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Obama Transitional Website Seeks Comments on College Affordability

January 7, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Barack Obama became known for his web presence during his Presidential campaign.  He and his transition team have kept up this reputation through YouTube addresses and websites such as Change.gov, the official transitional website.  Now the Obama transition team is asking for public comments--or at least blog comments--on issues related to paying for school.  A post on the Change.gov blog is currently soliciting feedback about college affordability.  While there's no guarantee that the President-elect himself will read your post, if you would like to weigh in on educational policy at least in a small way, you can view and comment on the January 5 Change.gov blog post "Keeping College Affordable." 

The blog post, along with many other recent discussions of college costs, makes a nod to former Rhode Island senator Clairborne Pell, who passed away on January 1.  Pell was instrumental in shaping the current federal student financial aid system by helping create the Federal Pell Grant, which was named after him.  Pell Grants continue to make up an important part of the financial aid packages of many students, covering up to the full cost of tuition at some state and community colleges

However, as tuition costs rise, Pell Grants and other sources of federal aid are not enough to make college affordable for an increasingly large number of students.  During his campaign, Obama proposed a few substantial changes to the way college financial aid is structured, and hopefully his administration will do more to seek out and act upon feedback from those who are struggling with the costs associated with higher education.  However, if you're skeptical, or just looking for more immediate ways to make college affordable, there are resources available.  Start with a free college scholarship search on Scholarships.com.  Many scholarship application deadlines are approaching in the coming months, but there is still abundant scholarship money for those who take the time to apply.

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Paying Tuition on Time Getting Tougher in Recession

January 13, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

While the focus for many students right now is planning for and paying for the next year of college, some students are still struggling with bills from the current or previous semester.  An e-mail survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers reports a perceived increase in unpaid tuition bills in the 2008-2009 academic year.  While being caught short on one semester's tuition can seem stressful enough, it can carry serious consequences for college students.

For students with the funds to easily cover tuition, either through family income, college savings plans, or financial aid awards, the figure on their bursar bill may be unpleasant, but it is soon forgotten.  However, carrying a bursar balance--in some cases, even a small one--can cut off your ability to register for classes, request transcripts, and even graduate, among other consequences.  Students who are unable to pay for a semester by the school's deadline may even find themselves dropped from their classes and kicked off campus.  These consequences can essentially derail your education, and many students who take a semester off from college to save money and pay off bills never go back to finish.

Luckily, as Kim Clark stresses in an article on the subject in U.S. News and World Report, universities are willing to work with students to keep them enrolled and get their bills paid, especially in the current economic climate.  Many schools are establishing or adding to emergency loan and grant funds to help students stay in school.  Federal student financial aid is also still available mid-term.  You can still complete the FAFSA for 2008-2009 anytime before June 30.  Even if you've already applied for the current year, talking to the financial aid office could still come through big time, especially if your circumstances have changed. Federal grants, as well as some campus-based programs may be available to students whose family contributions have significantly dipped.  While Clark's article emphasizes the surprising success networking and asking family for donations can bring, conducting a scholarship search may be a safer bet. Most importantly, be sure to stay in communication with your school. You may have to deal with three different offices on campus, but don't get discouraged.  The process may be more streamlined than you'd expect.  It is possible to stay enrolled regardless of the financial troubles you're facing.

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More Students, Fewer Resources: For Community Colleges Popularity Comes at a Price

January 21, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

If you're planning to enroll in a community college sometime in 2009, be sure to plan ahead.  While in the past, late registration may have resulted in students not getting a class or two they wanted, increased interest in two year schools may produce an even more pronounced effect.  Community colleges across the country are receiving more applications and admitting more students for the 2008-2009 academic year than ever before, with some institutions reporting percentage growths in the double digits.  Many schools are seeing enrollment increases so dramatic that they lack the money and space to adequately accommodate the students turning up on their doorsteps.

Community colleges and four-year state colleges are contending with state budget cuts, declining endowments, and less fruitful fundraising efforts in the face of the worst economic situation in decades.  Meanwhile, the cash-strapped and the frugal are flocking to the least expensive educational options available, which are community colleges.  Community colleges are also seeing an uptick in nontraditional students, as the unemployed return to school for job training and certification to get back to work.  All of this adds up to a situation where more students need seats in classes, college services, and student financial aid than ever before, yet fewer resources are available to accommodate these needs.

