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Endowment Spending Transparency Advocated in Senate Finance Committee Hearing

September 9, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

In a hearing yesterday, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa suggested that he would back off from his proposal of mandating that colleges and universities spend five percent of their endowments on financial aid, provided schools continue to voluntarily increase grant and scholarship awards to students as many have been doing this year.

This is the latest development in a series of events that began unfolding when Congress began looking into the endowment spending of several of the country's wealthiest universities earlier this year.  Legislation to mandate increased endowment spending has since been proposed and withdrawn, as several schools with large endowments began offering significantly larger financial aid packages to their students.

The panel, which was made up of representatives of several universities and the Senate Finance Committee also discussed the rising cost of college education, what schools and lawmakers can and should do in the face of the issue, and the importance of flexibility in endowment spending.  Lawmakers and educators are both concerned about the increasing burden of student loan debt on American students, but colleges are also concerned about being forced to spend more than they can afford to assist students with their tuition payments.

Primary among their concerns, though, was an increase in transparency of university endowments and spending habits.  Colleges were more willing to agree to making information about their endowments and spending available to the public, as opposed to accepting a mandate for how much they are required to spend on student financial aid each year.  Grassley also introduced a plan to make colleges fill out a Form 990, the tax form all nonprofits file, using a version of the form similar to the one designed for hospitals.

While the Senate Finance Committee has moved away from requiring colleges to devote a substantial portion of endowment spending to helping students pay for school, Sen. Grassley's words seem to suggest that if schools don't keep up their efforts to make attending college more affordable for their students, Congress may yet decide to intervene.

Hopefully, what this will mean for students is a continued increase in campus-based aid programs, such as scholarship opportunities and grants and fellowships.  At the very least, it looks like it may be getting even easier to compare information about spending habits of various schools in your college search, being able to ultimately arrive at a better determination of which schools are most likely to want to help you afford to attend.

Inside Higher Ed has more complete coverage of the hearing available here.

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New England Students Able to Find Student Loans, Says Survey

September 10, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

Despite the student loan credit crunch that has been repeatedly making headlines this year, students and parents in several New England states had little to no trouble finding money for college this fall, according to a survey conducted by the New England Board of Higher Education.

The survey asked financial aid administrators at 214 colleges and universities to assess the level of difficulty students faced finding financial aid, as well as the effectiveness of the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act passed by Congress earlier this year to ensure continued availability of Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) funds.

The survey found an increase in students borrowing unsubsidized Stafford Loans, as well as no major concerns over the availabilty of those funds through FFELP lenders.  It also showed that more families have borrowed Federal PLUS Loans this year, possibly due to recent changes that allow families to defer payments until after students graduate.  These changes seem to have mostly made up for the decreased availability of private student loans.  However, some financial aid administrators are still concerned over continued availability of student loans, and caution that families may face difficulties making tuition payments in future semesters.

Based on this information, it appears there's little reason to put your college plans on hold, but you might still want to devote an increased amount of time to finding scholarships.  While it looks like students are still able to pay for school, changes in the student loan landscape may still leave some students without a plan B for covering college costs if their initial plans fall through.

Really, though, financial aid advice hasn't changed much.  Now, as always, planning ahead is key.  As always, a good college financing strategy involves doing the following: conduct a scholarship search, take time to complete the FAFSA, learn about and take advantage of all possible federal student financial aid, apply for university scholarships and campus-based aid, and only then consider applying for a private student loan.

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House Votes to Extend ECASLA

September 17, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

The House of Representatives voted Monday to extend the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act (ECASLA) into the 2009-2010 school year.  The act also has broad support from lenders and financial aid administrators.  The ECASLA was signed into law this May in response to concerns that the credit crunch would have a serious impact on the availability of student loans.

While it appears that students have had few problems finding adequate funding for school this fall, many lenders and financial aid administrators remain concerned about the potential for trouble in the next academic year based on the present economic situation. Many financial institutions continue to struggle with fallout from the subprime lending situation, and several major lenders have been forced to temporarily suspend student loan programs due to lack of financial backing.

