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CollegeWeekLive

March 25, 2009

by Emily

Are you getting ready to kick off the college search, but unsure where to begin?  Today and tomorrow, prospective college students can participate in CollegeWeekLive, a free college prep event featuring college admissions and financial aid information from schools and experts across the country.  The event takes place online at CollegeWeekLive.com and kicks off today at 10 AM EDT, with the first keynote address scheduled for 11 a.m.

Participants in CollegeWeekLive will be able to visit virtual information booths and speak with admissions officers from colleges of all sizes in every part of the United States, as well as several online and international schools.  Current students from over 75 colleges will also be available to chat live and answer your questions about student life.

Admissions, testing and financial aid experts will also give live, streaming presentations throughout the day both days.  Topics range from athletic scholarships to standardized test preparation.  Speakers include Scholarships.com's Kevin Ladd, who will be sharing information and advice about finding and winning scholarships.  Kevin will be speaking at 5 PM Eastern tomorrow, so take the opportunity to hear what one of our scholarship experts has to say!

If you're a current high school student thinking ahead to college, this is a great event to check out.  Learn about colleges you may want to attend without spending hours in a car, and hear what people in the know have to say about paying for school.  Students who register also have a shot at winning prizes.


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by Emily

In a bad economy, many recent college grads and laid off workers decide to make the move to go back to school.  A number of current undergraduate students are also hoping to delay entry into the working world until the economy improves.  Many of these prospective students will apply to graduate programs, hoping to land financial aid like a fellowship or assistantship on their way to a master's or doctorate degree.  However, many programs that traditionally come with stipends attached are cutting enrollment, as their cash-strapped institutions try to find ways to reduce their operating costs.

A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed explains that while terminal master's degrees and other programs in which students commonly pay full tuition are still admitting large numbers of students, and in some cases even increasing enrollment, programs that typically give out more money than they receive, such as doctoral programs, are reducing admissions due to reduced budgets.  While some master's programs and professional degrees come with fellowships, assistantships, or scholarship awards, the bulk of graduate financial aid goes to PhD students.  These students typically serve as teaching or research assistants, receiving free tuition and a stipend in exchange.  With university-wide cost cutting measures and rapidly shrinking departmental budgets, many institutions simply can't afford to offer as many of these generous aid packages as they have in the past.  And rather than admitting and not funding doctoral students, these schools are choosing to admit fewer students in order to maintain their funding commitments to current and future students.

If you applied this year and didn't get in, at least you can console yourself with the knowledge that it was a particularly bad year for PhD applications.  Whether it's your first time through the process or your second, if you're thinking of applying next year, start your college search early and consider sending out extra applications, especially if you're hoping for university funding.  Competition may be fierce, and if the schools you want to attend decide to admit fewer students, applying to more schools will boost your odds of being admitted and winning scholarships, fellowships, or assistantships.  If you're seeking a degree that may or may not have funding attached, such as a master's degree or professional degree, be sure to look into outside aid, such as scholarships for graduate students.


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by Emily

Earlier this week, we blogged about the recession making getting into a PhD program more difficult for prospective graduate students.  Prospective undergraduates are also facing a changing admissions landscape, but the picture for them is more complicated. Articles about colleges' admission conundrums have abounded this week as acceptance letters and financial aid notices make their way to anxious high school seniors.

Top schools with big endowments and generous financial aid packages, such as virtually the entire Ivy League, are facing increased applications and some of their lowest admission rates ever.  Meanwhile, other private colleges are admitting more students than last year, and also putting more students on their waiting lists.  Many state colleges and community colleges are also seeing increased interest and jumps in enrollment, and schools with limited resources are forced to turn away a larger percentage of applicants.

All of this adds up to a lot of uncertainty for students, and for colleges trying to create next year's freshman class.  Many sources are saying it also means increased flexibility for some students in terms of negotiating admission or financial aid at their top choice schools.

Since schools are hurting financially and admissions offices are as nervous as students this year about their decisions, students who are able to pay full freight (either out-of-pocket or through a generous outside scholarship award) may face an advantage getting off the wait list, since several schools admit to considering ability to pay when deciding whether to admit waitlisted students. Students who have received an acceptance letter from their dream school, but have been offered larger amounts of institutional aid from other colleges may also have more options this year. Students in this boat may want to let their favorite private colleges know about their dilemma to see if they can get a slightly better offer.  Many schools may be willing to drop a couple thousand extra dollars on you if it will secure your tuition payment.


