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Obama Signs HEA Technical Corrections Legislation

July 7, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Congress has passed and President Obama has signed a bill that provides "technical corrections" to the Higher Education Act, which Congress renewed last year. In addition to offering clarification on several points and correcting minor errors, the Technical Corrections bill also makes some useful changes to federal student financial aid.

Minor clarifications include:

  • Updating the list of veteran's benefits not counted as financial aid to include benefits from the new GI Bill that goes into effect this year
  • Stating that lenders can provide both entrance and exit loan counseling to students
  • Setting 2010-2011 as the year in which the EZ FAFSA will need to be implemented
More substantial changes include:
  • Authorizing the Department of Education to buy up rehabilitated student loans (loans that have gone into default and since had consistent payments made on them) under the provisions outlined in ECASLA--previously students who had defaulted on loans and since resumed payments would find their loans stuck in default status due to the credit crunch.
  • Creating a new grant program for dependents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan or Iraq since September 11, 2001
  • Making Pell-eligible dependents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan or Iraq after September 11, 2001 eligible for an automatic 0 expected family contribution on the FAFSA
  • Changing the information schools must provide to lenders when students apply for private loans

The Chronicle of Higher Education has more information on the HEA Technical Corrections legislation here.

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Private Colleges and Private Loans Increasingly Go Hand-in-Hand

July 9, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

We've previously blogged about the increase in student borrowing shown by the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics. As more think tanks and other groups begin to analyze this information, additional reports are emerging to provide more details on who is borrowing the most. The latest report comes from Education Sector and bears the title, "Drowning in Debt: The Emerging Student Loan Crisis." While the report has been criticized by some as alarmist in tone, it does provide insight into students' growing reliance on student loans.

In broad terms, the study showed that over half of undergraduate students (53 percent) borrowed money to attend college in 2007-2008, up from just under 50 percent in 2003-2004. Students also took out larger loans in 2007-2008. Adding to the report published earlier by The Project on Student Debt, this report also looked at the percentage of students borrowing private loans, showing a sharp rise in recent years.

The report also breaks down borrowing by type of institution and type of loan, as well as along other lines. Education Sector found that student loan borrowing is most prevalent among students at private, for-profit colleges, with nearly 92 percent taking out student loans in 2007-2008. For-profit colleges also had one of the highest average loan amounts in 2007-2008, with students borrowing $9,611. Private not-for-profit colleges actually had higher average loan amounts at $9,766, but the percentage of students borrowing was significantly lower, though still higher than at public two-year and four-year colleges.

Students at for-profit and not-for-profit private colleges also relied the most heavily on private loans, with 43 percent of students at for-profit and 27 percent of students at non-profit private schools turning to alternate loans. These schools tend to have the highest tuition, so the greater loan amounts and rates of borrowing are not entirely surprising. Rising tuition and a lack of sufficient need-based financial aid (including a shift in focus from need-based to merit-based scholarships at four-year schools) are cited as two of the main causes for high rates of student borrowing.

A more detailed breakdown, complete with charts, is available on the Education Sector website.

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Doubt Lingers Over New GI Benefits As August 1 Start Date Approaches

July 14, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

On August 1, the new GI Bill will kick in, bringing with it increased education benefits for people who have served in the military since 2001. At least in theory.

The new GI Bill covers an undergraduate student's full tuition and fees at any four-year state college anywhere in the country, which is a more generous benefit than the veteran aid students received under the old GI Bill. Eligible students will also receive an additional monthly housing stipend and, thanks to the recently approved HEA Technical Corrections legislation, these benefits won't be counted as income for purposes of determining federal student financial aid eligibility.

The GI Bill also includes a new program that gives veterans benefits at private colleges and allows schools to match federal VA benefits for their students. More than 1,100 private colleges signed up to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which should allow veterans to attend a larger number of institutes of higher education at little cost.

However, the formula for determining benefits under the Yellow Ribbon Program has been mired in controversy since its announcement, and as the deadline for the GI Bill to go into effect nears, many people are looking at the wide disparity in Yellow Ribbon benefits nationwide and scratching their heads.