The act still needs to be approved by the Senate and signed by the President.  If this happens, the continued federal support will likely make it easier for families to figure out where they'll find money for college in the 2009-2010 academic year without worrying about student loan availability. The provisions of ECASLA help the federal government keep major student loan lenders and guaranty agencies in business and in a position to continue to serve students, which is good news, at least in the short term, for families who need to borrow to pay for school.

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Pell Grants Face a Potential $6 Billion Budget Shortfall

September 18, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

According to a Department of Education memo cited by the New York Times, the Federal Pell Grant program could face a budget shortfall of up to $6 billion in 2009 due to increases in grant amounts and numbers of applicants.  The cap on Pell awards has risen from $4050 to $4731 between 2006 and now, and will increase to $6000 for the 2009-2010 academic year (if funding is available) according to the recently reauthorized Higher Education Act.  Meanwhile, the number of FAFSA applications has risen by nearly 17 percent in the last year alone, driven by a worsening economic situation.

While data has not yet been released on whether more students are qualifying for Pell Grants or other need-based federal student financial aid this year, increasing college enrollment and unemployment rates, coupled with an overall economic downturn and increased cost of living for Americans, certainly suggest the possibility exists.  According to the Department of Education memo to Congress, tough choices or an unpopular announcement regarding Pell Grant funding may have to be made shortly after the next President's inauguration.  While it's speculated that Congress will ultimately find the money to fully fund the popular grant program, the federal government is by no means exempt from economic strain.

This announcement comes at the same time as the release of the results of an audit of 14 student loan guaranty agencies, which suggests the government may have lost over $1 billion to FFELP student loan companies taking advantage of a now-closed federal funding loophole.  Lenders had been recycling new student loans through a loan program that guaranteed a 9.5 percent return from the government on student loans made before 1993.  Lenders had been taking advantage of this loophole as late as 2006, claiming in some cases hundreds of millions of federal dollars for which they should have been ineligible.

When these loan recycling programs came to light, the Department of Education settled with lenders, allowing them to keep the money they had gained up to that point in the 9.5 percent program, but requiring them to immediately cease using the program or submit to an audit in order to continue receiving the subsidies on loans actually eligible.  So far, 14 lenders have agreed to these audits.  Based on the results, if the loan agencies audited are representative of all lenders that participated in the 9.5 percent program, federal losses could total $1.2 billion.  Several of the lenders involved in this settlement, including Nelnet, a company that also recently settled with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo over other questionable business practices, have also announced that they are unable to completely fund their student loan programs for the 2008-2009 school year.

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Pell Funding, Education Tax Credits Still Up in the Air As Congress Breaks for Election

September 26, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

Congress will be in session only a few more days before breaking for the November election.  While a lot has already been accomplished this session in terms of educational spending, such as the passage and renewal of ECASLA and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, some education funding concerns still need to be addressed.  Primary among these is the education and research spending bill that will fund research and federal student financial aid programs for fiscal year 2009, which remains on the Congressional to do list.

When Congress reconvenes either in November or January, one of the most pressing financial issues they will have to contend with is finding the money to cover a projected $6 billion shortfall in the budget for the Federal Pell Grant program.  Lobbyists still worry that Congress may wind up having to cut the maximum grant award, as they did last year when the bill exceeded Bush's budgetary requests.  However, given the popularity of the program, such cuts are unlikely, especially after all of the attention financial aid has been receiving this election season.

Another issue Congress may contend with is whether to combine higher education tax credit programs, such as the Hope and Lifetime Learning credits into a single, partially refundable credit.  The idea has received widespread support and is expected to come up during the next Congressional session.

You can read more about the educational issues still on Congress's plate in today's Chronicle of Higher Education.

