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by Emily

According to US Department of Education data, over the last year colleges and universities have continued to leave the Federal Family Education Loan Program in droves, switching to the federally run Direct Loans Program.  Between February 2008 and February 2009, the number of schools issuing federal Direct Loans increased from 1,072 to 1,620, an increase of nearly 34 percent.

Direct Loans and FFEL are two competing programs schools choose between for the two most common varieties of federally funded student loans.  Both Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans can be issued and consolidated through either program (Perkins Loans are issued through separate loan programs).  Previously, FFEL was more popular, due in part to generous government subsidies that allowed participating banks to offer breaks on origination fees and loan repayment, as well as comprehensive programs to prevent borrowers from defaulting.

However, subsidy cuts and the collapse of credit markets in 2008 both took their toll on FFEL, as well as private loans, which are often issued by the same banks that participate in FFEL.  Many lenders left the program, and those still participating in FFEL could no longer afford to offer incentives to borrowers, and when the government stepped in to keep the system afloat last year, part of the deal involved taking other incentives and inducements (primarily ones involved in the conflict of interest scandals of 2007) off the table.  This ongoing string of troubles prompted more college financial aid offices to decide to make the switch to Direct Loans for Stafford and PLUS.

Direct lending has also received an endorsement from the executive branch of the federal government.  President Obama has called for an end to the lender subsidies that comprise the FFEL program, and urged Congress to consolidate funding into one federal student loan program: Direct Loans.


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by Emily

The omnibus spending bill passed by the House of Representatives in February was approved by the Senate last night, and is expected to be signed by President Obama this week.  The bill includes more funding for Federal Pell Grants, fixing the maximum award at $5,350 for 2009-2010, a number that's already been widely publicized.

Other student financial aid programs also receive a funding boost for the current fiscal year, including the Federal Perkins Loan cancellation program and several federal scholarship and fellowship programs.  These increases aren't necessarily tied to larger award amounts, however.  Federal Work-Study, which received a boost in the stimulus bill, will see the increase put into effect in the 2009-2010 fiscal year under the omnibus legislation.

Funding was held steady for SEOG, another federal grant program, as well as new Federal Perkins Loans.  ACG and SMART grants actually saw a decrease in funding--now these programs have funding equal to the amounts they award, but no longer have large, unawarded funding surpluses.  The surplus money from these programs has been redirected towards Pell Grants.

The passage of this bill, which should represent pretty much the final word on education spending for the current fiscal year, comes just in time for colleges to begin sending out financial aid award notices to students who have completed the FAFSA.  If you still have your fingers crossed for a magic bullet for college costs, it's still not too late to kick your scholarship search into high gear and begin looking at ways to pay for school beyond federal aid.


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by Emily

While April may be the cruelest month, March can be especially rough for students bound for college or graduate school.  Late March and early April are when admissions decisions and financial aid letters roll out for those not immediately accepted or rejected by their dream schools, and around now, things are getting pretty agonizing.  While a large part of March is consumed by waiting, even those who have already received good news may be consumed by the crushing dread of all the work to be done before September.  After all, if you get into a college or graduate school, you still have to figure out how to pay for it, what classes to take, what forms to complete, what to do with your life between now and then, and for many students, how to graduate on time, as well.  So, while you may still be waiting for a decision, there are things you can do in March to make April through August easier.

First, budget your time.  Figure out the things you'll need to do, and make a plan to get them done.  While you can't yet pick your classes or contact an unassigned roommate to figure out who is bringing the fridge or the TV, you can take care of other things.

If you haven't done so yet, complete the FAFSA.  If you did a FAFSA with your 2007 tax information, do your 2008 taxes and submit a correction.  Check your student aid report to see if you were chosen for verification, a process roughly equivalent to an audit of your FAFSA that is conducted by your college.  Colleges receive a glut of verification forms towards the start of the school year, and a delay in completing it can result in a delay in financial aid.  If you're not sure you've done everything you need to receive aid on time, contact the college to make sure.  It's better to find out now than to find out on the first day of classes when you need to buy books and find that you can't.

