seton Hill, incoming freshmen also receive 13-inch MacBooks, with the option to request an opt-in to the program for sophomores, juniors, and seniors. George Fox University is getting on the iPad bandwagon as well, offering incoming freshmen the choice between the tablet and a MacBook. That school has been offering students computers - as part of their tuition - for the last 20 years. Duke University offered incoming students iPods between 2004 and 2006; Oklahoma Christian University has been offering students Apple laptop computers and iPhones or an iPod Touch since 2008; Abilene Christian University has been offering students iPhones since 2008 as well.

Technology on college campuses is here to stay, despite a persistent technology gap - or the perception of a technology gap - on some college campuses. Social networking in particular has become more common in college coursework. Students in a journalism course at Depaul University, for example, have been using Twitter as a research tool and learning how to use the site to supplement their reporting techniques. At Harper College, a one-time course there showed students how to use Facebook and Twitter from a business perspective.

What kinds of technology tools are being used at your college? Does your school offer laptops, desktops, or other technologies as part of your college experience?

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Outsourced Grading May Be Coming to a Campus Near You

April 9, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

Teaching assistants who may not be able to keep up with the rigors of marking up hundreds of papers per semester while maintaining their own academic schedules may soon be relieved of their duties if a new trend catches on - outsourced grading.

The University of Houston is already trying it out through Virtual-TA, a service of a company called EduMetry Inc. whose employees work mostly from Asia. According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Houston business professor Lori Whisenant decided to use the service when she realized her seven teaching assistants were having trouble giving productive, detailed feedback to the 1,000 or so juniors and seniors who enrolled in her course in business law and ethics each year. Her students come up with nearly 5,000 words a semester.

The company, which was co-founded by a business professor, boasts that it can do the job even better than teaching assistants, and leaves professors with more time to teach and conduct research. According to the Chronicle, many of the American schools that have signed up are business schools, with a mix of for-profit and nonprofit institutions using the outsourced services. West Hills College in California uses the service for its online courses, and instructors there say the extensive feedback on grammar and other writing errors that teaching assistants may ignore in favor of more "big picture" problems with essays has kept some students from dropping out of the online classes.

So how does it work? "Expert graders," or "assessors," submit grades online using rubrics from the professors teaching the courses. They communicate solely via email, and are given syllabi and textbooks from the courses to prepare for their grading assignments. Their feedback is embedded into the documents they receive from students; those comments may be edited by the professors before they are returned to the students. The graders do this for a living, so the biggest difference between the outsourced assessors and local teaching assistants is that they're not juggling their coursework at the same time.

Critics of the service worry that it makes the grading process even less personal than it already is with teaching assistants at the helm. These outsourced graders don't know anything about the students they are grading, critics say, making it difficult to adjust their comments to fit each student. Those who like the service, however, say it shouldn't matter where a grader is submitting their feedback from, whether that is across the hall or from a work station in Singapore. What do you think? Is this the future of grading?

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Southern Catholic College Closes Mid-Semester Due to Lack of Funding

April 14, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

Many students are preparing for the last few weeks of finals, completing projects and cracking books open for a week of finals. Students at Southern Catholic College in Georgia, however, are packing up their bags, potentially for good. Tomorrow is the last day of the semester at the college, nearly a month ahead of schedule due to budget woes that made it impossible for the school to maintain its schedule of courses through mid-May, the traditional end of the spring semester.

The decision was announced abruptly earlier this month by Rev. Shawn Aaron, the school's president and a priest of the Legionaries of Christ, via email to faculty, staff, and the school's nearly 200 students. Students will receive full credit for the entire semester, and graduating students will receive their diplomas in an upcoming simple ceremony at the college. In the email, Father Aaron gave no indication as to whether the school would reopen at all, or whether this was a temporary budget fix. According to an article in The Catholic Review, the school would need $6 million to reopen by June.

The school was founded in 2000, but has had some financial trouble since its first years of operation. According to The Catholic Review, the school had gotten into the bad habit of spending more than it took in; in 2007, the college spent $2.5 million more than it should have, and only continued the trend in the years that followed. The formerly privately-run institution was transferred to the Legionaries of Christ in the fall of 2009, but the congregation was unable to financially support the school. In addition to overspending, the students at the school who were on full scholarships outnumbered those who paid full tuition, room and board, which runs more than $24,500 a year.

