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by Emily

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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by Emily

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

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

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

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


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by Emily

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

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

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

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by Emily

Yesterday, Congress held a hearing to begin the process of determining the fate of the Federal Family Education Loan Program, the bank-based federal student loan program that President Obama has proposed eliminating in the 2010 federal budget. Voices from both sides of the debate chimed in, with one clear theme emerging: in 2010, student loans are definitely going to change. The questions at this point are to what extent federal student lending will change and whether the banks currently involved in FFEL will still have a place in the new system.

The Obama administration proposes switching all federal Stafford and PLUS loans to the federal Direct Loans program, then using the savings from eliminating lender subsidies to increase Federal Pell Grants and make funding mandatory, while also greatly expanding the federal Perkins Loan program and spending more on college completion. Opponents of this plan, primarily consisting of FFEL lenders and representatives of schools that participate in FFEL, have suggested alternatives that would restructure student lending, but still leave a place for lenders to service the loans. Not one witness at the hearing advocated keeping the system as it is, though, and it seems that a shakeup in student lending is inevitable. Hopefully, this will result in more available financial aid for students.  Inside Higher Ed has more information on the hearing.


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by Emily

With unemployment continuing to rise, college savings funds still performing poorly, and some states being forced to make cuts to grant and scholarship programs, many students are likely to be facing a very different financial situation when it comes to paying for college in 2009, as opposed to 2008.  Students who have experienced a significant change in their financial circumstances since completing the FAFSA, such as a loss of income and savings, can appeal to their college's financial aid office for a chance at more need-based college scholarships and grants.

Yesterday, U.S. News ran an excellent article by Kim Clark detailing the do's and don't's of appealing your student financial aid award, according to college financial aid administrators.  According to Clark, appeals are up this year and are more likely to be granted, as administrators take into account how drastically the financial landscape has changed.  If you are thinking of requesting a professional judgment appeal, here are some things you should do: 

     
  • Send a letter detailing changes in your circumstances and why you need more aid.
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  • Don't make demands for grants, but do explain how much help you need.
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  • Provide documentation, including pay stubs, medical bills, tax forms, or whatever helps show how things have changed since your 2008 tax return.
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  • Apply as early as possible.  While many colleges are increasing financial aid offerings, much aid is still first come, first serve.
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  • Write the letter yourself or have your parent write it if you are a dependent student and aren't comfortable doing it yourself.
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  • Tell the truth and don't lie or embellish--if caught, you could be fined or even jailed.
  •  
 For more tips, you can read the entire article here.  If your circumstances have changed and you need more money for college, go beyond just requesting more aid from your school.  Update your Scholarships.com profile and do a scholarship search, paying attention to any new need-based scholarships and grants that may come up.  You could be eligible for more money than what is offered by your school, your state, and the federal government.


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by Emily

With President Obama's proposal to end the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program, there has been much speculation on what role would be left for banks in student loans, as well as which banks would be allowed to play that role.  An announcement made yesterday by the Department of Education indicates that at least four banks will remain involved in federal student loans for the forseeable future.

The Department of Education has selected four companies to service loans made through the federal Direct Loans program.  Sallie Mae, Nelnet, American Education Services/Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, and Great Lakes Education Loan Services will all be awarded contracts of five to ten years to manage the increasing volume of student loans the federal government owns.

The servicers selected will be responsible for the student loans currently in the Direct Loans system, as well as loans the federal government has purchased as part of the federal rescue plan.  If all federal student loans are moved into Direct Loans, these agencies will also service them.  For now, what this means for student borrowers is that you may be dealing with different people if you have questions about your Stafford loans next year.  However, if Congress eliminates FFEL, this news could become more significant.


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by Emily

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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by Emily

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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Prepping for a Summer Abroad: Financial Edition

by Mariah Proctor

When people hear I’m getting ready to leave on my third study abroad, there are no questions asked – just resentful looks that say ‘Well, aren’t you the cultured little rich girl.’ Okay, maybe the looks aren’t that venomous but the idea holds true. If you are considering studying abroad but think you can’t afford it, listen up: You can.

