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by Emily

As college affordability continues to be a major issue for many Americans, more states and colleges are implementing policies to save students money.  Three recently unveiled programs tackle different aspects of the college cost dilemma confronting different groups of students, parents, and graduates.

A partnership between the University System of New Hampshire and businesses in the state could pay up to $8,000 of New Hampshire residents' student loan debt.  The program is set to take effect this fall and the University System of New Hampshire hopes to recruit at least 30-40 businesses to participate in its first year.  Students will be eligible to receive payments of $1,600 per year for the first two years of employment and $2,400 per year for the next two if they graduate from a New Hampshire college and remain in the state to work for four years.

Meanwhile, in New York, one college is formalizing a program to save students one year of loan debt by offering a clear three-year path to graduation.  Hartwick College has long offered students the option of taking more classes per semester and graduating in 3 years, but now the practice has been turned into an official academic program for high-performing students.  Students must have a strong high school GPA to qualify, and will be expected to take 18 credits in the fall and spring, plus four credits during a J-term each year, finishing with 120 credits in three years.

Three Nebraska state colleges are also trying to minimize student loan debt, but are targeting a group of low-income students to receive more university grant funding.  Wayne State College, Peru State College, and Chadron State College have announced plans to pay freshman year tuition and fees for all students eligible to receive Pell Grants.  Students would still be responsible for room, board, and books, but removing the worry of paying tuition and fees may encourage more low-income students to attend college in Nebraska, as well as enable them to stay enrolled past the first year.


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by Emily

With all the talk about spending and stimulus legislation and bailouts, it can be easy to lose track of what benefits taxpayers can actually expect to receive. Most likely, everyone knows that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, perhaps better known as “the stimulus,” will create jobs through funding “shovel-ready” projects and will put a little extra in paychecks through a tax rebate that will take effect this summer.  You probably also know that there’s also financial aid in there for education, but you may not be sure exactly what.

Frankly, so much federal legislation and talk of change has been floating around in the last two years that anyone who last paid a tuition bill as recently as 2007 probably doesn’t even recognize financial aid in 2009.  To help, we’ve prepared a breakdown of where student financial aid stands currently.

Pell Grants. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increased the maximum Federal Pell Grant award from $4,731 for 2008-2009 to $5,350 for 2009-2010.  The maximum Pell award will go up again in 2010-2011 to $5,500 under this legislation.

The income threshold to qualify for federal grant programs also increased.  Now students with an expected family contribution (a number determined by completing the FAFSA) of up to $4,671 (up from $4,041 this year) can qualify for Pell grants.  They will not receive the whole award, but even the minimum award has increased—from $400 for full-time students in 2007-2008 to $976 for the same group in 2009-2010, due in part to the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which increased all Pell awards by $490.

Students qualifying for Federal Pell Grants can also pick up additional college funding through Academic Competitiveness Grants or SMART grants, which include Pell eligibility in their criteria.  Many non-federal college scholarships and grants also use Pell eligibility to determine awards, so the newly Pell-eligible will definitely want to do a scholarship search to see what’s out there.

Work-Study. More students will also see “federal work-study” on their financial aid award letter in 2009-2010 thanks to the economic stimulus legislation.  More money is available to work-study programs that allow students to get a part-time job on (or occasionally off) campus and count the income as financial aid.  Work-study programs provide great job opportunities for student workers, and since the money is given in the form of a paycheck, students can use these funds to pay their tuition bills or to cover living expenses.

Tax Benefits. One of the biggest perks of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is the creation of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which replaces the Hope Credit.  The tax benefits under Hope only went up to $1,800 and only could be taken for two years.  The American Opportunity Tax Credit can be used for four years, can fund up to $2,500 of college costs (100% of the first $2,000 plus 25% of the next $2,000, for a total of $2,500), and up to 40% is refundable, so people who don’t pay as much in taxes as they would qualify to receive in the credit can still get something.

Additionally, the income level at which the American Opportunity Tax Credit phases out is higher than the Hope credit, allowing individuals with incomes of up to $90,000 and married couples with incomes of up to $180,000 to take it.

Families will be able to start taking advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit on their 2009 taxes.

Other Benefits. Much more is included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  For example, students with 529 savings plans can now use that money to purchase a computer for school.  Additionally, states will receive billions of dollars over the next two years, with a portion of the money devoted specifically to funding projects at public institutions of higher education, as well preventing or reversing massive reductions in state education spending.

While student loans stayed the same in the stimulus, they did receive a boost in the fall through the continuation of the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act, as well as other recent legislation, including some new aid to lenders.

If you’d like to read more about how recent legislation has affected paying for college, our blog archives feature breakdowns of the 2007 College Cost Reduction Act, the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, the 2008 Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act, the 2008 GI Bill, and more examples of what's going on with college in Congress.