Students didn't see the early closure coming, according to the article. They went to social networking sites when they heard the news, learning mostly through hearsay why the school would be closing so suddenly. Their worries include how their grades will be calculated based on the shortened semester, and whether their credits will transfer over to other institutions if the school closes for good. According to The Catholic Review, the school's president waited so long to notify the student body because the school board was waiting to hear back about a last-minute plea to a benefactor of the college. That plea did not lead to any last-minute funding, so the decision was made to close the school when it was apparent the school was unable to pay its faculty and staff beyond April 15.

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Colleges Get Creative with Guarantees for New Applicants

April 20, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

You may remember a recent initiative begun by Lansing Community College that guaranteed students jobs post-graduation if they completed programs in high-demand fields at the school. The idea of offering incoming freshmen guarantees in exchange for their enrollment in a particular school has caught on, with more schools, especially those with low enrollments, providing students with promises of clearer career paths and timely graduations.

Albion College, also in Michigan, recently unveiled a new program called “The Albion Advantage,” which aims to get students career-ready as soon as they step onto the school’s campus. Students will now be provided with a higher degree of professional services early on, with career planning weaved into the private liberal arts school’s curriculum and assessments that analyze students’ strengths and weaknesses to provide them with a better idea of which careers they would be most successful in. The biggest change, however, is the school’s new post-graduation guarantee. Students who graduate with a 3.0 GPA but are unable to find jobs in their major areas after they graduate are eligible to receive assistance from the school in the form of internships and research assistant opportunities on and off campus, more professional development services until they land jobs, and a free, noncredit semester at Albion.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education took a look at the Albion’s program and the reasoning behind it. Administrators at the school say the college decided something had to be done after the previous year’s enrollment numbers came in. Albion had planned to enroll 475 to 500 new students; 434 freshmen enrolled instead. The cost of attending the school (about $40,000 per year) may have been a factor in the decrease in applicants, as students are looking for better deals elsewhere through state colleges or vocational schools where they may learn a skill or trade and enter the workforce. Michigan is also the state with the highest unemployment rates in the country.

Elsewhere, colleges are using different guarantees to get students interested in their schools. The University of Maine at Farmington introduced the "Farmington in Four" program earlier this year. That program promises incoming freshmen that if they don’t graduate from the school within four years, they will be able to complete their remaining coursework free of charge. (According to the U.S. Department of Education, a little more than half of all students at four-year colleges graduate within six years. Private colleges have the highest graduation rates, according to U.S. News and World Report’s recent rankings of the “best colleges” in the country.)

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Scholarship for Undocumented Students Met with Criticism

June 2, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

As opposition to the new Arizona immigration law only continues to grow, a new scholarship that would target illegal-immigrant students has led one Congressman to suggest that the school offering the award may lose federal funding as a result.

The $2,500 matching Tam Tran Memorial Scholarship is offered by the Santa Ana College Foundation, the fund-raising body of the two-year school. The award was created in memory of Tam Tran, a Santa Ana College and University of California-Los Angeles alumna who was killed by a drunk driver in Maine last month. Tran was enrolled at Brown University as a graduate student at the time of the accident.

According to a press release from the foundation, the award will be given to a student who excels academically, has financial need, and is working toward their American citizenship, as Tran was. Tran was a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act while she was a student at Santa Ana College, and testified before Congress in favor of passing the legislation. The DREAM Act would provide those students who are in the country illegally the opportunity to apply for permanent residency if they have graduated from an American high school or have been accepted into an institution of higher education. 

A recent article in The Orange County Register details the first negative response to the award, from California Congressman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Rohrabacher called the scholarship “unforgivable,” especially at a time when other, legal students are having a difficult time finding funding for rising college costs. The Congressman has already sent a letter to the president of Santa Ana College. In effect, the letter tells the president that if the school goes forward with the award, the move would put “continued public financing for Santa Ana College in jeopardy.”

Santa Ana College defends their decision by saying it is only fitting that the scholarship go to other undocumented students, the group Tran rallied for and supported as an illegal immigrant herself. As the award comes from the school’s foundation, it would also be driven by donations, not public dollars. What do you think about the award? Should schools be setting aside funds for undocumented students, even if they come from private funds? Let us know what you think about this controversial topic.

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