Keep searching for scholarships and submitting scholarship applications.  Deadlines are approaching rapidly, and available scholarships for the 2009-2010 academic year will only get more sparse as you approach the start of the fall semester.  This doesn't just go for high schoolers--if you're a soon-to-be graduate student with an acceptance letter in hand, but no assistantship or fellowship, don't count on funding emerging later. This can and does happen, but many schools make these awards with their admission decisions.

If you've received your financial aid award letter at your college of choice and it's come up drastically short, look into options for appealing it, especially if your financial circumstances have changed or if you've gotten a better offer from a different school.  You may also want to start shopping around for student loans. You might not be able to apply until summer (and you might not want to if you're currently applying for scholarships), but knowing what's out there now can help later.

If you take these steps now, then it will be easier to direct your spring and summer towards enjoying (or enduring) school, preparing to graduate, and figuring out your summer plans.  You'll also be less rushed and less likely to forget to do important things, like signing up to register for classes or mailing in a deposit on time.


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by Emily

On the heels of last week's announcement that Sallie Mae would not participate in the upcoming PLUS loan auction, the student lending giant once again comes bearing news that may ruffle some feathers and potentially hurt its customers' ability to pay for school.

In a move to reduce default rates, Sallie Mae has announced changes to their popular private loan program.  As of next week, borrowers will be expected to make interest payments on their loans while they're still in school.  Additionally, the repayment period will be kicked down to under 15 years, as opposed to the current norm of 15 to 25, and the bank will also grant forbearances only in the case of serious financial hardship.  Other student lenders have expressed interest in this plan and may soon follow suit, according to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This is actually good news for student borrowers with the means to repay their student loans quickly and make interest payments while still in school--the total amount they repay will be much smaller under this plan.  Additionally, if Sallie Mae's loans become more appealing to buyers, it may help the bank stay around to make more loans and could potentially increase loan availability.  This move will also cause borrowers to think twice before applying for a private loan from Sallie Mae, which could encourage more responsible borrowing.

However, not everyone is taking out tens of thousands in private loans to drive a sports car to the campus climbing wall at an elite private college.  Many borrowers may already be at a community college or state university and may be using their private loans to buy ramen.  These students could potentially be edged out of college unless they find alternative sources of funding.  If they do stick with private loans, they may need to borrow more to be able to cover their interest payments on their current private loans.  This will in turn drive their interest payments and loan balances even higher, while allowing them fewer opportunities to receive a forbearance if they struggle to make payments.

Students who are currently relying on private loans from Sallie Mae to remain enrolled in college should be aware of these changes and search for other funding options if paying interest while in school is not an option.  Make your first move a scholarship search before reviewing other private loans or alternatives to alternative loans.


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by Emily

Student loans are becoming increasingly difficult for the average college student to obtain.  However, it appears at least one group is able to borrow private loans with relative ease: 80-something hospice patients in Florida.  A student loan scam recently uncovered in St. Petersburg, Florida involved two stolen identities and between $15,000 and $18,000 in loans.

An 80-year-old woman and an 83-year-old man had their identities used to take out private student loans from Sallie Mae.  A news story in The St. Petersburg Times describes the fraud as "poorly executed," involving blatant and inconsistent forgeries, including a fake ID with nothing changed but the picture--not even the 80-year-old's birth date. Private student lenders have previously come under fire when student loan scams were revealed, as private loans are by far the easiest type of student loan to fraudulently receive.

While many student loan scams don't even involve the pursuit of a real college degree, this one appears to have been perpetrated by a nursing student who had previously cared for the two victims of identity theft.  The woman accused of identity theft successfully completed coursework at Keiser Career College and received her Licensed Practical Nurse certification in the fall. Bail is currently set at $40,000--already more money than she would have owed had she taken out the loans herself.


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by Emily

Student loan default rates increased in 2008, according to a preliminary report released by the Department of Education.  The numbers, which still aren't finalized, indicate an increase from 5.2 percent last year to 6.9 percent this year in the two-year default rate on federal student loans. The increase in default rates is likely due to continued economic difficulties facing new graduates.

The report also shows a difference in default rates between the Federal Family Educational Loan Program and the Federal Direct Loans Program, though FFELP advocates are arguing that the differences are largely due to different makeups of the schools participating in each program (For example, students at for-profit schools are more likely to default, and are also more likely to participate in FFELP).  However, even among similar groups, FFELP still had a slightly higher default rate.

