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March Madness Alternatives

by Darci Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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by Emily

The results of a poll conducted by Sallie Mae and Gallup were released today, painting a picture of where Americans across income levels find money for college.  The study found that sources of funding varied, with parent borrowing (16%), student borrowing (23%), and parent income and savings (32%) taking care of the majority of college costs.  Scholarships and grants followed closely behind, making up 15 percent of college funding.

The average grant and scholarship awards and student loan amounts were roughly the same for low income families (families making below $50,000 a year), while middle income families relied most heavily on parent income and student loans, and high income families (families making above $100,000 a year) predominantly used parent income and savings to pay for school.

While more students than parents were likely to rule out a school at some point in their college search based on cost (63% vs. 54%), two in five families said that cost was not a consideration in choosing the right college for them, and 70 percent of students and parents said that future income was not a factor when determining how much to borrow.

Additionally, 20 percent of families reported using either a second mortgage or a credit card to pay some portion of tuition, while only 9 percent of families reported using a college savings plan, such as a 529 plan, to pay for part of tuition (though those who did were able to cover nearly $8,000 of the cost of college with one).  The study also found that only 76 percent of students whose families made between $35,000 and $50,000 per year, many of whom may be eligible for state and federal grant programs, did not complete the FAFSA.  Only 73 percent of familes making between $50,000 and $100,000 per year completed a FAFSA, despite many families' reliance on loans to pay for college.

The full text of the report is available on the Sallie Mae website.


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by Emily

Just in case you haven't heard enough reasons to kick your scholarship search into high gear, an article appearing last week in The Boston Globe reported that one third of parents have cut back on or altogether stopped saving for college.  According to a study by Fidelity Investments, the current economic situation has left many parents less equipped to help their children pay for school.

The study found that parents have fewer resources to devote to students' college expenses due to drops in values of investments and home equity. To help make up this difference, 35 percent of parents reported plans to delay retirement in order to better help their college-aged children pay bills.  Parents are also asking more of college students, with 55 percent expecting their kids to work part-time, 44 percent hoping their kids will live at home while attending college, and 37 percent encouraging their children to attend less expensive state colleges.  Additionally, 62 percent of parents expect their children to take out student loans--a figure that makes sense coupled with the 16 percent increase in FAFSA applications reported earlier this year.

When coupled with anecdotal evidence, such as another Boston Globe piece highlighting Massachusettes families' increased interest in public universities for 2009, this study stresses the need for students to ramp up their efforts to find money for college.  While federal student financial aid and private loans are being turned to more and more, college scholarships are still options for students industrious enough to find them.  If you're already attending college or currently in the midst of the college application process and haven't yet started searching for scholarships, now is a good time to begin.  Between now and February, a great number of scholarship opportunities will open up for applications, so the sooner you know what's out there, the better a chance you'll have of winning scholarships.


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by Emily

With all the talk about spending and stimulus legislation and bailouts, it can be easy to lose track of what benefits taxpayers can actually expect to receive. Most likely, everyone knows that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, perhaps better known as “the stimulus,” will create jobs through funding “shovel-ready” projects and will put a little extra in paychecks through a tax rebate that will take effect this summer.  You probably also know that there’s also financial aid in there for education, but you may not be sure exactly what.

Frankly, so much federal legislation and talk of change has been floating around in the last two years that anyone who last paid a tuition bill as recently as 2007 probably doesn’t even recognize financial aid in 2009.  To help, we’ve prepared a breakdown of where student financial aid stands currently.

Pell Grants. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increased the maximum Federal Pell Grant award from $4,731 for 2008-2009 to $5,350 for 2009-2010.  The maximum Pell award will go up again in 2010-2011 to $5,500 under this legislation.

The income threshold to qualify for federal grant programs also increased.  Now students with an expected family contribution (a number determined by completing the FAFSA) of up to $4,671 (up from $4,041 this year) can qualify for Pell grants.  They will not receive the whole award, but even the minimum award has increased—from $400 for full-time students in 2007-2008 to $976 for the same group in 2009-2010, due in part to the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which increased all Pell awards by $490.

Students qualifying for Federal Pell Grants can also pick up additional college funding through Academic Competitiveness Grants or SMART grants, which include Pell eligibility in their criteria.  Many non-federal college scholarships and grants also use Pell eligibility to determine awards, so the newly Pell-eligible will definitely want to do a scholarship search to see what’s out there.

Work-Study. More students will also see “federal work-study” on their financial aid award letter in 2009-2010 thanks to the economic stimulus legislation.  More money is available to work-study programs that allow students to get a part-time job on (or occasionally off) campus and count the income as financial aid.  Work-study programs provide great job opportunities for student workers, and since the money is given in the form of a paycheck, students can use these funds to pay their tuition bills or to cover living expenses.