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by Emily

Along with acceptance and rejection letters, colleges are sending out another nerve-wracking piece of mail this month: the financial aid award letter.  For many families who have only recently discovered the "joys" of completing the FAFSA, the financial aid letter can bring about a whole new kind of terror and confusion.  Even for people who are somewhat familiar with aid, deconstructing the naming conventions and occasionally less-than-detailed explanations on various colleges' award letters can be frustrating, as can mounting an effective comparison among differing aid packages.  Below is the first part in a series on understanding your financial aid award letter.

Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter, Part I: COA and EFC

Two of the most important numbers on your award notice will be the cost of attendance (COA) and the expected family contribution (EFC). These are instrumental in determining your award, and they also have some of the most obscure and misleading meanings. Despite their prominence, they're occasionally tucked in strange places on the letter, such as near the bottom or in a box in the middle. Finding them can kind of be a Where's Waldo moment.

Cost of Attendance

The cost of attendance, often abbreviated COA, is occasionally referred to by other names, such as your "budget."  This number is not what you owe the school, nor what a year of education will necessarily cost you there. Instead, it is the average amount paid by a student in your situation: dependent living on campus, independent living off-campus, part-time living rent-free at home, etc. The COA will include tuition, student fees (these could change if you later register for classes with special fees, such as art or aviation), room and board (either what the school is charging you or what the average student in your housing situation pays), books, and miscellaneous living expenses.  Your school's financial aid office will likely have a detailed breakdown of this number available online or in the office if you ask.

The important thing to realize here is that this number is significantly higher than the amount of money you will actually owe the school. If you plan on working your way through college or receiving assistance from your parents for living expenses, you may not need aid to cover your full COA. It can still be a good tool for comparing among colleges, though, especially since they factor in handy things like average living expenses in the area.

Expected Family Contribution

The other big number on your award letter will be the expected family contribution, or E FC. Again, this is not the amount your family actually owes the school or is expected to pay out-of-pocket. Instead, this is the amount that, according to the information you submitted on your FAFSA, a family in your situation should ideally be able to contribute towards a college education. This is used to determine your eligibility for "need-based" aid, which includes state and federal grants, work-study, and even subsidized loans. Certain grants and scholarships can only be awarded to students with an EFC below a specific number (for example, 4671 for Federal Pell Grants), so if you are not eligible for grants but your financial circumstances have changed since 2008, talk to your financial aid office to see if your EFC can be adjusted downward.

Your EFC should be the same at pretty much every school, since they're using the same information to determine it (some schools require both a FAFSA and a CSS profile, so there could potentially be some differences).  However, it's still useful for comparisons among schools, since you can use it to determine whether your full "financial need" has been met by each school. Like nearly everything else in student financial aid, this term does not necessarily mean what one might think it should mean. Your financial need is a number calculated based on the two numbers we just discussed.  Your full financial need is your COA minus your EFC, and your unmet financial need is generally your COA minus your EFC minus any need-based aid and scholarship awards you've received.

So, how do you determine what the need-based awards and scholarships are on your award letter?  Check out Part II for that information.


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by Emily

So you've figured out your cost of attendance, your expected family contribution, and the total amount of aid you're being offered at each college.  However, not all aid is created equal, and a package that appears to meet your full need could actually get you into more debt than a package that leaves a substantial gap.  A useful move both in choosing a college and budgeting out what you need for the year is to separate the grant and scholarship aid you've been offered from all of the other financial aid.  This is going to involve some more math and record-keeping on your part. We'll delve into the best kinds of aid in the second part in our series on understanding your financial aid award letter.

Understanding Your Award Letter, Part II: Grants and Scholarships

College scholarships and grants are money you will not have to pay back.  They come from a variety of places and have different terms attached.  Grants are almost universally need-based, and will typically be awarded based on your expected family contribution and your estimated financial need.  Scholarships are given based on a variety of criteria, and while some may carry a need-based component, not all do.  Below are some of the most common varieties of grants and scholarships you're likely to see on your award letter.

