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Just the (FAFSA) Facts, Ma’am

Tips and Tricks for Filing This Oft-Dreaded Application

March 9, 2012

Just the (FAFSA) Facts, Ma’am

by Radha Jhatakia

For those of us who cannot afford large out-of-pocket expenses for college, financial aid is our only option. Many, if not all, universities require their students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – aka the FAFSA – which uses your family’s finances and taxes in order to best determine how much aid you get. It can be confusing but it is definitely worth your time to file the application.

Depending on the state of the school you attend and live in, the FAFSA has different deadlines. States offer different grants and scholarships as long as you qualify and apply by the stated deadline and private schools also have different deadlines for private funding which can be found on their websites. The dates for states can all be found on the print out form on the FAFSA’s website. Remember to use this official government website – other sites charge fees.

The FAFSA requires you to have a federal PIN number. To apply for one, request one from the FAFSA website. (Make sure to do this even if you don’t have your tax returns, as the PIN number sometimes takes some time to receive.) Also, a new procedure that the FAFSA has is the IRS data retrieval tool, which takes the tax information directly from the IRS database and filters it into the FAFSA. This option not only makes life easier for those filing the FAFSA but it helps college financial aid offices, as they won’t require you to turn in additional documents to verify if the information is correct.

Always try to have yours and your parents' tax returns completed as soon as possible to have your FAFSA completed on time; however, since required documents like W-2s and other federal papers often aren’t available when you need them, file the FAFSA and select the option “Will File” rather than “Already Completed” for the question asking if you have already filed the tax returns. Use the tax information from the previous year so that you can have it completed by the deadline and once your tax returns are complete, go back into the FAFSA and use the “Make Corrections” option to update the information.

Happy filing, everyone!

Radha Jhatakia is a communications major at San Jose State University. She's a transfer student who had some ups and downs in school and many obstacles to face; these challenges – plus support from family, friends and cat – have only made Radha stronger and have given her the experience to help others with the same issues. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, reading, cooking, sewing and designing. A social butterfly, Radha hopes to work in public relations and marketing upon graduation.

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The Pros and Cons of Graduating Early

January 20, 2012

The Pros and Cons of Graduating Early

by Radha Jhatakia

Much of the time, college students who are able to get the classes they need and have an education plan are able to graduate early. Graduating early can be a blessing or a curse depending on how you look at it; it worked for my fellow virtual intern Jessica but how do you know if it's right for you? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

1. Do you have job offers lined up after graduation?

2. Did you go to college close to home?

  • If you said yes, then graduating early wouldn’t be a tough transition but if you attended college further away, graduating early may be more difficult. Many if not all of your friends were will still be in school and you’ll also miss out on the senior graduation programs.

3. Did you take out loans to pay for college?

After you answer these questions, you should be able to determine if you should graduate early or not. Just remember there are pros and cons to both and you should choose the path that’s right for you.

Radha Jhatakia is a communications major at San Jose State University. She's a transfer student who had some ups and downs in school and many obstacles to face; these challenges – plus support from family, friends and cat – have only made Radha stronger and have given her the experience to help others with the same issues. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, reading, cooking, sewing and designing. A social butterfly, Radha hopes to work in public relations and marketing upon graduation.

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Study: Pell Grant Restrictions Affect Enrollment at Community Colleges in the South

February 13, 2013

Study: Pell Grant Restrictions Affect Enrollment at Community Colleges in the South

by Scholarships.com Staff

Community colleges across the country have seen a steep decline in enrollments this year for a few reasons. A recovering economy steering students toward jobs and budget cuts that have led to fee increases have played key roles but changes to federal Pell grant eligibility are most notable. According to a new study, community colleges in the Deep South have been hit hardest by the changes that took effect last year.

The study, by Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama director Stephen Katsinas, argues that community college enrollments in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi are highly sensitive to changes in the federal grant program. Enrollment in 47 of the 62 two-year colleges across the three states declined this past fall and more than 5,000 students lost Pell grants – a change that the report's authors say can be directly attributed to the changes in eligibility. Students are now limited to just six years of Pell grants, fewer students automatically qualify for the maximum grant because of a lower income cap for receiving an “automatic zero” expected family contribution and students without a high school diploma or GED are no longer eligible.

