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by Emily

It's January, which means it's time to start thinking about completing a new FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for the 2010-2011 school year. This can be a long, complicated process for parents and students, but the Department of Education has begun taking steps to make the form easier to complete.

In a presentation to high school students and school counselors in Washington, DC today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other officials demonstrated the 2010 FAFSA, which went online January 1. While the paper form remains roughly the same length, at 107 questions, changes have been made to the online application to allow applicants to skip several questions that don't apply to them. A few other changes have also been made to make the website easier to navigate and the form easier to complete. These steps will hopefully speed up students' application processes and reduce confusion.

Progress is also being made on syncing the FAFSA and tax information from the IRS. In late 2009, the Department of Education announced that beginning in 2010, some students would be able to access a new tool that would allow them to import their 2008 tax information into a 2009-2010 FAFSA. The tool is expected to go live later this month, with work continuing on making the feature available to everyone.

According to Nextgov, one of the main barriers still remaining is a conflict between state FAFSA deadlines and the dates 2009 tax information will be available on the IRS website. Currently, previous year tax information goes online in the middle of the year, after many state deadlines have passed for FAFSA filing. The Department of Education and the IRS are working to find a solution to this problem to make the data transfer tool more widely useful. Other tweaks are likely to be made once the pilot program gets underway.

Legislation currently in Congress may further simplify the FAFSA by eliminating additional questions that many deem unnecessary. While the financial aid application process is likely to remain long and complicated for the foreseeable future, concrete steps are being taken to make it shorter and simpler, and it appears the movement is gaining momentum.


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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

Can college students correctly answer basic questions about federal student financial aid? Researchers from CALPIRG, the California Public Interest Research Group, sought to find out, asking California community college students three questions about financial aid. The results of the survey were published this week. The majority of students did not do so well, with over half of students answering one or zero questions correctly.

How would you do? Students were asked to say whether the following three statements were true or false (the questions below are paraphrased from the report):

  1. I have to go to school full time to be eligible for financial aid.
  2. Taking more classes per term could increase my financial aid award.
  3. Financial aid can be used to cover expenses beyond tuition and fees, such as living expenses.

The answers:

  1. False. You do not have to go to school full time to be eligible for financial aid. Students enrolled at least half-time are able to apply for and receive federal student financial aid, including Pell Grants and Stafford Loans. Only 47 percent of students surveyed answered this correctly.
  2. True. If your tuition goes up, your aid award can go up, especially when it comes to federal work-study and low-interest student loans. Additionally, students who move from half-time to three-quarter-time or full-time enrollment can see an increase in Pell Grant awards and also potentially become eligible for more college scholarships and grants. Half of students answered this correctly.
  3. True. Financial aid can be used to cover college expenses including food, rent, car maintenance, books, computers, and other essentials. These items are included in the living expenses portion of the cost of attendance figure used by the financial aid office to calculate your aid eligibility. Students surveyed did the best on this question, with 54 percent answering correctly.

Knowing About Aid Can Boost College Success: At this point, it's becoming fairly well-documented that not enough community college students apply for federal student financial aid, despite the fact that many are eligible. While some students don't apply because their schools do not participate in federal aid programs, others don't apply because they don't know they're eligible for aid. The results of the CALPIRG survey suggest that this is a fairly substantial group of students. Namely, 13 percent of students surveyed didn't get a single question right, 44 percent of students answered only one question correctly, and only 2 percent of students who did not apply for aid got all 3 questions, compared to 10 percent of students overall.

Additionally, the survey shows that many students are loan-averse, with almost half of students saying they would drop a class or an entire semester than take out a student loan to cover books or other expenses, and students showing nearly as much willingness to put their books on a credit card than to take out a federal loan for books.  A full 57 percent of surveyed students saying they would only borrow as a last resort or would not borrow for college at all. With additional research suggesting that many community college students are not balancing work and college effectively and that their reluctance or inability to borrow is hurting their chances of graduating, more financial aid education is important.

Community college students are not the only college students who may need help learning about financial aid. If you found that you answered one or more question incorrectly, you may want to review information about paying for school. We have a wide variety of student resources available that can help you learn about financial aid programs and requirements and maximize the amount of aid you receive.


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California Makes Cuts, Students Feel the Pain

by Jacquelene Bennett

It was recently announced that many state-funded universities in California were eliminating or reducing summer sessions due to budget cutbacks. This news comes on the eve of California lawmakers finally passing a budget plan in the state senate that would help modify the California’s debt problems. While this plan may help with the state's deficit, it puts thousands of students in trouble.

Summer school has traditionally been a time for students to either gain headway with their degrees or to stay on track with their programs because of unforeseen circumstances during the regular academic year. But now due to the budget plan, some schools like West Los Angeles College are not offering summer courses at all while other schools such as Cal Poly Pomona are increasing summer tuition fees and offering fewer classes. It is also being reported that many state universities as well as several California community colleges will offer less for-credit courses while still maintaining and offering specialized training courses and not-for-credit classes for students during the summer.