Typically, reports on default rates are released around September and don't compare FFELP and Direct Loans, but Congress had requested data earlier to aid with the federal budget decision-making process.  This is only the latest bit of bad news for FFELP, which President Obama urged Congress to eliminate in the 2010 federal budget.  The Congressional Budget Office has said that eliminating FFELP could save more money--$94 billion, double the previous estimate.  Additionally, a report by two interest groups states that the proposed increases in Pell Grants, some of whose funding is tied to cutting FFELP, would increase the average grant award by $121 and would make 260,000 more students eligible for the program.

If you're a college student looking to minimize student loan debt and reduce your risk of default, it's still not too late to start your scholarship search and find free money you won't need to pay back.


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by Emily

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed a "technical corrections" bill that would make several changes to the Higher Education Opportunity Act passed last year.  Most of the changes are minor corrections, such as fixing typos or clarifying language, but the bill also includes two major fixes that would help borrowers if signed into law.

One of the corrections taken up in the bill was a move to postpone the controversial PLUS loan auction program by a year.  Under the auction plan, lenders would bid to service PLUS loans in each state, a move that made much more sense when proposed in 2007 than when enacted in 2009.  Bids for the auction were due this week, but so far it has generated little interest from most lenders and a statement from major lender Sallie Mae saying they had no plans to participate.  Congress hasn't scrapped the plan entirely, but tabling it for a year will hopefully allow it to be revisited under more favorable, or at least different, conditions, and in the meantime will allow parents and graduate students to continue borrowing as normal.

The other much talked about provision would provide relief to people currently repaying their student loans who have defaulted in the past.  The credit crunch has made it difficult for borrowers who are now making payments on time to move out of default and have their credit rehabbed and federal aid eligibility reinstated.  Guarantee agencies have had trouble finding borrowers willing to buy up the rehabbed student loans and allow the default status to be removed from the borrowers' credit.  A provision in the correction bill will allow the federal government to buy up rehabbed loans under the same authorization they're currently using to buy up other loans from student lenders.


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by Emily

Yesterday, the House and Senate both passed outlines for the 2010 federal budget.  Both propose about $3.5 trillion in spending and preserve many of the priorities of President Obama's budget, including more spending on federal student financial aid. A conference committee will hammer out the differences between the two packages and create a compromise budget.

On financial aid, the main point of contention continues to be the proposal to eliminate the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program and switch to federal Direct Loans for Stafford and PLUS loans.  The language of the House budget outline paves the way for the elimination of FFELP by instructing the Committee on Education and Labor to find $1 billion in savings through the budget reconciliation process.  The Senate bill does not include such a provision, and instead includes (largely symbolic) language promoting a student lending system built on competition and choice.

After an outline is agreed upon, then specific spending legislation will start to emerge, and the fate of FFELP, as well as the proposed expansions to Pell Grants and Perkins Loans, can be determined.  So far, it appears that many of these changes, as well as healthcare and environmental reform, are on their way to becoming reality.


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by Emily

Today we move on to the final part of our Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter series.  If you were lucky enough to have your entire tuition paid through free money for college, then you can stop reading now.  But the vast majority of students who apply for aid will be awarded at least one less ideal form of financial aid.  Sorting through the rest of your award letter is the tough part--this is where difficult choices may need to be made, including whether and how much to borrow.

Understanding Your Award Letter, Part III: Work-Study and Student Loans

While you probably would not want to decline any of the free money we discussed last week, you may want to turn down some of the aid covered today.  You are allowed to decline any assistance on your award letter if you feel you will not need it, and you can also elect to take a smaller amount than what is given.  Keep this in mind when budgeting for the year, and don't feel obligated to borrow more than you need.  If you change your mind and need this aid later, you can usually get it back.

Federal Work-Study

If you have remaining financial need after any grants and scholarships you've been awarded, you may see an award of federal work-study on your letter.  This is a federally subsidized program for students working certain jobs on, and occasionally off, campus.  Work-study is not money you will receive up front.  You need to get a job that is funded through the work-study program to receive this money, and it will be given to you as a paycheck, not as money off your bill.  Since many jobs on campus are reserved for work-study students, it can be a great option if you're planning to work while you're in college.