Veterans attending private colleges can receive up to the full amount of tuition and fees at the most expensive public college in the state from the government, with their institution agreeing to assist with additional tuition costs at Yellow Ribbon schools. But the amount the federal government will cover varies widely from state to state, with government benefits ranging from just over $2,000 to just under $40,000, depending on how the department of Veterans Affairs calculated the maximum in-state tuition in each state.

These differences have caused some private schools to limit their Yellow Ribbon participation, meaning many veterans may still be on the hook for most of their college costs if they choose to attend private colleges. The wide variation in benefits also can cause confusion and uncertainty for veterans considering attending private universities but unsure of the financial aid they'll be eligible to receive.

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House Introduces Student Aid Bill

July 16, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Yesterday, the House of Representatives formally introduced legislation to reshape federal student loans, federal Pell Grants, and other aspects of student financial aid. The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009 builds on presidential budget recommendations and features several substantial changes to student aid.

A preliminary breakdown of the bill provided by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators lays out the following proposed changes:

  • Dividing the Federal Pell Grant into mandatory and appropriated funding, then fixing the mandatory portion to the consumer price index plus 1 percent. Currently, the mandatory portion of the grant is $490 and the appropriated portion is $4860, so if these proportions remain the same, increases in the Pell Grant would still largely be at the whim of Congress each year.
  • Eliminating several questions on the FAFSA related to assets, but preventing anyone with assets of over $150,000 from qualifying for federal student aid.
  • Ending the Federal Family Education Loan Program and moving all federal Stafford Loans to Direct Loans.
  • Ending subsidized Stafford Loans for graduate and professional students in 2015.
  • Reverting to a variable interest rate that would be capped at 6.8 percent for subsidized Stafford Loans.
  • Expanding the Federal Perkins Loan program, with part of the new funding going specifically to schools that keep tuition low and graduate a high proportion of Pell-eligible students.
  • Changing the rules for drug offenses to make students ineligible for aid only if they've been arrested for selling a controlled substance.

The Democratic majority in the House has indicated a strong intention to pass this bill quickly, with the Committee on Education and Labor planning to vote on it as early as next week.

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Swarthmore College Gives Best Financial Aid, Say Princeton Review Rankings

July 28, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Princeton Review released its annual college rankings yesterday, based on a survey of 122,000 students at colleges nationwide. The purpose of the list is to help students choose colleges based on what current undergraduate students at each school say, and rankings include such categories as best and worst dorm food, most politically engaged students, and most GLBT-friendly schools.

The most publicized of these rankings is the list of top party schools, with Pennsylvania State University unseating the University of Florida as number one this year. The party schools ranking is often seen as closely related to a combination of other rankings, which involve the availability of alcohol, the amount of time students spend studying and the presence of Greek life on campus. Many students at schools that top the party school list take pride in this designation, while university officials often see it as a cause for concern.

Other rankings may be more useful to many students and parents, especially the list of schools whose students are most satisfied with their financial aid packages. Swarthmore College, Stanford University, and Harvard University comprise the top three spots in the "Great Financial Aid" ranking, with a total of 13 colleges receiving an additional distinction from Princeton Review for receiving the highest possible rating for financial aid in their survey.

However, the self-reported nature of the information and relatively small number of students answering the surveys may not paint a wholly accurate picture of campus life, so incorporating other resources into your college search is important. This and other tools can help you find colleges to investigate further, but don't rule out a school entirely just because it is or is not on one of these lists.

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Illinois Cuts College Grants for 130,000 Students

July 31, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

While it may be grabbing most of the headlines, the federal "Cash for Clunkers" program is not the only government grant program to run out of money well ahead of schedule this year.  The state funding allocated to Illinois Monetary Awards Program (MAP) grants, college financial aid awards for needy students, was slashed during state budget cuts this year. As a result, awards have been cut in half for all students and have been denied outright to over 130,000 students who applied after May 15, a significantly earlier cutoff date than previous years.

Typically, community colleges, who typically apply for financial aid later in the year and often have access to fewer financial resources, are likely to be the hardest hit.

Illinois isn't the only state forced to make cuts to its college grant programs. California and Ohio are among others that have recently gained attention for cutting aid to college students. If you live in a state that's been forced to reduce student financial aid, you still have options to pay for college. Before looking into student loans or considering a semester off, conduct a free college scholarship search. Scholarships, including state and local scholarships, are still out there despite the recession.