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More Colleges Turn To Direct Loans

September 30, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

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

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

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

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

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Spellings Announces Shorter FAFSA

October 2, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

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

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

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

January 7, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

The U.S. public cannot help but worry about the future of our environment. The reduction in available energy resources affects us all—regardless of age. By applying for this scholarship, students have a chance to be a part of the solution and to find money for college. To apply for The Presidential Forum on Renewable Energy Scholarship, students will have to create a plan for renewable energy in the U.S. The plan should consist of four to six points that describe the approach this country should take to reduce its dependence on nonrenewable energy resources. Winning scholarship candidates will present a feasible, creative solution and take into account the challenges that may be encountered along the way.

For more information about this and other college scholarships and grants, you may conduct a free college scholarship search. If you are eligible to receive this scholarship, you will find the application and contact details in the “My Scholarships” section.

Prize:

Three winners will receive a $10,000 scholarship

Eligibility:

1. Applicant must be between the ages of 18 and 24 as of January 1, 2008 2. Applicant must be enrolled full-time or part-time in an undergraduate college program 3. Applicant must be a U.S. citizen

Deadline:

February 1, 2008

Required Material:

1. An essay between four and six pages in length (no more than 2,500 words) 2. Verification of college enrollment and U.S. citizenship.

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Bill Gates on the Education Campaign Trail

January 8, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

With the Iowa election safely behind us, U.S. citizens will soon come to realize that the rest of the country also gets to vote. Yes, it’s true. Citizens in the other forty-nine states can also voice their opinions on key issues. And if Bill Gates has it his way (and he’s been doing well so far), education will be one of those issues.

By donating $30 million to the bipartisan group Strong American Schools, the billionaire is hoping to make education a central matter in the 2008 election. With Bill’s $30 million and another $30 million to its name, the Strong American Schools “Ed in ‘08” effort is hoping to draw some attention, regardless of victorious party.

"Ed in ’08 " hopes that the future president will work to increase teacher salaries, extend school days (I probably lost some of you there) and decrease dropout rates. In addition to helping primary and secondary school students and educators, "Ed in '08 " will help students complete a college education. A total of $50,000 in college scholarships will be given away by Strong American Schools to help students in need of financial aid.

This is not the first donation Gates has made to educational efforts. His Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given away more than $3.6 billion in education grants. That doesn't take into account the billions it contributed to global development and health improvement efforts. Bill Gates scholarships have provided students across the nation with the money they needed to receive a postsecondary education.

For additional information about scholarships offered by Bill Gates and other providers, you can conduct a free college scholarship at Scholarships.com.

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Top Universities Scramble to Keep up with Harvard's Financial Aid Package

January 10, 2008

by Scholarships.com Staff

When word spread that Harvard would increase financial aid to both the middle and upper classes, tensions boiled at schools across the country. It was bad enough that Harvard attracted the best and the brightest from every nook and cranny—now they would be inexpensive too. Some guys have all the luck.

To be fair, Duke did beat Harvard in the financial aid race by being the first to announce their plan to pour an extra $13 million into the financial aid program, but their promise was simply not as impressive as the one offered by Harvard. When Duke capped their student loans to prevent debt, Harvard eliminated loans altogether—and replaced them with scholarships.

After Duke announced that parental contributions would no longer be expected from families who made less than $60,000, Harvard (which had already established that policy in 2006), announced that families making between $60,000 and $120,000 would only be required to contribute 0-10 percent of their income. Those making between $120,000 and $180,000 would only have to pay 10 percent of it. 

Shortly thereafter, Stanford jumped on the bandwagon by saying that they too would do more to make their school affordable. According to The Stafford Daily, the school made plans to increase their need-based aid by 15.2 percent. The change would save the average parent $2,000 each year.

The trickle down effect also influenced other schools. Among those with New Year’s resolutions involving financial aid boosts are the University of Pennsylvania, Tufts, Haverford and Swarthmore.

Of course, not everyone gets to benefit. It’s easy to be a philanthropist when you have large endowments in the bank, which not all schools can boast. Students at colleges and universities with less money or larger student bodies were not as satisfied with their financial aid offices.  According to The Michigan Daily, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor would not only leave their policies as they are, they would continue—like many other colleges—to raise their prices. So much for that financial aid revolution we've all been waiting for.

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