Grants

There are state grants, federal grants, and institutional grants, but they will likely all be listed in the same place.  The most common type of grant is the Federal Pell Grant.  For 2009-2010, Pell Grants come in amounts from $976 to $5350 for full-time students.  Especially needy students may also receive an SEOG, which stands for Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant.  Award amounts vary, but they are usually a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.  First-year students may receive an Academic Competitiveness Grant, or ACG, which carries an award of $750 to $1,300.

There are also federal grants for people in specific fields.  SMART grants and TEACH grants reward students pursuing training in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and education.  SMART grants are only available to juniors and seniors who meet eligibility requirements.

Most states have at least one state grant program, and students who met deadlines and other criteria may see an additional state grant award on their letter.  Many states also offer major-specific grant programs, as well as grant programs for other specific student populations.  You can talk to you financial aid office or visit your state board of higher education's website to find out more about these programs.

Scholarships

Most universities offer at least one need-based scholarship, which is roughly the same thing as a university grant.  Numerous varieties of university scholarships exist, but the most common are need-based, academic, major-specific, and athletic.  If you've received a grant or scholarship award from your college, you will likely receive a letter explaining it in more detail.  Make note of the terms of the award, including whether it's renewable and what conditions have to be met to receive it.  This is especially important for college academic scholarships, as many require a fairly high GPA or heavy course load to renew.

It's also important to keep track of the grants, scholarships, and other institutional aid you receive because sometimes the awards may not appear on your first award letter, or they may show up under a different name.  Many scholarships come from endowed funds, and you may get a letter giving the more general name of the award, but may see it on your letter under the donor's name.  This can cause confusion and disappointment if you think you got a bonus scholarship but actually did not, and if your award is missing, adding it on later may result in your financial aid being recalculated if you're funded beyond your financial need or your cost of attendance.

Finally, if you've received any scholarship money through places other than the university or the state (such as awards you found through our free scholarship search), make sure it's represented on your award letter.  Many scholarship providers send the check to your school, and the school will need to make sure it doesn't alter your aid package before they disburse it. If you need the money to pay tuition or buy books, you want to make sure everything's set up so the check can smoothly make its way from the scholarship provider to your account.

If you're comparing offers from different schools, tally up the grant and scholarship aid you will receive this year, as well as the aid you can anticipate in future years.  Compare what your total award over four years will be for each school for the most accurate picture of who has given you the best deal.

Now that we've gotten through the free money, we can get to everything else.  Check out Part III for information on work-study and loans.


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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

By now you've probably been told at least once to be careful what information you put online.  A survey conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling serves as a reminder of just how many people might be viewing your online presence, and just how high the stakes can be.

According to results published in Inside Higher Education, 26 percent of colleges admit to running students' names through search engines, while 21 percent use social networking sites, such as Facebook.  While this is far from everyone, it's still a significant portion of schools, and if you apply to even four or five, there's a chance that at least one of those schools has a policy of checking up on at least some prospective students.

This doesn't mean you need to agonize over the psychological implications of every single status update, though.  Schools that report viewing students' online profiles do so primarily in the context of reviewing candidates for prestigious scholarship awards or highly competitive degree programs, mostly to make sure nothing potentially embarrassing to the program surfaces when your name is announced.  Setting debates over privacy and potential discrimination aside for a moment, this information should give you an idea of what you should and should not post, and why.

If you're applying for scholarships or your college search is skewing towards the prestigious and highly competitive, you may want to have a chat with your friends about any incriminating photos they've tagged you in.  Similarly, you may want to avoid publishing any highly offensive or objectionable content on anything that appears high in a list of search results for your name.  All of this is good practice for life, since admission officers are hardly the only people who may think to look into your online life before offering you something you want.  Scholarship providers, internship programs, and future employers may all check out this information.

So before starting your scholarship search or writing your college application essays, do a search for your name and see what comes up.  If it's something that may embarrass you or hurt your chances of winning scholarships or gaining admission to your dream school, consider deleting it.  Maintaining a professional image online is going to benefit you in both the short and long term.


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by Emily

We're now a solid week into May, and for most high school seniors, that means a switch back from obsessively worrying about making it into college to concentrating on the more immediate task of trying to make it to graduation while finalizing those all-important summer plans.  Once AP exams are out of the way and college deposits are paid, it can be tempting to shift focus entirely away from schoolwork and towards enjoying your last days as a high school student.