While schools are doing their best to find space, add courses and sections, and increase campus-based aid where possible, budgetary difficulties are an unfortunate reality.  The economic stimulus bill currently in the works in Congress may help relieve some of this stress, but students should still be aware of potential snags in their college plans.  If you plan to enroll in a community college this summer or fall, here are some steps to take:

  1. Research costs and payment options now.  Do a scholarship search.  Many scholarships are available to community college students and some are awarded specifically to students at these institutions.
  2. Apply for admission and financial aid as early as possible.  While most community colleges have rolling admission, students who wait until the last minute to get in may find classes full and aid exhausted.
  3. Whether you're a new or returning student, register for classes as soon as you can and be sure to pay your bill on time, or early if possible.  If you get dropped or prevented from registering due to late payment, there's no guarantee a seat will still be there when you get your finances in place.
  4. Complete the FAFSA soon, even if you're not sure if or when you'll start college in 2009. FAFSA applications are up this year, as are most varieties of financial aid applications.  This could mean a lengthier processing time, both at the Department of Education and in your college's financial aid office.  The FAFSA is worth doing--many community college students don't apply for aid, even though they qualify.  Applying is free and having one on file can't hurt, even if you don't go to school right away.
  5. If your employer helps with tuition, find out beforehand whether they pay up front or reimburse you after the fact.  The earlier you know whether you need to come up with money on your own or the more warning they have before they need to pay, the better your chances are of being able to register on time.

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Survey Provides Profile of College Freshmen in 2008

January 22, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

If you're wondering what to expect in college or how you measure up against the students already there, an annual survey of college freshmen may help answer your questions.  The Cooperative Institutional Research Program, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute and UCLA, annually surveys college freshmen, asking a broad spectrum of questions ranging from their reasons for their college choice to their religious and political views.  The results from this year's survey have just been published on the Higher Education Research Institute's website.

The results indicate that--at least for now--the class of 2012 is the most politically engaged group of college students ever surveyed by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program.  The report found that 85.9 percent of freshmen at least occasionally discussed politics, and fewer students than ever describe themselves as middle-of-the-road politically. Individual issues are also important to many students, with universal healthcare, same sex marriage, and protecting the environment among the issues with the broadest support among first year students.

In addition to politics, students are also more concerned about finances than they have been in the past, likely due to the poor state of the economy. Ability to pay is becoming an increasing concern and mores freshmen indicate plans to work their way through college.

Students are also becoming more concerned with financial aid.  More students than ever are describing offers of financial assistance, such as college scholarships and grants, as being essential to their college choice.  This year, 43 percent of freshmen based their decision heavily on this factor, with cost of attendance also rating highly for nearly 40 percent of freshmen.  Fewer students who were accepted to their first choice school chose to attend in 2008 than in recent years, likely due to issues of affordability and funding.

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Both House and Senate Include Higher Ed in Stimulus Bills

January 27, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

It's looking like federal student financial aid will be increased in the forthcoming economic stimulus package, at least based on the legislation presented in each house of Congress in its current form.  While the House stimulus bill contains more aid for education, the Senate bill also proposes higher education tax benefits and increases in Federal Pell Grant funding.

The House bill promises:

  • $15.6 billion to increase the Pell Grant by $500 to $5,350 and fully fund the increase
  • $490 million to Federal Work-Study
  • $12.5 billion over the course of 10 years to offer a $2,500 tax credit that will be 40% refundable for those who would otherwise make too little to qualify
  • $6 billion to higher education infrastructure
  • $1.5 billion to improve energy efficiency for colleges, schools, and local governments
  • $39 billion to school districts and state colleges
  • $25 billion to states for "high priority needs" which can include education
  • a $2,000 increase in loan limits on federal Stafford Loans

The Senate bill appropriates:

