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Students and Families Unprepared for College, Financial Aid Application Process

February 10, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

Despite recent trends of more students across the country enrolling at institutions of higher learning, many students and their families remain mostly uninformed and unprepared to navigate the college and financial aid application process, according to a report issued yesterday called "Planning for College: A Consumer Approach to the Higher Education Marketplace."

The report, from MassINC, a think tank in Massachusetts, looked at decisions students and families need to make when applying to and paying for college, and the information they need to make those decisions. It found that students and parents currently have great difficulty "getting the most out of their col­lege dollar," as the price of higher education only continues to rise.

Perhaps even more alarming is that families have started borrowing more to pay for college, without considering risk and the rate of their return. Related to increases in student borrowing amounts, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday looks at the idea that doctoral students finish faster if they take out large loans. The most obvious answer why is that taking out more student loans allows the students to take more classes, and quit part-time jobs that may have been reducing their college costs. It's a choice students must make every day - should you sacrifice some comfort to reduce your student loan debt, even if it means taking longer to complete your degree? It's a personal decision, but students should be aware that they'll be expected to start repaying any debt once they graduate.

The Massachusetts study also found that students and families had little knowledge of tax benefits and college savings plans, and how to compare them. For example, there are 118 different 529 Plans, and the resources out there do little in the way of pointing consumers to the advantages and disadvantages of each. Families and students also admit to knowing little about the actual sticker price of colleges, as that often depends on the funds available to assist incoming students, an unknown when those students first apply.

The report's authors suggest families and students must become more like "savvy consumers" who are able to understand and successfully manipulate the college and financial aid application process to their advantage. The process should also be made less complex, an idea that is already being explored by federal legislation such as the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Finally, families need reliable measures about the educational experience that colleges and universities offer beyond the annual rankings we see in the Princeton Review, for example. According to the report, while the U.S. Department of Education is providing increasingly consistent and accessible indicators, such as graduation rates, this branch of the college-bound decision remains the weakest.

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Student Veterans Finally Receiving GI Bill Benefits

March 5, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

Most of the student veterans who had been affected by numerous backlogs and delayed payments of their Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits have finally received those funds, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs office. The payments came at a critical time, as not only the students but colleges began to worry whether their military populations would be able to afford tuition at the schools this spring semester.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which went into effect August 1, offers expanded education benefits to veterans who have served their country since 2001. GI Bill benefits include money for tuition and fees, a stipend that covers living expenses, and the option of transferring education benefits to their family members. A problem that has plagued the program since its inception, however, has been has been a months-long backlog of claims to be processed by an understaffed Veterans Affairs office. The delay caused a variety of problems for more than 68,000 veterans who applied for the new GI Bill benefits in the fall; more than 26,000 veterans were still waiting for checks at the end of the fall semester.

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday describes how the Veterans Affairs office was able to catch up - hundreds of new employees were hired, and existing employees were reassigned to focus on the backlogs. All veterans who filed for benefits before Jan. 18 of this year have had those claims processed, according to the agency.

Still, problems remain. According to the Chronicle, the emergency funds issued by the agency while they were trying to get a handle on the problem will need to be repaid. About 68,000 veterans received those advanced payments last fall in the form of $3,000 checks while waiting for their benefits to be processed. The Veterans Affairs office has decided that the money can be paid back either through monthly repayments or through deductions from future benefit payouts. Some veterans also owe the agency because they have dropped courses since, or were mistakenly paid twice by the agency.

There will also be other changes to the present GI Bill. Several bills are moving through Congress that would change who receives benefits, including one that would allow veterans to use the benefits for non-degree programs. And to address any future backlogs, the Veterans Affairs office plans to move the processing of benefits to an automated system by the end of this year. Students worried about how they will be affected by new changes are able to visit a website for veterans that breaks down the process.

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Report Argues Flagship Universities Not Doing Enough for Low-Income Students

January 14, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

While state universities are held up as examples of high-quality college educations at affordable prices, not everyone who wants to go to college can afford them. A new report by the advocacy group The Education Trust looked at this concern and found that despite heavily publicized campaigns enacted in the last few years, public flagship universities still are not doing enough to enroll and assist low-income and minority students.