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Three Steps to Avoid Long Lines at the Financial Aid Office this Fall

August 6, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

We're nearly a week into August, and for many students, that means that back-to-school preparations have begun. Whether you're picking out notebooks and extra-long twin sheets, or trying to squeeze one last trip or a few more hours of work into your calendar, now is a good time to start looking ahead to the fall term if you're in college. This includes thinking about financial aid. One of the least pleasant aspects of the start of the semester is finding yourself in the line for the college financial aid office as it grows to epic proportions the first week of class.

Luckily, at most colleges the fall rush has not yet started, so if you have some extra time now, you can take steps to make sure you won't find yourself standing in a packed office and trying not to panic on the first day of class. From a financial aid office veteran, here are three things to check into now to avoid waiting in line later.

First, if you are applying for federal student financial aid, by now you should have filled out a 2009-2010 FAFSA and received a financial aid award notice from your college's financial aid office. If you're still waiting to complete a FAFSA or hear back from your school, now would be a good time to take care of these things. You may want to call your college's financial aid office, or check your account online if you have the option, to make sure that everything is in order for timely disbursement of your fall financial aid. Ask if you have any other paperwork you need to complete (such as verification or a master promissory note), especially if it is your first time receiving financial aid. Double check disbursement dates, as well, so you know when you are due to receive the money.

Second, if you've won any scholarship awards (and we hope you have!), now would be a good time to make sure you know when you will be receiving the funds, whether the checks will go to the school or to you, and whether you will need to sign anything or wait for the school to do any additional paperwork before you receive the money (the financial aid office may need to recalculate your aid based on the scholarships you've received). Many scholarship providers notify you of disbursement arrangements or include this information in their official rules, so review correspondence with them, as well as information they've published. If you have questions, you can check with your college and the scholarship provider.

Finally, make sure you will have sufficient funds to cover your bill and make arrangements if necessary to take care of whatever costs grants, scholarships, or federal student loans do not cover. Your parents may want to take out a PLUS loan, or you may want to take out a private loan to cover whatever gap is left. You will want to do paperwork for these as soon as possible, as processing times may take up to a few weeks, especially once things get busy. Many colleges also offer payment plans if you'd like to pay the rest of your bill without borrowing, but you cannot afford to do so all at once.

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States Cut Grants as Students Borrow More Money for College

August 12, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Rising unemployment rates and other symptoms of the ongoing recession continue to drive more people to attend college and look for ways to pay their bills, causing an uptick in state and federal financial aid applications. However, states are also hurting for money to meet financial aid requests and other budget demands. According to the Associated Press, 12 states have made significant cuts to state grant programs so far this year, with additional cuts likely. At least anecdotally, these cuts are already leading to more reliance on student loans, especially among groups that, according to a brief published this week by the College Board, may already be finding themselves overburdened with debt.

This week, the College Board released some new numbers on student debt loads and borrowing habits, culled from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, data released every four years by the Department of Education. Students at for-profit colleges are the most likely to borrow (96 to 98 percent graduate with some amount of loan debt), have the largest average debt loads at graduation, and are also some of the poorest college students (students at for-profit schools received 19 percent of the Federal Pell Grants disbursed in 2007-2008 despite making up only 7 percent of the college-going population). With additional sources of need-based aid drying up, these students may find themselves even more burdened with debt.

Students at other types of schools have also had to do more borrowing in recent years, according to the study. A full 59 percent of college students graduate with some amount of student loan debt, including 66 percent of bachelor's degree recipients. While most students took on manageable amounts of debt, 10 percent of students at four-year public schools, 22 percent of students at four-year private colleges, and 25 percent at four-year for-profit colleges borrowed more than $40,000 to attend college.

The average loan debt of undergraduate students in 2007-2008 was $15,123 (this is all students, not graduates), up 11 percent from the last time the survey was conducted. While increases in loan burdens were most modest at four-year state and non-profit colleges, reductions in state grant programs that are often earmarked for students at state colleges or nonprofit private colleges could send these numbers climbing.

You may want to consider statistics on student debt as a factor in your college search, but keep in mind that there are alternatives to borrowing. Scholarship opportunities exist for students at every type of college pursuing many different types of degree programs.