However, an article in USA Today warns that the temptation to just coast through the last days, weeks, or even months of one's senior year of high school can carry dire consequences this year.  Colleges typically request a final transcript once you've officially graduated from high school, and often include language in their admission letter saying that their decision is contingent on receiving this information.  While colleges have always given this final semester at least a cursory glance, in previous years, they have tended to largely be forgiving.  But as with nearly everything else in college admissions, this year may be different.

Many schools are admitting more students and adding more names to their wait lists due to a larger group of applicants and greater uncertainty about where students will end up attending college.  As a result, it's more possible now than ever that some schools will overfill their freshman class, prompting them to need to rescind some admission invitations, while others may find themselves drawing extensively from the wait list, meaning students who may not have been reevaluated at all are having their transcripts scrutinized for possible acceptance into their dream school.

Students are encouraged to let colleges know if any problems have come up that might jeopardize their acceptance for fall.  Your college would rather hear from you than your high school, especially if you are able to explain extenuating circumstances and how the situation has been addressed.  This is generally good policy if you find yourself falling short of requirements after something's been awarded, whether it's acceptance into a program or a college scholarship.  On the same note, letting schools know if something fantastic has happened your final semester of school also couldn't hurt.  For example, if your GPA has jumped and you are now eligible for more financial aid at your college, contact the school and see if there is still funding.  I know people who have found themselves awarded university scholarships as late as July, and every time it was because they contacted the school, explained their situation, and asked about the award.


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by Emily

Standardized tests area huge part of the college application process, and one of the biggest issues college-bound students and their families face is whether and how extensively to make use of ACT and SAT test preparation services. Standardized test prep can range from taking a practice test online to spending hours in intensive one-on-one tutoring sessions, with countless options in between.  Debate has raged for years over how much test preparation courses actually pay off, and a new study published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling represents perhaps the most ambitious effort to quantify these gains.

Through analysis of previous research, the NACAC study concludes that a consensus has emerged that score increases for students who use test prep services tend to be fairly small, often only 5 or 10 points on the critical reading section of the SAT and 10 or 20 points on the math section.  Evidence is still inconclusive as to ACT score gains, according to the study.  However, the study also surveyed college admissions offices to determine the impact of score gains and found that score increases on the upper end of this average range can have a significant affect on a student's chances of being admitted to a top college.  Inside Higher Ed has a more detailed breakdown of the study and its implications.

With many high school juniors already signing up to take, or in some cases already awaiting scores from, the SAT and ACT, the release of this study is timely.  It is not a ringing endorsement of extensive and expensive test preparation programs, but does provide an argument for at least taking some time to familiarize yourself with the standardized test you will be taking before you show up for the test day.  If you're competing for admission at your dream school or vying for an academic scholarship, those few extra points on your test score could make all the difference.


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by Emily

If you're planning on attending college, chances are you're also planning on one day graduating.  Depending on which school you choose, getting out in six years or less could be anything from a long-shot to a near certain bet.  A new study has been published by the American Enterprise Institute comparing graduation rates among colleges based on selectivity ratings as part of an overall push for more accountability and transparency in higher education.  In addition to discussing the gaps in graduation rates among schools, the study also lists some of the best and worst performers in each category by name.  If you're a high school junior or senior just beginning to compare colleges, this could be good information to have.

Overall, the data show that about 53 percent of first-time college students at four-year universities graduate from the school they enrolled in as freshmen with six years. The study does not include non-traditional students or transfer students.  Not surprisingly, students at the most selective schools, such as elite private colleges, were among the most likely to graduate from the school at which they initially enrolled.  Six-year graduation rates at individual schools ranged from the single digits to nearly 100 percent across the whole spectrum of schools, with the most competitive category graduating nearly 88 percent of students on average, and the least competitive schools graduating only 35 percent of students.

Graduation rates also varied greatly within selectivity categories.  Two schools in similar locations with similar ratings could have vastly different graduation rates.  This is where the study becomes particularly useful for students choosing between schools.  If you have a roughly equal chance of getting into two colleges, and one graduates a significantly larger percentage of students then the other, it's not hard to imagine that having this information might influence your decision of which school to apply to or attend.  You can read more over at Inside Higher Ed, which also includes a link to the full study. Along with things like available financial aid and quality of on-campus housing, graduation rates are definitely something to consider incorporating into your criteria for your college search.


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