So what does this mean for students? Not only will they have to pay more per unit for summer courses than if they were taking them during the traditional academic period but the available summer classes will be not-for-credit and the for-credit classes will be extremely difficult and expensive to register for. So with the already overcrowded state schools raising the tuition fees earlier this year, these new cuts will further delay a student's ability to graduate on time.

Jacquelene Bennett is a rising senior at the University of Redlands where her areas of study are creative writing, government and religious studies. When she is not studying or working, you can usually find her eating frozen yogurt or blogging about her day. She has a cactus named Kat and believes that Stephen Colbert is a genius. Jacquelene works hard, laughs hard and knows that one day you’ll see her name in lights.


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Double Your Potential with a Double Major or Minor

by Jacquelene Bennett

With the soaring prices of college tuition, most college students are trying to get the biggest bang for their buck when paying for school. One way they’re doing this? Having more than one major or minor.

Now don’t be under any delusions: Having a double major or a double minor is a lot of work – and I mean A LOT – but it can be very rewarding. Not only do you get a leg up in the job market and grad school admissions but it makes your time in college more simulating.

I personally am a double major (government and creative writing) and I also minor in religious studies. It is stressful, yes, but it is very worthwhile. Not only am I studying things that I find important and interesting but I feel like I am preparing myself for a future career in journalism because all these fields of study seem to flow together.

That is the key to having more than one major or minor – they should complement each other. Crazy as it sounds, I have found that classes in religious studies and government are quite interconnected and I’m able to understand each subject more depth because I am studying the other. Analyzing what kind of career you want to have after college also helps: I know people majoring in psychology and religious studies, creative writing and business, or philosophy and anthropology because of their specific career goals.

Like I said before, having multiple majors or minors is stressful and balancing your coursework, a job and a social life can be a challenge. If you are curious or confused, talk to your advisor or other students undertaking this type of workload, as they can provide the insight you’ll need to make the right decision for you.

Jacquelene Bennett is a rising senior at the University of Redlands where her areas of study are creative writing, government and religious studies. When she is not studying or working, you can usually find her eating frozen yogurt or blogging about her day. She has a cactus named Kat and believes that Stephen Colbert is a genius. Jacquelene works hard, laughs hard and knows that one day you’ll see her name in lights.


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Financial Woes for Students in Tennessee

by Jessica Seals

Students with hopes of obtaining college degrees in the state of Tennessee now have more issues to worry about other than just getting accustomed to the college lifestyle: Negotiations have been taking place that will place an even bigger burden on the financial status of students.

Currently, students who have been living in Tennessee for at least a year can apply for a lottery scholarship formerly known as the HOPE Scholarship. This scholarship provides $4,000 to students who attend four-year public or private schools and $2,000 for students at two-year schools. A student could receive this award during each fall and spring semester for up to five years; however, legislators are currently working to put a 120-hour cap on the scholarship before the 2011-2012 school year begins. A 120-hour cap means that some students who have chosen to have more than one major will more than likely lose the scholarship before they graduate and have to find alternative ways to pay for school. This cap will reportedly only apply to students who began attending college in 2009 or after but depending on where students go to school, they could also be hit with tuition increases. Schools such as the University of Tennessee in Knoxville are hoping to implement a 12-percent tuition increase for the upcoming academic year.

This increase, along with a cap on lottery scholarships, has caused more students to become stressed out because it will be even tougher to pay for school. These limitations on financial aid could lead to an increase in students who drop out of college, a decrease in the number of students attending college and an increase in the amount of loans that students will have to take out. Will these changes impact your college experience? If so, how do you plan to address them?

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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How Will You Fund Your College Education?

by Jessica Seals

Throughout my undergraduate career, I was lucky enough to be the recipient of scholarships and grants that helped cover my tuition and other fees. Thousands of other college students across the country also rely on this free money to pay for their education and we should all be taking note of the fact that many financial aid options that we have to help pay for college are being eliminated or being heavily restricted. For example, two years ago I was able to take summer classes and receive a Pell Grant because the government allowed students to receive it during the fall, spring and summer semesters. Now, students are only eligible to receive the grant two semesters out of the year which means that a student cannot put the funds toward summer classes if they’ve already applied them to the fall and spring semesters for that academic year.

Many people already decide not to enroll in college because they do not feel like they can afford it. Cutting down on the usage of the Pell Grant can force many students to skip summer classes and send them down a slippery slope, as more students will be forced to stay in school longer and accrue more debt from student loans. Classrooms will become emptier during summer sessions and colleges hard-pressed for funds could raise tuition to compensate. The problem will continue to spiral out of control and lead to more reasons why people opt out of attending college.

We all should become more aware of the decreases that are being made towards higher education spending. The changes affect all of us and if we can all become aware of them, we’ll be able to take (and guide others along) the necessary route to make sure that paying for school is a lot less stressful.

Jessica Seals is recent graduate of the University of Memphis, where she majored in political science and minored in English. She was 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. Jessica will be back at Memphis this fall to begin working toward her master’s degree in political science this fall; she ultimately hopes to attend law school.