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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

More students are completing the FAFSA early for 2009-2010 according to data collected by the Department of Education.  By the end of February, more than 3 million students had filed their FAFSA for the next academic year, an increase of over 20 percent from the first two months of 2008.  As application deadlines approach, this flood of applications could slow, but right now it looks like there will be more demand for financial aid in the coming school year.

Federal student financial aid is becoming an increasingly attractive means of paying for college.  For starters, federal aid is up for 2009-2010--in the case of Federal Pell Grants, way up.  A combination of factors has boosted maximum grants to $5,350 in 2009-2010, while simultaneously raising the minimum award to $976 and the maximum qualifying Expected Family Contribution to $4,671.  Low interest rates and expanded federal loan cancellation and consolidation options are also making federal student loans more appealing.

Meanwhile, several other payment options aren't doing so well.  Private loans became harder to obtain in 2008, and also saw fairly substantial interest rate increases.  College savings plans, such as 529 plans, took big hits in the stock market, and even some prepaid tuition plans are struggling to guarantee payouts for upcoming years.  College endowments have also been affected by financial troubles, and some endowed scholarships may be reduced or unavailable for the coming academic year.

However, this doesn't mean the FAFSA is the only option for student financial aid.  Most states are maintaining funding for their scholarship programs, many colleges are increasing aid where possible, and scholarship opportunities are still out there--though many deadlines are approaching--for students who are willing and able to take the time to do a scholarship search and complete some scholarship applications.


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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

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

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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by Emily

Yesterday, President Obama signed into law a bill to expand Americorps, a national service program that provides small stipends to people of all ages engaged in volunteer work throughout the country.  The act, officially known as the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, paves the way for Americorps to grow in size from its present 75,000 volunteers to as many as 250,000 volunteers by 2017.

In addition to creating more volunteer positions, the Serve America Act will also increase the education stipend for volunteers to $5,350, the same amount as Federal Pell Grants.  This will enable more recent graduates and people currently attending college to participate in Americorps programs, which are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to employment in the current economy.

The national service bill, sponsored by Senator Kennedy, quickly made its way through both houses of Congress, receiving bipartisan support, as well as a ringing endorsement from President Obama, who has long been a proponent of community service.  Congress still needs to find funding for Americorps to begin to expand, but a provision to provide an immediate 25% increase in funding to the program was included in Obama's 2010 budget proposal.


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by Emily

As Congress moves forward with a federal budget plan for 2010, rhetoric is ramping up on both sides of what is proving to be one of the most contentious budget debates so far:  whether or not to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program.  President Obama initially proposed this move in his budget outline, saying that a move to Direct Loans would result in a savings of $48 billion, money that could be put towards expanding the Federal Pell Grant program.

After the Congressional Budget Office revised the estimated savings to $94 billion over 10 years, many members of Congress and several higher education professional organizations have been offering up tentative support for the plan.  Democrats on the joint budget committee have even begun paving the way for this portion of the budget to be eligible for reconciliation, a filibuster-proof process that will allow portions of the budget to pass with a simple majority vote in the Senate.

However, lenders and other groups have begun suggesting and campaigning for alternatives that would allow the bank-based student loan program to continue to exist while still cutting costs to some extent.  Concerns have been raised that Direct Loans will not be as efficient or as kind to borrowers in the long run, though the credit crisis has made the program especially appealing as FFELP has required repeated government interventions to avoid grinding completely to a halt.  With many schools voluntarily making the switch to direct lending based on the program's current stability, concerns have also been raised about a rapid expansion in Direct Loans overwhelming the program as it currently stands.  Others worry that eliminating FFELP may speed lenders' exodus from private loans, ultimately leaving many students in a worse place financially than they find themselves in now.

What's emerging is a war of words between banks and the President.  In a speech on Friday, Obama characterized lenders as, "gearing up for battle," to which he responded, "So am I. . . And for those who care about America's future, this is a battle we can't afford to lose."  Considering the President's popularity and lenders' tarnished reputations from crisis after scandal after crisis over the last two years, we may see big changes happening soon in student loans.


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by Emily

A little over a week after announcing his plans to gear up for battle with student lenders over the future of the Federal Family Education Loan Program, President Obama has begun calling in the troops.  An e-mail message sent to young Obama supporters by the Democratic National Committee is urging students to speak up in favor of the President's proposal to switch all federal lending to the Direct Loans program and to use the savings to expand Federal Pell Grants.

Students have been asked to call, write, or e-mail their Representatives and Senators to let them know what they think of the proposal to eliminate FFELP for Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans.  The text of the e-mail, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, urges students to stand against "special interests" and to help "fix a broken system."  Rhetoric on the other side has focused primarily on preserving jobs and preserving choice (technically, the choice is primarily left to schools, not students, as students aren't able to choose freely between DL and FFELP until they graduate and consider consolidation loans).

Regardless of whether you favor or oppose this plan, now is a good time to let your people in Congress know how you feel, since changes in federal student financial aid are likely to affect you directly.  So, what do you think?  What changes, if any, should Congress make to student loans? Do you plan on writing to Congress about this issue?


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