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by Emily

The House of Representatives just passed the compromise version of the economic stimulus package.  Now there are just two stop left for it before it becomes law: the Senate and President Obama's desk.  The Senate plans to vote later this evening, putting it on track to be signed on Monday.

As the dust settles, more detailed accounts of what's actually in the bill are emerging.  While the final totals have not yet been made public, Inside Higher Ed has an updated version of their stimulus chart online today, featuring many of the stimulus provisions related to higher education.  The $787 billion stimulus package will include: 

     
  • $17.1 billion to increasing the maximum Pell Grant award by $500 and eliminate a shortfall in funding
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  • $200 million to college work-study programs focused on community service
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  • A $2,500 education tax credit available for four years of college.  The credit is 40 percent refundable, so people who don't make enough to pay taxes can still receive $1000.
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  • A provision to allow computer purchases to count as qualified educational expenses for 529 plans
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  • $39.5 billion to offset state budget cuts to education, including money to modernize facilities
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  • $8.8 billion for states to award to high-priority needs, including education
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 While several items related to federal student financial aid were cut from earlier versions of the stimulus, the final verison will hopefully minimize tuition hikes by giving states more money for education, help the neediest students deal with tuition increases through an increase in grants and work-study, and help all college students a little with the tax option included.  The stimulus package also includes tax rebates, increased funding to several social welfare programs, and changes to unemployment benefits, which could further aid struggling students and families.


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Making College More Affordable

February 17, 2009

by Emily

Reducing college costs continues to be a hot topic of discussion, especially given survey results that show that college affordability is a growing public concern.  Recent congressional acts, including the education provisions in the stimulus bill President Obama will sign today, the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008, and last year's reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, have kept the issue in focus, as have economic events, such as losses to 529 plans, rising unemployment, and new financial troubles for colleges.  A wide range of ideas have attracted the attention of lawmakers and the media, including several suggestions making the rounds this month.

Jesse Jackson recently wrote an article in the Chicago Sun-Times suggesting that Congress pass a law to offer a 1% interest rate on federal student loans, including Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans.  The Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran a column in January that went even further, suggesting that the federal government forgive all student loan debt.  Meanwhile, Lamar Alexander, a republican Senator from Tennessee, has gotten some publicity for suggesting that more colleges offer three-year paths to degrees, as one of many potential cost-saving measures.  Some states are looking into "no-frills" universities, and partnerships between state colleges and community colleges are also gaining traction as cost-saving options.

So we were wondering what people who are in the process of paying for college think.  What would you like to see happen to make college more affordable and reduce the burden of student loan debt on college graduates?


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by Emily

In a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress, President Obama called for every American to complete at least one year of postsecondary education and pledged greater financial support for those attending college.  He also urged that America become the "best educated" nation and set the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

In addition to healthcare and alternative energy, the president declared education to be a top priority for improving America's economy and its place in the world.  He called on families, schools, and Congress to embrace this priority, and to better prepare citizens for careers that increasingly require some amount of  education or training beyond high school.

President Obama promised greater funding for higher education in the federal budget for 2010. This may include the educational tax benefits he advocated in his campaign, as well as other increases to federal student financial aid. He once again mentioned community service or other national service as requirements for future financial aid.

In addition to pledging greater state support, he also asked for an individual commitment by each American to not only graduate from high school, but to set college goals and attend a college, university, community college, or vocational training program for at least one year.  In addition to helping people succeed individually, greater education and training can lead to greater success for society.

Obviously, problems with paying for school will not disappear overnight.  But with help from schools and the government, individuals who work hard and make higher education a priority can reap the benefits, despite the challenges that remain.


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by Emily

An omnibus appropriations bill for the current fiscal year passed the House yesterday and is on its way to the Senate.  This piece of legislation will raise the maximum award for Federal Pell Grants to $5350 for 2009-2010.  The bill was put on hold last year due to threats of a veto from President Bush.

While Pell Grants received a funding boost, SEOG grants will remain at 2008 funding levels, as will work-studyPerkins Loan cancellation programs will receive a boost in funding to cover shortfalls.  Additionally, TRIO and Gear Up programs, aimed at helping low-income students get into college, also received more funding.

The first draft of the budget for the 2010 fiscal year is also heading to Congress soon after being unveiled by President Obama this morning.  While details are still emerging, based on an address the president delivered Tuesday, it's likely that further funding for financial aid programs and higher education in general will be included. 

While budgets are being hashed out and college aid is generally on its way up, more trouble may be brewing for student loans.  A PLUS loan auction program slated to go into effect this summer could reduce the availability of these loans that parents take out on behalf of their students, at least at schools participating in the FFEL program. Financial aid officers have petitioned Congress to delay the scheduled cut in PLUS loan subsidies so as not to jeopardize students' ability to pay for school in the midst of a recession that has already driven dozens of banks away from one form of student lending or another.


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by Emily

Details of President Obama's proposed 2010 budget are emerging, with education being one of the first sections unveiled.  In the budget proposal are increases and structural changes to Federal Pell Grants, changes to Federal Perkins Loans, and the potential elimination of the Federal Family Education Loan Program, so that all new Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans for 2010-2011 would be originated by the federal Direct Loans program.  The president's budget also recommends that the new $2500 American Opportunity Tax Credit be made permanent, and that $2.5 billion be devoted over the next five years to programs to increase college access and completion.

After remaining nearly stagnant between 2002 and 2007, the maximum award for the Federal Pell Grant has increased significantly over the last few years.  It shot up from $4050 in 2006-2007 to $4310 in 2007-2008, then $4731 in 2008-2009 and now stands at $5350 for 2009-2010.  If this provision in President Obama's 2010 budget is adopted by Congress, the maximum Pell Grant will be set at $5500 for 2010-2011, and from there on out, it will increase in step with the consumer price index, plus 1%.  This award amount would become mandatory, as well, saving Pell funding from being at the whim of Congress.  This is good news across the board for now, but may be a problem later, since tuition and fees have steadily outpaced inflation for most of recent memory and it is entirely possible that they will soon leave the Pell Grant in the dust, despite this new funding commitment.

While the president's plans for Pell Grants and tax credits have largely been met with enthusiasm, the proposed changes to student loans have received mixed reactions.  Changes to Perkins Loans would be good for some schools and students and bad for others, but would increase access to the loans overall.  The move from FFELP to Direct Loans also has its ups and downs.

Channeling all Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans through Direct Loans would save money and streamline the process, and it may even reduce confusion about federal versus private loans, since students would no longer be borrowing both from the same bank.  However, some worry that despite the extent to which incentives have already disappeared and the FFEL program has been subsisting off temporary goverment support for the past two years, abolishing it entirely may hurt students in the long run.  Moving to a single lender system would eliminate what little competition in the student loan market remained, doing away with the possibility of future repayment or loan consolidation incentives.  Others worry that some of the counseling and support that FFELP funding provided to borrowers would disappear, though a new $2.5 billion grant program would likely supplement these programs.


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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

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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