My first study abroad was paid for in the way many people pay for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land: through money left by my grandparents. There was something tender about imagining my grandfather working hard as a schoolteacher and saving every penny – pennies that would one day take me to Jerusalem. But the inheritance-type funds had run dry when I was asked to go to Southeast Asia for a summer, so my second study abroad saw a more creative, financial-finagling me.

The first step in paying for a semester of international intrigue is finding funding from your home institution. Most international study programs have discount or program-specific scholarships. Also, make sure you fill out the FAFSA to get a Pell grant if you’re eligible. Not everyone knows those government pick-me-ups can be applied to international study...but now you do. Go after one!

There are study abroad-specific scholarships all over the Internet (Scholarships.com is rich with financial opportunities that can be applied). The Phi Kappa Phi Study Abroad Scholarship and the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship are two of the most well-known sources of study abroad funding, plus oodles of country-specific and area of study specific-grants.

If you are persistent about diversifying your sources of funding, studying abroad can be less expensive than staying on campus. The most important thing is not to let the cost of a plane ticket or the dollar-to-euro exchange rate scare you away from what will be a fulfilling experiences in your young life. There’s no rule that says only rich kids can travel; if you dream of pyramids or tropical breezes, stop dreaming and start doing. Bonus: Studying abroad provides rich material for grad school application essays.

Mariah Proctor is a senior at Brigham Young University studying theatre arts and German studies. She is a habitual globe-trotter and enjoys acoustic guitar, sunshine and elephant whispering. Once the undergraduate era of her life comes to an end, she plans to perhaps seek a graduate degree in film and television production or go straight to pounding the pavement as an actor and getting used to the sound of slammed doors. Writing has and always will be the constant in her whirlwind life story.


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Federal Incentives for Aid

September 9, 2013

Federal Incentives for Aid

by Mike Sheffey

Recently, the federal government came out with a proposed plan to encourage academic excellence in college and linking it to federal aid.

Linking financial aid to academic performance? Wasn’t this already a thing? I mean, really? I completely understand where they’re coming from – I can’t slip below a 3.0 or I risk losing scholarships – and would have thought the federal government would be on a similar page. OK, so maybe that’s a bit harsh and I’m not saying that the minimum GPA would have to be a 3.0 but having some minimums on grading is something I fully support the federal government doing. I mean, if they view college students as the future, then they are investing in America’s future...and they’re probably going to want to emerge at the other end having viewed that investment as a smart idea. I know I’ve seen my fair share of people getting by without incentive to succeed but if your money and future were on the line, you’d see drastically different outcomes. And in the long run, I think we’d appreciate it: Better grades = better GPA = better skills = better jobs. (Or at least in simple terms, that’s how it would go.)

There is, however, the other side of the argument: In the same way that I believe high schools are pushed to be teaching to a test and not to the things we really need to learn (let alone the fact that ALL PEOPLE learn differently but standardized testing pushes a one-way system), I believe a federal system for weighing academic merit could descend into standardized tests for college professors. To be able to hold all college students to federal standards, the government would have to, right? THAT I cannot agree with.

The proposed plan also proposes a heavier focus on online classes. You can read my previous post about online textbooks but would a federal push for online classes devalue the classroom? All I know is that I’d need more details before they could sell me on some of this. But allocating more money to those doing well in school and less or none to those who don’t take it seriously or do well? I can see that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a 2.5 GPA or anything like that, but if you have a 0.5 and you are receiving federal aid, that’s a problem.

What do you think about the proposed federal plan?

Mike Sheffey is a junior at Wofford College double majoring in computer science and Spanish. He loves all things music and has recently taken up photography. Mike works for an on-campus sports broadcasting company as well as the music news blog PropertyOfZack.com. He hopes to use this blogging position to inform and assist others who are seeking the right college or those currently enrolled in college by providing advice on college life, both in general and specific to Wofford.


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