Tax Benefits. One of the biggest perks of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is the creation of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which replaces the Hope Credit.  The tax benefits under Hope only went up to $1,800 and only could be taken for two years.  The American Opportunity Tax Credit can be used for four years, can fund up to $2,500 of college costs (100% of the first $2,000 plus 25% of the next $2,000, for a total of $2,500), and up to 40% is refundable, so people who don’t pay as much in taxes as they would qualify to receive in the credit can still get something.

Additionally, the income level at which the American Opportunity Tax Credit phases out is higher than the Hope credit, allowing individuals with incomes of up to $90,000 and married couples with incomes of up to $180,000 to take it.

Families will be able to start taking advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit on their 2009 taxes.

Other Benefits. Much more is included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  For example, students with 529 savings plans can now use that money to purchase a computer for school.  Additionally, states will receive billions of dollars over the next two years, with a portion of the money devoted specifically to funding projects at public institutions of higher education, as well preventing or reversing massive reductions in state education spending.

While student loans stayed the same in the stimulus, they did receive a boost in the fall through the continuation of the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act, as well as other recent legislation, including some new aid to lenders.

If you’d like to read more about how recent legislation has affected paying for college, our blog archives feature breakdowns of the 2007 College Cost Reduction Act, the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, the 2008 Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act, the 2008 GI Bill, and more examples of what's going on with college in Congress.


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by Emily

Paying for college can be a struggle.  Nobody wants to repay student loans forever, not everybody is going to land a full-tuition scholarship, and federal student financial aid seldom takes care of all college costs.  If you're a parent or relative looking ahead to cover college costs for a child, finding scholarships is a great step now, but you may also want to consider college savings plans.

Read below for information on 529 savings plans, which are one of the most popular and diverse options for college savings.  If this is not for you, check back tomorrow for more information on other savings options.

529 Savings Plans While 529 plans have sustained average losses of 21 percent in the last year, they can still be a good idea, especially if you choose your plan carefully and have plenty of time to save.  Many 529 plans allow you to move your savings into a much more conservative portfolio when the student nears college, an option they're sure to publicize based on the recent behavior of the stock market.  While there are limits on how many changes can be made to a 529 plan per year, the plans are otherwise quite flexible and varied, so it's easy to find one that works for your situation. Plus, 529 plans can be taken out in the parent's name, rather than the student's, so they will only minimally affect a student's financial aid eligibility.

Additionally, contribution limits are high, income limits are nonexistent, minimum contribution requirements tend to be low, and many states offer a variety of incentives for residents who contribute to their plans.  As an added bonus, many 529 plans can accept contributions from anybody anywhere, not just the people named on the account, and several programs have been created to take advantage of this.  For example, some plans allow a portion of credit card purchases or purchases at certain stores to go towards a particular student's 529 plan.

Prepaid Tuition Savings Plans If you're hesitant about sticking money for college in the stock market with uncertain returns, another type of 529 plan is also gaining popularity.  Prepaid tuition plans allow families to contribute a fixed amount now in exchange for a certain portion of tuition being covered in the future.  Many states do this for their state colleges and universities, and the Independent 529 plan, which is accepted by over 200 private colleges, also fixes contributions to portions of future tuition.  Both of these varieties eliminate worries about tuition inflation, though if tuition actually goes down between now and when the student starts college, a prepaid plan might not be the most lucrative option.

The Down Side 529 plans do have drawbacks and limitations.  Money must be spent on education, and the expenses that qualify are limited to undergraduate tuition, fees, educational expenses like books, and now computers. However, if the student is enrolled at least half-time, money from a 529 plan can also go towards room and board, so even if your student earns a full-tuition scholarship, it's possible to still take advantage of 529 savings.  Money must stay in a plan for at least 3 years, so if you're saving for a college sophomore, you're out of luck with these.  However, you can transfer the unused portion of a 529 plan to another family member without incurring the heavy withdrawal penalties, and it may also be possible to use the funds towards graduate or professional school.

Plans also vary from state to state, so your state's plan might not have the best benefits for you, or might not offer as sweet a deal in terms of tax breaks or low fees as the next state over offers its residents.  Luckily, you can shop around among a variety of plans, including ones offered by several other states.

529 plans are not the only college saving option, though they remain the most popular and perhaps the most well-known.  Check back tomorrow for information on the rest of the pack.


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by Emily

Continuing our theme from yesterday, today's blog post centers on more options for saving for college.  Yesterday, we discussed 529 plans, popular college savings vehicles that have been battered by recent financial troubles.  If you're considering saving for college but are not sold on a 529 plan, the most common alternatives are discussed below.