However, if you already have a job that is not funded through work-study or you do not plan to work, you may want to decline this award.  There's no penalty for failing to use your work-study, but if you've been funded to your full need or cost of attendance, canceling your work-study may free up space for more or better student loans than you would have otherwise received.

Student Loans

There are two main categories of student loans: federal loans and private loans.  Federal loans include subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford Loans, as well as Perkins Loans and PLUS Loans.  Private loans come from banks and typically carry higher interest rates, though some states offer their own low-interest student loan programs.  Depending on whether the school you attend participates in the Federal Direct Loans Program, or the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program, your federal Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans may be issued by a bank, but their terms are still set by the federal government.  We have more detailed breakdowns of the different forms of student loans on our site, but here's a quick refresher, in rough order of desirability.

Federal Perkins Loans

Currently, Perkins Loans have limited funding and are often reserved for students with higher financial need.  Schools award these at their discretion, but you apply for them through the FAFSA.  However, if you receive one, you may want to take it, as they currently carry the lowest interest rates and some of the most favorable repayment terms.  Perkins Loans have a fixed 5 percent interest rate and a 10 year repayment period.  They are subsidized loans, which means interest does not accrue while you are in school.  They also have a 9-month grace period before repayment begins.  The current Perkins Loan limits are $5,500 per year for undergraduates and $8,000 per year for graduate students.

Federal Stafford Loans

Federal Stafford Loans come in two varieties, subsidized and unsubsidized.  Subsidized loans won't accrue interest while you're in college, while unsubsidized loans will.  These are awarded automatically if you indicated on your FAFSA that you are interested in student loans.  The interest rates on Stafford Loans are set by Congress, and are currently fixed at 6.0% for subsidized loans and 6.8% for unsubsidized loans for the life of the loan.  Stafford Loans come with a six-month grace period and a variety of repayment plans, most in the range of 10 to 15 years.  The amount you can borrow each year is based on your grade level, and ranges from $5,500 for dependent freshmen to $20,500 for graduate students.

PLUS Loans

You may or may not see a PLUS Loan listed on your award letter.  This is a federal loan program that allows parents to borrow for their students, up to the student's full cost of attendance.  Some schools include these to fill the gap between your financial aid and your cost of attendance, as a way of letting you know the option exists.  While you are guaranteed to receive a Stafford Loan regardless of your credit, so long as you complete a few basic requirements, PLUS Loans, like private loans, require an application and a credit check (if your parents are denied a PLUS Loan, you can apply for additional Stafford Loans through the financial aid office).

Whether or not you see a PLUS Loan on your award letter, if you still need to borrow money to pay for school, this loan can be an option for many.  PLUS Loans currently carry a fixed interest rate of 7.9 percent for Direct Loans and 8.5 percent for FFEL.  Loans can be repaid immediately or starting six months after graduation, but interest will accrue while you're in school.  Research the relative merits of PLUS Loans and various private loans and discuss with your family which option will be best for you.


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by Emily

As college costs continue to rise, the percentage of students receiving financial aid also continues to grow.  As of the 2007-2008 academic year, a full two-thirds of undergraduate students received some form of student financial aid, with 47 percent receiving federal aid. This is according to the "First Look" report on the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study published by the National Center for Education Statistics yesterday.

The First Look report shows that the percentage of students receiving aid has continued to increase, from 63 percent in 2003-2004, and 55 percent in 1999-2000.  It also provides a breakdown of the percentage of students receiving different forms of financial aid, such as grants and scholarships, federal student loans, federal work-study, and federal PLUS loans.  According to the report, 52 percent of students received college scholarships and grants, while 38 percent of students borrowed federal student loans.  Relatively few students took advantage of work-study and PLUS loans.

NCES collects and publishes data on financial aid every three years and the First Look report is typically followed by a more in-depth analysis.  The National Postsecondary Student Aid Study draws from a sizable sample of students:  114,000 undergraduates and 14,000 graduates at 1,600 colleges and universities. Additional information is available on the NCES website.


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