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Pell Grants, the Debt Ceiling and You

by Kara Coleman

If you’re one of the more than nine million undergrads who depend on Pell Grants to pay for school, you have probably been pretty anxious over the past few weeks.

This past February, the United States House of Representatives passed a Continuing Resolution which would slice the federal budget drastically. One of the programs to be affected by the cut is the Pell Grant program. The maximum amount of funds available to college students would be lowered from $5,550 to $4,705 and the changes were set to take effect for the 2011-2012 academic year.

Students were able to breathe a sigh of relief when the Pell Grant program, which has long received bipartisan support from the Senate, was able to avoid major cuts after all. The debt-ceiling bill passed earlier this week will limit overall discretionary spending to $1.043 trillion in the 2012 fiscal year. Since that’s about $7 billion below the current level of spending, how will students be able to receive their maximum Pell Grants? Grad students will be the ones taking the hit. At the moment, graduate students with federally subsidized student loans don’t have to be concerned with interest until after graduation but under the new plan, interest on these loans will begin to accrue while they are still working towards their degrees.

National Economic Council director Gene Spurling says of the bill, “This is a compromise budget, but one that we believe makes the necessary room for the most important investments in winning the future in innovation and research and education.”

How do you feel about these changes? For those with dreams of advanced degrees, are you already researching alternate funding options for graduate school?

Kara Coleman lives in Gadsden, Alabama, where she attends Gadsden State Community College. She received the school’s Outstanding English Student Award two years in a row and is a member of Phi Theta Kappa. She plans to transfer to Jacksonville State University in August 2011 to study communications with concentration in print journalism. Kara’s writing has been featured in Teen Ink magazine and she is a children’s book author through Big Dif Books. In her spare time, Kara enjoys reading, painting, participating in community theater and pretty much any other form of art.


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Finding On-Campus Employment

by Katlyn Clark

After classes, homework and studying, college students often discover that they have some free time on their hands. Some take on extracurricular activities (both fun and professional) but realize it would be cool to make some money as well. Instead of rushing off campus to score a job at the local mall – something that can be difficult for students without cars – see what kind of employment options are available on campus first.

So where should you begin your on-campus job search? First, check out your college’s website. You'll find jobs at the bookstore/co-op that sells school supplies, books and branded apparel, the student center that houses restaurants and campus organizations, or the fitness center where students go to work out. Dining halls are an excellent option, as is the library: You can’t beat the commute and you may even be able to do your homework when there’s a lull.

The Federal Work-Study Program provides jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, allowing them to earn extra money to help pay for college expenses. These jobs are often connected to a student’s interests or field of study. Certain on-campus jobs are only available to work-study students; to see if you qualify, contact your financial aid office or review the results of your FAFSA.

Speaking of major-related jobs, contact the department of your major – there may be a position for you that can be beneficial to your work experience in the future. At Campbell, for example, I write for the newspaper and help distribute it when it comes out.

Getting an on-campus job can be beneficial in many ways. Where do YOU work at your school?

Katlyn Clark is a freshman at Campbell University majoring in journalism and minoring in marketing. She hopes to become a broadcast journalist for entertainment or write for a magazine such as People or Seventeen. In her spare time, Katlyn loves to hang out with friends and family and watch sports; she is a Christian who is so thankful for God’s many blessings in her life. Katlyn is from Elizabeth City, North Carolina and loves Tim Tebow, Pinterest, the WWE and cats.


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Pet Ownership 101 for College Students

by Kayla Herrera

Students taking classes and living away from family and friends for the summer often yearn for a companion, a snuggler or just a pair of appreciative eyes. There is a solution – or at least a Band-Aid – to help heal the lonely hole in your heart: a pet!

Before deciding get a pet, check with your landlord. Even if your lease prohibits pets, it doesn't hurt to ask if your landlord will make an exception; my landlord’s biggest concern was cats scratching up the furniture so it’s possible yours may allow smaller animals. I decided to get a rabbit but before doing so, I read up on them and did my research to prepare, just like I would for a college exam.

So far, my rabbit has been extremely entertaining – almost as if I own a small dog: He lies out on the couch with me, watches television with me and follows me around the apartment. I even bought him a harness and leash so I can take him outside and am getting an old pet stroller to take him on walks. Pets can become the center of our worlds and my rabbit has definitely become the center of mine.

If loneliness is nipping at you this summer, think about getting a pet. Just make sure you have the money and time to devote to your pet once school starts up full-time again; if you have even slight concerns about your class schedule, work-study or social life will get in the way of properly caring for your pet, save the trip to the pet store or animal shelter for a later date.

In addition to being a Scholarships.com virtual intern, Michigan Tech student Kayla Herrera is a media coordinator for the Michigan Tech Youth Programs, a writer for The Daily News in Iron Mountain, Mich., and a writer for Examiner.com. She love a tantalizing, action-packed video game and can't get enough of horror movies (Stephen King's books always have her in their grip, though she prefers the old over the new). Writing is what she has always done, and that is what she is here to do.


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