Public flagships tend to be relatively large, research-oriented universities and are typically considered the most academically challenging and highly respected public schools in the country. Contrary to private colleges, a central part of the mission of public universities is to educate the students of the state, including the ones who cannot afford to pay full freight. Concerns have repeatedly been raised that the makeup of public flagship universities has looked less and less like the makeup of their states over time, suggesting a failure to uphold their public mission.

The Education Trust published a report in 2006 that provided support for these concerns, showing that low-income and minority students were underrepresented at state flagships when compared to the states’ overall college-going populations. The new report, entitled Opportunity Adrift, revisits this issue and winds up reprising the initial report’s criticisms, saying that while universities have put more money toward recruiting and funding low-income and minority students, they still have a lot of room for improvement.

Between 2003, the year their first report analyzed, and 2007, the source of the current report’s data, minority students became slightly better represented at the nation’s 50 public flagship universities. However, the improvement was only slight and disparities continue.  Similarly, average financial aid has increased sharply for students in the bottom income quintile, while holding more or less steady for other income levels from 2003-2007. After adjusting for inflation, students with the lowest income received an average of 23% more institutional grant aid in 2007 than they did in 2003. However, about $750 million of flagship universities’ $1.9 billion total institutional aid goes to students with family incomes over $80,400, students who probably have significantly less financial need.

Despite the shift in aid priorities from merit-based awards to need-based awards, public flagship universities actually enroll a higher percentage of high-income students and a lower percentage of low-income students than they did in 2003. Budget woes of the last two years are likely to drive this gulf even wider as schools find themselves needing to enroll more tuition-paying students and states are forced to cut funding to aid programs that may help low-income students enroll in public universities.

Individual institutions have made marked improvements in enrolling and funding low-income and minority students and the report takes care to highlight their achievements. However, the main conclusion of the report's authors is that more needs to be done to ensure that high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to be able to access higher education that can help them improve their lives. Research has shown that low-income students are less likely to attend colleges that challenge them and are more likely to opt not to go to college or to drop out before completing their degrees. A growing body of work, including this latest report, suggests that recruiting and retaining low-income and minority students should be a primary concern for public flagship universities that want to uphold their missions of providing an affordable college education to their states' populations.

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Survey Shows Freshmen More Worried About Money, College Costs

January 21, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

Everyone knows institutions of higher education have been impacted by the economic downturn. Students have been affected too, in the worst case scenarios paying more for their college degrees or facing financial aid shortages. A survey released today further defined just how worried college freshmen are about money, the cost of college, and finding a well-paying job once they graduate.

The annual survey by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California at Los Angeles polled nearly 220,000 first-time, full-time students at 297 four-year institutions. It showed that more students are relying on student loans to fund their educations and looking at schools that offer more financial aid opportunities. But there was also a mental shift. More students are concerned about getting good jobs after graduation, and how they're going to cover college costs in the first place. The survey also showed that fewer freshmen are majoring in business these days, with those numbers at their lowest since the 1970s. The recession could be to blame. Majoring in business may not seem as enticing as it once did as banks face folding or bailouts and the economy has yet to return to prosperous levels.

According to the survey:

  • 41.6 percent reported that cost was a "very important" factor in choosing which college to attend.
  • those reporting that an offer of financial aid was important in their college choice increased to 44.7 percent, up from 43.0 percent in 2008 and 39.4 percent in 2007.
  • 56.5 percent reported they were more likely to place high importance on choosing a college where graduates get good jobs, the highest level since the question was introduced in 1983.
  • 53.3 percent reported taking out loans, the highest percentage in nine years.
  • 4.5 percent reported having an unemployed father, more than at any other time in the history of the survey. Nearly 8 percent of students also reported that their mothers were unemployed, the highest percentage since 1979.

The respondents to the survey also seemed to have a feeling of social responsibility, perhaps due to not only the recession, but changes in the White House, or more simply, the idea that community service and volunteerism could make them better candidates on the job market:

  • 30.8 percent indicated that there was a "very good chance" that they would take part in civic engagement.
  • 56.9 percent who volunteered "frequently" as high school seniors indicated that there was a "very good chance" they would do so in college.