Coverdell ESA. Coverdell Education Savings Accounts are similar to 529 plans in most respects, but do have their own benefits and drawbacks. Rather than being sold by a state, they are sold by banks and brokerages, which can charge their own management fees. Because there aren't any state ties, there aren't any residency limitations, though there also aren't any state tax breaks for enrolling in a Coverdell ESA.

Coverdell accounts allow more flexible investment options and unlimited changes to investments. They can also be used to pay for high school and elementary school expenses, in addition to college costs. Otherwise, the expenses Coverdell and 529 plans can be used for are roughly the same: tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board if over half-time, and other qualified educational expenses.

One major limitation to the Coverdell ESA is the $2,000 annual contribution cap. This is the limit per account holder, not per contributor. Additionally, individuals must have an adjusted gross income of $110,000 or below to contribute, and $95,000 or below to contribute the full $2,000. Coverdell accounts are held in the beneficiary's name, so they can hurt the student on the FAFSA. They also must be used or cashed out by the time the beneficiary turns 30, and they go to the beneficiary no matter what, while 529 plans can be given back to the parent in charge of the account if the student chooses not to go to college.

Roth IRA. The Roth IRA, typically used as a retirement account, can also be used to save for school. As long as you're withdrawing contributions, rather than earnings, there is no penalty if you are using the money from your IRA for educational expenses. However, a college savings plan might be the better way to go if you're setting up an account specifically for your student (especially since contributions to a Roth IRA must come from income the beneficiary earned from working), and dipping into your retirement funds to pay for college is widely regarded as a less than ideal choice by financial experts. But if you choose to take it, the option is there.

UTMA. The Uniform Transfer to Minors Act allows assets to be given as gifts to minors without the establishment of a trust. While the options explored up to this point have been savings accounts or investments, UTMA covers everything, including property. An adult manages these assets in a custodial account until the owner reaches the age of 18 or 21, depending on the state. In the meantime, the funds in the account can be used to benefit the child, including taking care of educational expenses. Once the owner reaches the age of majority, the assets are theirs to use as they please. This can mean paying for school, or it can mean making less desirable financial choices.  Since these assets belong to the student, they would count against them for student financial aid.

Government Bonds. While typically regarded as the province of grandparents, government savings bonds (Series EE is the most common) are also an option for paying for college. Bonds can be purchased online or at banks, and redeemed later for cash. As opposed to stock market-based savings plans which can lose big during crashes, government bonds are going to continue to grow as long as there's a government to honor them. And if there's no longer a United States government, well, you might have more to worry about than paying for college.

Also, since no rules state that a savings bond must be redeemed for college costs, the money can be used towards paying off student loans, covering college living expenses...or partying it up during spring break in Mexico.

While EE Savings Bonds grow at a steady rate, they do grow very slowly. You're also limited to a purchase of $5,000 per calendar year. Since they're such a safe bet, they can be great gifts for high school students, but a market-based option might be a better way to grow savings and maximize returns for younger children.


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by Emily

Today is May 29, also known as "529 College Savings Day," named after 529 plans, which are popular state-sponsored college savings plans.  Today has been designated as a day to raise awareness of the importance of saving for college, as well as ways to do so. While 529 plans suffered along with everything else in the stock market, they are still being emphasized as a valuable tool for saving money for college.

According to a poll conducted by Gallup and Sallie Mae, 62 percent of families with college-bound children are already saving for college in some capacity, with the majority planning to contribute at least half of a child's tuition.  About half of families that are saving already regularly contribute to college funds, and around a third use state 529 plans.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has more information on the survey, as well as a link to the results.

If you're curious about college savings plans, we have some resources to help you get started.  A few months ago, we did a couple blog posts on saving for college, featuring a discussion of 529 plans, as well as other savings options.  While the focus of today is on saving for college, it's also a good time to look into college scholarships, especially for students still in high school.  Read up on college savings accounts today, then do a free college scholarship search to find more options for paying for school.


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by Emily

Personal savings, college endowments and college savings plans all suffered when the stock market took a nose dive last fall. Students, families and even schools who thought they were financially secure soon learned otherwise and had to scramble to come up with alternative plans to pay bills. Now that things are beginning to even out and return to a state of normalcy, those affected by the recession are looking towards recovery and assessing their long-term plans. For some college savings plans, especially "guaranteed" tuition savings plans, the future looks particularly bleak, even without further financial setbacks.

Guaranteed tuition savings plans are one of several types of college savings plans, which allow families to save for college tax-free and often involve other incentives, as well. Prepaid tuition savings plans allow families to pay tuition ahead of time at certain schools, ensuring that bills will be paid for students, even if tuition skyrockets, as it seems likely to continue doing. Many families in states where they're offered have purchased them for young children who may not be attending college for another 15 years or more, but some plans have already begun to run out of money due to losses in the stock market and the sharp rise of college costs.