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Coping with College Aid Cuts

August 19, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

As the start of the fall semester approaches, students across the country are finding themselves in a precarious position when it comes to financial aid. As we've previously mentioned, several states have been forced to make deep budget cuts this year, canceling or reducing funding for scholarships and grants, in some cases after award notices have already been sent to students. This has left students scrambling for last-minute student loans, and in some cases facing the difficult decision of whether to take a semester off while trying to procure alternate funding.

The Wall Street Journal and U.S. News both feature articles this week that offer up alternatives for students who have come up short on funding for the fall. While scholarship opportunities are still available for the coming academic year and should be pursued, students who need immediate sources of funding may want to check out private loans, peer-to-peer lending, and emergency loans and other aid offered by some universities and state agencies. Reducing to part-time enrollment or transferring to a cheaper school are also last-resort options that may be better choices than taking an entire semester off or putting tuition on a credit card.

An appeal to your college's financial aid office can also produce more financial aid, especially if your financial situation has changed since you completed the FAFSA, or if your parents were turned down for a federal PLUS loan. Additional loans, and even some grant aid, may be available if you ask.

In addition to trying to find new sources of funding, some college students are also petitioning their state legislators to get grant and scholarship funding restored.  Lawmakers in Utah have listened, promising to reinstate full funding to the state's New Century Scholarship program, whose awards they had previously planned to cut nearly in half. Students in Michigan also may yet get a reprieve from budget cuts, as the governor of Michigan and numerous state legislators are vowing to do what they can to keep the state's popular Promise Scholarship program intact.

Even if states manage to find funding for grants and scholarships this year, the next fiscal year could also prove challenging. Students in cash-strapped states who are planning to rely on state scholarships to pay for college may want to start looking into alternate funding now.  One of the best ways to do this is to start with a free college scholarship search.

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Scholarships for the Unemployed

August 20, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Over the course of the last year, a number of colleges and universities have begun to offer scholarship opportunities for people who have found themselves out of work and in need of further education or job training. Yesterday, U.S. News profiled several newer community college programs, including several full-tuition scholarships, but even more awards are out there. Here's a run-down of some of the scholarships for displaced workers that we've found.

Community College Scholarships: Scholarships for recently unemployed students offered by community colleges are the most common. Colleges in several states are offering free tuition for one to two semesters, or even more, for displaced workers. Some, such as Oakton Community College in Illinois and the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania stipulate certain degree or certificate programs for their tuition benefits, and others, like several community colleges in New Jersey, will allow students to enroll in any course with empty seats. Others are offering partial tuition discounts, such as Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Minnesota. Michigan has launched a state-wide No Worker Left Behind program, which provides up to two years of free tuition for unemployed and underemployed workers at state community colleges. Students can also apply the credits towards an undergraduate degree at a state college or university. To qualify, students must be pursuing degrees that will lead to employment in high-demand occupations.

Undergraduate Scholarships: This summer, DeVry began offering scholarships to students who have enrolled at one of the seven schools owned by DeVry and who have lost their jobs in the last 12 months. As one example, the Employment Gap Scholarship gives students $1,000 per semester towards their tuition at DeVry. Many other four-year schools have also launched generous aid programs, or even offered full-tuition scholarships, for new and returning students who are facing economic difficulties. A number of these scholarships and grants may be available to displaced workers, especially if you now qualify for a Federal Pell Grant after losing your job. Scholarships for adult students are also worth looking into. While only a few are specifically for the recently unemployed, several are designed to generously aid adults who are enrolling in undergraduate programs.

Graduate Scholarships: In addition to offering free career center services, several universities are also aiding their alumni through tuition discounts on graduate programs and additional certification and training. Manchester College in Indiana will allow students who fail to find a job or a graduate program within six months of graduation a year of free coursework. Similarly, St. John's University in New York allows laid off alumni to attend its graduate programs for half price.

Government Benefits: Recently, the Obama administration began a national push for states to grant full unemployment benefits to recipients who choose to enroll in a college degree program, as incentive for unemployed workers to attend college. Additionally, financial aid adminstrators have been instructed to use greater lattitude in dealing with financial aid appeals from students who have lost their jobs, which could result in more federal grant money for returning students.

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