While many states have started to see their economies improve, that’s not the case for the three states included in the study. In fact, not only have their economies not recovered but state-supported student aid programs are much smaller, so colleges have fewer resources for low-income students who no longer qualify for Pell grants. Both Pell grants and community colleges are "vital to enhancing college degree completion in the Deep South, for it is the community colleges where economically disadvantaged students begin higher education," the study noted. The enrollment numbers were based on surveys of community college officials. All of the two-year colleges in the three-state region responded. However, the national enrollment data for 2012 hasn't been compiled yet, said David Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

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The FAFSA: New Year Means New Application

January 3, 2013

The FAFSA: New Year Means New Application

by Scholarships.com Staff

Though it’s a day off from school and work, New Year’s Day is also a day to get down to business. While you’re starting in on your New Year’s resolutions, opening up a new calendar, and packing up the holiday decorations, there’s one more thing that college students and college-bound high school students should do each January. The Department of Education starts accepting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (more commonly known as "FAFSA") on January 1 each year. State application deadlines fall soon after—as early as February in some cases. So while you might not start classes until August or September, you want to start applying for financial aid as soon as the FAFSA is available each year.

In order to complete a FAFSA, you will need the following:

  • your social security number
  • a driver’s license if you have one
  • bank statements and records of investments (if you have any)
  • records of untaxed income (again, if you have any)
  • your most recent tax return and W2s (2011 for the 2012-2013 FAFSA)
  • all of the above for your parents if you are considered a dependent
  • a PIN to sign electronically (go to pin.ed.gov to get one)
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The State of Federal Student Financial Aid

March 3, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Attention Future FAFSA Filers: You Don't Need to Pay for Aid

October 1, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Soon enough, financial aid application season will be upon us, and you'll need to know how to navigate the process so that you don't make any mistakes that could delay that application, and your funding for college. The first and important step will be getting ready to fill out your FAFSA, which the U.S. Department of Education starts accepting starting Jan. 1 of each year. If you take away anything from this blog though, remember this: FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It should never cost you anything to fill it out.

The easiest way to fill out your FAFSA will be online, directly through the Department of Education's website at www.FAFSA.ed.gov. In your research you may find sites that charge to prepare your FAFSA for you, like www.FAFSA.com. That site, run by Student Financial Aid Services, Inc., charges a fee of $79.99 to prepare and advise you about your FAFSA, and while studies have shown that professional help through the financial aid process does lead to some positive results and more generous aid packages, with some time and effort you can become a FAFSA expert, too, without the added cost. Your intended college's financial aid office will also be happy to help you - for free - if you come across any roadblocks or feel like you've make a mistake when filing your FAFSA.

The Department of Education's site will walk you through the FAFSA application process, even allowing you to come back to your application if you find that you don't have all the necessary paperwork handy. While some students have reported feeling intimidated by the process, you won't be awarded financial aid from your college if you don't fill it out. And if you're uncomfortable filing the FAFSA online, you can also submit the paper form through the mail. (This could delay your application somewhat, though.)

Remember that you should never feel forced to pay to apply for and receive financial aid. Also avoid scholarship search engines that charge you to come up with a list of awards you may be eligible for, and awards that come with large processing fees attached. Scholarship scams are unfortunately a common occurrence, but if you know what to look for, you should have a positive financial aid experience. Browse through our site for more information on filing your FAFSA, and conduct a free scholarship search to see scholarships you may qualify for to supplement your financial aid package - all without paying a dime.

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Posted Under:

FAFSA , Federal Aid , Tips

Tags: College Tips , FAFSA , Financial Tips , Tips


Community College Students Need More Access to Federal Loans

October 9, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Although community colleges nationwide have seen significant boosts in enrollment, a report released yesterday suggests many will be forced to put their educations on hold or find new sources of funding if their institutions continue blocking access to federal student loans.

The Project on Student Debt released the report, and despite their stance on promoting that students take on as low a student loan burden as possible, they say community college students are at risk for taking on riskier private student loans or watching their grades slip as they take on more work hours to cover gaps in funding because they aren't able to apply for and receive federal student loans. About one in 10 students in 31 states surveyed don't have access to federal student loans, and in some states, more than 20 percent of students can't get the federal loans. Minority students have less access to federal loans than other student groups, as the report found many minority students attending community colleges that don't participate in the federal student loan program.

Why have many community colleges moved away from offering federal student loans? In an uncertain economy, the answer is risk, according to the report. Defaults on student loans have begun to rise among not only community college students, but among all college students over the last few years. The report always says many community college administrators believe students shouldn't have to borrow to attend their schools. Tuition is lower, they say, and if students are saddled with large amounts of debt now, they could hurt their chances for qualifying for low interest rates and federal student loans if they were to transfer to a more expensive, four-year institution.

But some students do need the additional funding even at a low-cost option like a community college, especially in the current economic climate. According to survey results released by the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges last month, about half of the nation's community colleges are expecting budget cuts and midyear reductions in their state appropriations. Many administrators in that survey also reported that stimulus money provided by the Obama administration went toward meeting existing budget deficits, and that they would be forced to raise tuition rates substantially despite record enrollments to make up for a lack of state funding. (The average tuition increase among community colleges is expected to be about 5 percent for the 2009-2010 academic year.)