  • $13.9 billion to increase the Pell Grant by $281 in 2009-2010 and $400 in 2010-2011 and fully fund the increase
  • $12.9 billion to create a 30% refundable $2,500 tax credit
  • $61 million to Perkins Loans
  • $3.5 billion to improve energy efficiency and infrastructure on college campuses
  • $39 billion to school districts and public colleges
  • $25 billion to states for "high priority" needs which may include education

The House bill also includes money to improve financial aid administration and further assist student loan lenders, while the Senate bill will allow computers to be counted as education expenses towards which 529 plans can be used.  The bills are facing some Republican opposition, especially regarding education spending, as it's been argued that construction projects and increases to student financial aid will not directly and immediately benefit the economy.  As Congress and the White House continue to hash out the details of these bills, amounts are likely to change.  But for now, it appears that colleges and college students may receive a little extra financial aid from the government this year.

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Study Shows Extent of Endowment Losses

January 29, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

College and university endowments plunged an average of 23 percent between July 1 and November 30 in 2008, with many sustaining further losses since then.  While almost everyone who's been reading higher education news or attending college knows that endowments have dropped, the depth and the breadth of the damage has largely been left to the realm of speculation.

Endowment losses had become a hot topic at some schools, including the one my youngest sister attends, even before the release of this study.  Undergraduate students previously unaware that colleges even have investments are worrying about the (admittedly slim) chance of their schools' investment funds disappearing, taking their scholarships, their degree programs, or their favorite instructors with them.  While such drastic cuts have not been made, schools are facing very real struggles to preserve their staff, their services, and their endowments in the face of a still-deepening recession.

The extent of losses varies, as does the extent of reactions to losses.  Several universities have instituted hiring freezes, while others have resorted to layoffs or mandatory unpaid furloughs.  Brandeis University and the University of Pennsylvania have both made unpopular moves to cut budgets. Penn has done so by cutting 18 campus museum staff positions, and Brandeis has announced plans to close the institution's art museum entirely and sell its collection. Some state universities battling shrinking endowments and drastic cuts to state funds have been forced to look at double-digit tuition increases.

Still other schools are making almost opposite responses.  Some institutions are looking into freezing tuition or increasing it by small amounts, such as Princeton University, which has announced a tuition increase of only 2.9 percent for 2009-2010.  Others are hiring new faculty as planned or launching additional searches, hoping to attract stronger talent.  Many schools are also increasing student financial aid to help families hit hard by the recession.  Even schools making budget cuts are reluctant to touch financial aid, recognizing its importance.  However, fears remain that students who need money for college may be unable to find it from their schools.  Whether these fears are justified remains to be seen, though many hope that the proposed economic stimulus package will allow schools to continue to fully fund or even expand essential programs.

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Student Loan Rescue Plan to Move into Next Phase in February

January 30, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

The student loan rescue plan that will allow the Department of Education to buy up student loans issued since 2003 will begin operating in February.  The plan will set up a bank to act as a "conduit" for purchasing older student loan assets and will also allow the Treasury to become the buyer of last resort for assets the conduit bank is unable to refinance.  The Treasury will buy up student loans through this program for the first 90 days, after which the Department of Education will take over.  The Bank of New York Mellon is currently the only authorized conduit, though more could be added later.

This plan will hopefully allow banks that have had to leave the FFEL program to find the capital to reenter it through selling some of their older student loans to the conduit bank.  While students borrowing Stafford Loans through the FFELP had few problems finding loans in 2008, this program should help the student loan marketplace continue to stabilize and should help prevent potential problems down the road.

Another $200 billion program announced by the Treasury in November is also set to begin operations in February.  This one targets consumer credit in general, but also includes private student loans.  Between these two programs and the proposals contained in the economic stimulus package currently working its way through Congress, students entering college in 2009 may have an easier time finding financial aid.

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College Seen as More Essential, Less Affordable

February 4, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

More Americans are regarding a college education as necessary, but fewer are regarding college as accessible for everyone according to survey results released today by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.  While the economy is likely a factor, these trends have been ongoing since at least 2000, even during times of relative economic strength.