It's not a bad thing to worry about how you're going to pay for college. Often, tough decisions need to be made based on the financial aid available to you. Should you stay in-state, rather than pursue a degree at a private institution on the opposite coast? Should you consider community college to save money on those first two years? Finding money for college may seem daunting, but you do have options, whether that's being flexible in the college search or applying for as many scholarship and grant opportunities as you can.

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Making the Choice: Tips for Comparing Financial Aid Packages

April 15, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

As students begin evaluating their offers of acceptance from colleges, one factor may weigh more heavily than any other on the tough decisions of choosing the right school - financial aid. The financial aid opportunities School A offers to incoming freshmen that School B does not may be what makes or breaks the decision on where a student will enroll, even if School B is the student's "dream school." Comparing financial aid offers is then an integral process in the decision-making process, and unfortunately you don't have a lot of time to send your notice back to each school you've been accepted to. Here are some tips to navigate the process, and help you determine how to find the "best value":

  • Compare the scholarships and grants available at each school. Have you already been offered either, or has the school simply notified you of your eligibility for more free funding?
  • Compare student loan amounts. What may seem like the best offer at first may actually be anchored by a significant amount of student loan debt. Student loans should be your last resort as far as covering college costs.
  • Compare your expected family contributions. Schools may handle this piece of information differently, and may even accept more information about your family's financial situation after you've received your financial aid package. It's fine to question a school's offer, especially if there are big discrepancies between what each school is offering you.
  • Compare the tuition and fees of each school, and what that financial aid package covers. Some schools may offer you what appears to be an impressive amount of aid based on the cost of tuition alone, and you already know college costs include a lot more than that base price - fees, books and supplies, and room and board, for example.
  • Be aware of what you're eligible to receive next year. Some schools may offer a more impressive financial aid package to incoming freshmen, and pad students' offers the following year with more student loans. Do your research. Compare average student loan debts at each school, talk to students already attending each school, and be frank with your financial aid administrator.
Some students may have been lucky enough to have been accepted into a program that has offered them a tuition-free education. A recent article in USA Today took a look at colleges that offer to pay the tuition of all new students, despite all you've already read about tuition and fee increases across the country. Some are military schools that require a commitment from you to serve in the military post-graduation, but others are schools where there exists a need for new graduates, either due to the school's locations or lack of graduates in certain fields of study. Webb Institute, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and the College of the Ozarks, for example, all offer tuition-free educations to students. Do you know of more? Tell us about them!

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Should More Changes Follow Switch to Direct Loans Program?

May 14, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

July 1 marks the official date that colleges, if they haven’t already, must transition to the recently approved Federal Direct Loans Program. Schools will no longer offer students the option of having private banks or credit unions handle their federal loans; federal loans will now be coming directly from the U.S. Department of Education. Advocates of the student loan bill have said this will make the process more seamless and fair, with the government taking responsibility for keeping interest rates manageable. And private loans will still be available via the traditional channels, although those loans are typically offered at higher interest rates.

The student loan debate has been a constant in the world of higher education, as legislators and administrators look for ways to reduce the debt of graduates. This week, The Christian Science Monitor considered student loans in a different way. Is it ethical to send students out into the world with all this debt, especially when they may not be making enough in their chosen careers to pay back those loans in a timely fashion? Are student loans moral?

The Christian Science Monitor piece looks at the history of the student loan industry, questioning whether it was ever right for Congress to increase borrowing amounts to current levels, or to offer students described as “in need” much easier access to federal loans through the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act in the 1990s. According to the Project on Student Debt, student loan totals only continue to rise. The average national debt for graduating seniors with loans rose from about $18,650 in 2004 to $23,200 in 2008. Meanwhile, employment prospects have not increased at comparable levels; by 2009, the unemployment rate among new graduates hovered near 11 percent, the highest on record.