As a result, states including Texas, Alabama and Pennsylvania are struggling with the prospect of not being able to fund their current obligations to these plans. Several prepaid tuition plans have been closed off to new investors, including the plans in Texas and Alabama. Despite this, Alabama may not have enough money to pay tuition for all students currently enrolled in its prepaid plan. Pennsylvania has introduced legislation to remove "guaranteed" from its tuition savings plan's name and make it clear that the state has no obligation to bail out the plan if it doesn't earn enough money to meet its obligations.

Texas has also announced a rule change for people who currently have money invested in its guaranteed tuiton plan. When they invested, families were told that if their children did not go to one of the state colleges whose tuition the plan will fully fund, they would be able to close their account and withdraw the full amount of tuition at those institutions at that time. Now, the Texas Prepaid Higher Education Tuition Board has said that families whose children do not attend one of the schools included in the plan can only withdraw the amount they invested, minus an administrative fee. State legislators have urged the board to reconsider, but so far it appears that those with money invested have three choices: they can pull their money out before the rule goes into effect on October 30, they can limit their children's college choices to those sanctioned by the tuition savings plan, or they can take a guaranteed loss on their "guaranteed" tuition investment.

To help you avoid the problems currently facing Texas parents, US News has a helpful article on questions to ask before investing in a prepaid college savings plan. Prepaid tuition plans, 529 plans, and other college savings vehicles can still be a good idea, even though they've been through difficult times. As with many things, the trick to being successful in your choice is first doing your research and figure out which plan is best for you and your family.


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Rationing Your Refund Check

by Jessica Seals

The first day of classes means new professors, new classmates and a completely new routine. It is also about the time that universities distribute refund checks to students. Refund checks are extra funds that are left over after all school fees have been paid. These funds are the result of excess scholarships, grants and loans. Refund checks can come in handy, as students can use the extra money to buy a laptop, food, books or to pay off another loan. Some students, however, are not wise with their money and are left scrounging for pennies before the end of the semester.

I always hear students complaining about how they do not have any money left from their refund check long before finals roll around. They chose to splurge on clothes, the newest Droid phone, expensive restaurants or they spent money on friends. Buying a few extra “fun” items is not something that should necessarily be avoided but you should maintain a budget and be conscious about how much money you are spending. I have taken money from my refund check and separated it into two separate bank accounts. The money in my savings account rarely gets touched unless it is an emergency and the money in my checking account is what I use on a daily basis. I keep less money in the checking account so I am not tempted to spend more than I intend to.

While in college, it is especially important to learn how to manage your money. If you get a refund check back from the school, this could be your chance to start learning how to do so. You will feel great knowing that you will not be labeled a broke college student!

Jessica Seals is currently a senior at the University of Memphis majoring in political science and minoring in English. At the University of Memphis, she is the secretary of the Pre-Law Society, the philanthropy chair of the Phi Kappa Phi Student Council and a member of Professional Assertive United Sisters of Excellence (PAUSE), Golden Key Honor Society, Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society, Sigma Alpha Lambda Honor Society, and Black Scholars Unlimited. She also volunteers to tutor her fellow classmates and hopes to attend law school in the near future.


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The Benefits of Community Colleges

by Lisa Lowdermilk

For many students fresh out of high school, the idea of going to a community college is not appealing. After all, one of the most exciting aspects of attending college is living on campus away from home, right? Well, living on campus may not be all it's cracked up to be.

Although few people would argue that universities' clubs, fraternities and parties are superior to anything offered at a community college, the stress of being away from home for the first time, learning to live with one or more roommates and being forced to make new friends can be quite an adjustment. Community colleges help students ease into the transition between high school and college more gradually.

Then there’s the cost: Tuition at a community college per year costs $2,713 per year, whereas four-year universities cost $7,605 per year on average. This second figure assumes you're living in-state but if you're living out-of-state, expect to be set back about $11,990 your first year. If cost is the major deciding factor, your decision is easy: Go to a community college for your first two years, then transfer. With all the extra money you're saving, you can throw your own parties, buy that new car you've been wanting or just save up for when you do go to a university.

Even if you're not going to your dream school for your first two years, you'll still have the opportunity to experience campus life after you get your associate degree at a community college. And who knows? Maybe you'll even find out community colleges aren't as bad as they're made out to be!

Lisa Lowdermilk is a published poet, avid video gamer and artist. Her poems have appeared in Celebrate Young Poets: West (Fall 2006) edition and Widener University's The Blue Route. She enjoys watching thrillers, trying different restaurants and attempting to breakdance. Lisa is now majoring in professional writing at the University of Colorado Denver.


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