In the latest survey, conducted in December 2008, 55 percent of Americans regard a college education as not only advantageous but essential for success in today's work world.  Meanwhile, 67 percent of respondents believed that many qualified people don't have the opportunity to go to college.   63 percent believed that college costs are going up faster than other costs, and 53 percent believe that colleges could reduce tuition while still offering a high-quality education.

While 74 percent believed that cost should not deter students from attending college, concern is growing about the availability of financial aid and the extent of students' reliance on student loans.   67 percent (up from 60 percent in 2007) believed that students were borrowing too much to pay for school, while 22 percent (up from 15 percent in 2007) believed that sufficient financial aid was not available to everyone who needed it.

While public perception does not always accurately reflect reality, these survey results do suggest that more needs to be done to make college affordable or to inform the public about grants, scholarships, and campus-based and federal student financial aid.  College scholarships and grants are still out there, and they're not just for A students or the exceptionally needy.  Complete a FAFSA (a free application for federal student aid) and conduct a free scholarship search to see what's available for you.

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Credit Crisis Leaves Student Loans Stuck in Default

February 10, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

The recession seems to be bringing an almost constant stream of stories about people in all sorts of circumstances who are facing new and varied financial troubles.  These stories could easily be read as a guide for "things not to do in a recession."  The latest addition?  "Default on your student loans."

While neglecting even one payment is a bad idea at any time, borrowers who have found themselves in default on their loans are facing an even more difficult time as a result of the credit freezeThe Chronicle of Higher Education published a story today about this particular aspect of the trouble facing participants in the Federal Family Education Loan Program. Currently, 19 of the nation's 35 guarantee agencies (the companies that service student loans in the FFEL program) lack a buyer for their student loans, including rehabilitated loans.

People who borrowed Stafford loans, defaulted on their payments, then agreed to "rehabilitate" their loans, or make consistent payments until the loan can be repackaged and resold and thus brought out of default, are finding that there's currently no market for their rehabilitated loans, so they're stuck in default status longer than necessary. This hurts their credit score and also keeps them from being eligible for federal student financial aid if they choose to go back to college, as many people affected by the recession are doing.

Currently, the federal government cannot buy up these loans, though legislation may be in the works to fix this.  While students do have other options, such as consolidation through Direct Loans (the federal government loan program), students were typically pushed toward rehabilitation before the credit crunch, as it was most profitable for the lenders, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education article.

If you have a student loan currently in repayment, be sure to work with your lender if you're having trouble making payments.  Look into consolidation loans, and ask about extended payment plans, in-school deferments (if you're planning to go back), loan forgiveness programs for certain career paths, and hardship forebearances.  Student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, so if you default, you're stuck with the consequences--possibly for much longer than you'd think.

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Report Shows Long-Term Effects of State Cuts to Higher Ed

February 11, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

The loss in funding faced by state and community colleges this year may not be a one-time thing.  A report issued this week by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) indicates that state budget cuts to higher education made during recessions tend to become permanent.  With many attempting to eliminate multi-billion dollar budget shortfalls, cuts to education are almost certain to happen across the country, and based on data collected by SHEEO, they are likely to continue into the future.

Per-student state higher education spending peaked in 2001, when it hit the highest level in inflation-adjusted dollars since data was first collected in 1983.  A recession in 2001 prompted drops in education spending that continued until 2006, when spending began to grow again until 2008, though per-student funding did not return to 2001 levels before another recession interfered.

In response to cuts in funding of around 7 percent between 1998 and 2008 and increases in enrollment of around 25 percent over the same period, tuition revenue has risen 20 percent.  The report suggests this trend is likely to continue, with funding potentially falling off permanently and tuition hikes continuing as a result of this year's budget cuts.  Thus, the burden is passed on to already cash-strapped students and families, who are already facing the prospect of needing more student loans due to losses of income and declines in college savings plans.

The SHEEO expressed hope that the stimulus package currently moving through Congress might mitigate this effect.  However, the version passed yesterday by the Senate eliminated billions of dollars that would have gone to offset state budget cuts, so the positive impact on higher education could be less than is hoped.  Additionally, members of Congress have expressed frustration with rising tuition rates, especially given tuition's likelihood to continue to outpace increases in Federal Pell Grants, such as the new funding currently included in the stimulus.

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