It isn’t just a case of telling college students not to borrow so much. Student loans are often a necessary evil, and while debt can be minimized some through scholarships and grants, most students will end up taking on some amount of debt. The Monitor questions whether there should be more strict limits on borrowers that exist in other scenarios where credit checks and expectations that borrowers will be able to pay back what they borrow are enforced. There is no guarantee of a job after college, after all, so why shouldn’t the fact that a student is unable to pay off more than the minimum on their credit cards be taken into account more when they take out loans? (On that note, the U.S. Senate has approved an amendment that would lower “swipe fees” that banks charge college bookstores when students use their credit cards for purchases.)

Student loans are a hot topic, and will continue to be. What do you think? What else can be done to reduce graduates' debt, especially among those graduates who are not entering high-paying fields?

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Survey Shows Students Lack Accurate Financial Aid Information

May 25, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

A recent survey of high school students found that students are not only ruling out certain schools based on “sticker price” alone, but that many also overestimate how much financial aid they will be receiving to attend the college of their choice.

According to the survey, the high school seniors who participated were starting their college searches with inaccurate information on financial aid basics, the net cost of college, and general comparison shopping. The findings came from “Student Poll,” an initiative from the College Board and the Art & Science Group marketing firm that polled more than 1,600 high school seniors between November 2009 and January 2010.

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the survey suggested something needed to be done to address students’ perceptions on the costs of college. Although the federal government will soon require all schools to provide prospective students with net-tuition calculators that will offer those students a clearer picture on what they would pay in tuition after any scholarships and grants, many of the respondents in this survey said they were not using similar calculators already available. Of those who did use calculators, most came from wealthier families; students from low-income families were less likely to use them.

The survey also found the following:

  • Nearly 60 percent of students reported looking only at the sticker price of an institution before taking financial aid into account; 28 percent had considered the net tuition price of a school after taking into account what they might receive in financial aid.
  • Related to parents’ influence on college choice, 26 percent of students said their parents insisted they attend the most affordable option, 40 percent said their parents insisted they apply to a more affordable school, and 22 percent said their parents ruled out a school that was outside their budget.
  • About 64 percent of white students expect to receive merit aid; about 50 percent of Hispanic and 45 percent of African American students expect to receive merit aid.
  • About 60 percent of students who scored 1250 or higher on the SAT expect to receive merit aid.
  • Students expect grants and scholarships to cover 35 percent of their college education costs, loans to cover 21 percent, family or personal savings to cover 17 percent, and another 24 percent to come from their own or their parents’ earnings during college.

Despite the wealth of information out there, it seems that high school students are still unprepared and not equipped with realistic expectations when it comes to navigating the financial aid process. Are you nervous about where you should start? Check out the college cost calculators we provide, and cultivate relationships with financial aid administrators, as you can never be too prepared when it comes to determining how much your education will cost, and you’ll pay for it once you’ve got that information.

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Tool Syncing FAFSA with IRS Data to Debut in January

December 4, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

For students used to syncing just about every website they visit with Facebook, the amount of manual data entry involved in applying for financial aid can seem completely alien and unnecessary. In fact, many students who would qualify for aid either fail to complete the FAFSA or do so incorrectly, due to the confusing and time-consuming nature of the application process.

Members of the higher education community were concerned about this, as well, so when Congress renewed the Higher Education Act last year, they included a provision to update the FAFSA to make it easier for families to complete. The proposed changes will go into effect in 2010, and some students could be seeing a simpler FAFSA as soon as January.

Under the new system, students completing the FAFSA on the Web will be able to automatically fill in their FAFSA with relevant information from their previous year's tax return. Starting in January, select users who click on "Fill Out Your FAFSA" will be asked if they'd like to access the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to do so. From there, they can enter their Federal Student Aid PIN then be taken to the IRS website where they can retrieve their tax information and click "Transfer Now" to automatically fill in the applicable lines on the FAFSA form. Dependent students will have to repeat this process for their parents' information.

While it still involves multiple steps and websites, the new process is a significant improvement over the current process of hunting for your tax return, begging your parents for their tax returns, sorting through pages of numbers and instructions, and carefully transcribing numbers from one form to another each year. The Department of Education hopes that the more automated and streamlined FAFSA will reduce errors and encourage more students to apply for federal student financial aid.

Only a small group of students who are filing a FAFSA for the current academic year will see the new FAFSA completion options in January. The option will be available for all FAFSA filers for 2010-2011 in July. Although you may be stuck filling out your FAFSA the old way next year, you can at least take some comfort in the knowledge that this will be the last time.