While you should always exhaust your options with grants and scholarships first, student loans are often a necessary evil, and we have plenty of tips on how to go about applying for them and making sure you're getting the best rate possible. Never rely on credit cards to fund your education, or you'll run the risk of getting into more debt than you can handle not only post-graduation, but while you're still in school. Browse through our site for more information on your student loan options.

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Survey Shows Students Know Too Little About College Aid

October 22, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Setting-Up a Scholarship 101

September 5, 2007

by Scholarships.com Staff

Many students are in desperate need of financial aid, and setting up a scholarship is a wonderful way to help them. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of a college education in 2006-2007 was $10,454 at public colleges and $26,889 at private ones. With Pell Grants capping at $4,310 this year, government money hardly cuts it. Here are a few things providers should think about when creating a scholarship.

One-Time Scholarship or Endowment?

An easy way to create a one-time or annual scholarship is to submit award information to a local scholarship foundation. It should be noted that annual scholarships (endowments) may require the provider to come up with more than $20,000. Ongoing scholarships are similar to bank accounts in that interest accrues on the initial deposit. The earned money then becomes an award. If winners are to receive a significant amount of money, a large initial donation may be required.

IRS watch

As long as scholarships are used for college expenses, they are usually tax-exempt. However, there are some IRS regulations, and they are particularly strict when it comes to corporate scholarship providers.

Who is eligible?

Scholarships are a great source of support to students who face difficult circumstances or enter underrepresented fields. Regardless of targeted recipients, providers should be clear on who they are looking for. There is no point in reading applications from students who won’t be considered. Criteria such as GPA, field of study, year in school etc. should be specific, but lax enough to give students a shot.

Advertising

With the help of Scholarships.com, advertising can be a cinch. Once a provider submits scholarship information, it will be made available to students who visit our site. To prevent providers from being inundated with applications from ineligible students, Scholarships.com will only show the scholarship to students who meet its eligibility criteria.

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Posted Under:

Federal Aid , Scholarships , Tips



Making Sense of Your FAFSA Award Letter

August 21, 2007

by Scholarships.com Staff

That I needed to fill out a FAFSA was a given. All counselors advised students to search for aid, and it seemed wrong to miss out on the opportunity—especially when other students came home with awards. Admittedly, applying was a bit confusing (but worth it). After receiving my FAFSA award letter, however, I was totally mystified. There were columns for college grants, Stafford Loans, Perkins Loans and Federal Work Study. I didn’t know if I had to accept all financial aid, if I could request more or if this was just my receipt. Out of fear for signing away my future home, I was almost ready to not sign anything. Thankfully, things became much easier after the first year (although the FAFSA part was still confusing). Knowing the basics made the award letter much easier to read.

Your award letter only reflects how much aid you are eligible for.

Using the information provided in your FAFSA, the amount your family can potentially contribute to your schooling is weighed against the actual cost of attendance. The award letter will reflect all federal, state and university offers of aid. This includes scholarships, college grants, and student employment. Financial aid gifts such as tuition waivers, assistantships, fellowships, resident hall advisor compensation and scholarships from organizations may not be listed until a school is notified about them. Your award letter is not a receipt. You will not take on a $5,000 loan by not responding, but you may lose some award money if you don’t. You can take advantage of as much or as little of this money as you wish.

What You May Find

If you see any college grants in your letter, that’s a good sign. Government grants are basically free money, and you should take advantage of it. Student loans are also common. Students may see awards for Stafford, PLUS, and Perkins Loans. While government loans are not free awards, they are a good bet for students who need to take out additional funding. The government provides students with interest rates that beat those offered by private loan companies. Federal Work Study is another pseudo award. Many colleges and universities will find work for students who would like to earn money. While such work is unlikely to make a student rich—much of it close to or commensurate with minimum wage—it is easy to find, and it is flexible. You are not required to accept any or all aid offered.Students may choose to decline some or all of their financial aid. Those who only wish to take advantage of free grant money may turn down the loans and federal work study funds. If a student needs $3,000 but is only offered $1,000 in grant money, they may use up their entire grant award as well as some or all of their loan award.Students unsatisfied with awards still have options.

Government Assistance May Not Be Enough

Students who feel they need more may speak to financial aid officials and request additional funds. Sometimes, schools may offer additional aid to coveted students or to those with new financial difficulties. Schools are not required to do this, so going in with a temper is not the best approach. Those who find no luck may still apply for additional scholarships, college grants and loans. Free grant and scholarship money is best, but additional, government-subsidized or private loans are available. Schools usually have a preferred-lender list for those who need to borrow, but it is important for students to conduct personal research on the side.

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