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Working Through School May Mean Leaving Without a Degree

December 10, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

As high school seniors put the finishing touches on their college applications and start gearing up for the financial aid application process, few are likely thinking about the prospect of leaving college before they finish a degree program. Yet many students will be faced with the prospect of taking time off from school or dropping out entirely. A growing body of research is addressing the question of why students leave college, and a new report has proposed some surprising answers. If you're planning to attend college or currently struggling to stay in college, it's definitely worth a read.

The survey was conducted by the research group Public Agenda, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. More than 600 adults between the ages of 22 and 30, some who have finished college and some who haven't, were surveyed about the challenges they faced in attending college. The report addresses four myths about college dropouts: that most students go to school full-time and only leave because they're bored or unwilling to work, that most students receive adequate financial support, that most students go through a "meticulous process" of choosing their college, and that students who don't graduate make their decision after knowing and weighing the pros and cons of attending or leaving school.

The realities that correspond to the first two myths are especially striking. According to the survey, most students who drop out do so because they cannot balance work and college and can't afford to stop working, and many of those students are going it alone financially, without help from relatives or financial aid.

A full 54 percent of respondents listed "I need to go to work and make money" as a major reason they left school, with 31 percent saying they couldn't afford tuition and fees. By contrast, only 21 percent left primarily because they needed a break, and only 10 percent found the classes too difficult. Students who didn't graduate had a harder time managing costs besides tuition and fees (36% agreed strongly) and balancing work and school (35% agreed strongly) than students who managed to graduate (23% and 26%, respectively). Most students who left school planned to return, but feared that work and family obligations would keep them from enrolling anytime soon.

Students who ultimately dropped out were less likely than students who graduated to have any kind of financial support, including student loans. The majority of those who did not graduate said they could not rely on help from parents or relatives (58%), a scholarship or other financial aid (69%), or a student loan (69%) to help pay for school. By contrast, 66% of those who did graduate had family financial support, 57% had scholarships or financial aid, and 49% had some sort of loan.

This survey is part of a growing body of research on the relationship between work and college success. The results suggest that students who are able to pay all their bills while in school, work less than 20 hours a week, and focus their attention on classes are more likely to do well in school and more likely to graduate. This is one of many reasons to think carefully about paying for school and investigate scholarship options early.

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FAFSA Available Starting Tomorrow, Jan. 1

December 31, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

One of the most important steps you'll need to take in the financial aid application process is applying for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The Department of Education starts accepting the FAFSA Jan. 1 of each year, which just so happens to be tomorrow. So start your new year off right by filing that financial aid document, or filing a renewal FAFSA if this isn't your first time. State financial aid deadlines fall as early as February, so it's best to get a head start and know how much funding you can expect come next fall.

Both the FAFSA and renewal FAFSA are available online through Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Department of Education. Completing the FAFSA online will speed up processing and leave less time for you to worry about how much financial aid you'll be receiving. Remember that it doesn't cost anything to fill out your FAFSA - the FAFSA is free - and some agencies will charge you for filling the application out for you. Once you complete the online form, you’ll be able to check its status, make any corrections as needed, and print your Student Aid Report once that is ready. (Your Student Aid Report summarizes what you've filled out on your FAFSA, and provides you with an Expected Family Contribution, or the total you and your family would be expected to come up with to fund your education.) If you aren’t comfortable filling out your FAFSA online, you can submit a paper form, but it does take longer to process than the online form.

In order to complete your FAFSA, you'll need the following:

  • your Social Security number
  • your driver’s license number (if you have one)
  • your bank statements and records of investments (if you have any)
  • your records of untaxed income (if you have any)
  • your most recent tax return and W2s (2008 for the 2009-2010 FAFSA)
  • all of the above from your parents if you are considered a dependent
  • an electronic PIN to sign the form online

We have a number of resources available to those filling out their FAFSAs and preparing to apply for federal aid. Browse through our site so that you know exactly where to begin, what to expect, and how to file the application successfully, because if you do make mistakes you may delay the processing of your FAFSA. Happy New Year!

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