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by Agnes Jasinski

New regulations that the federal government hopes will protect college students from excessive credit card debt by making it more difficult for young people to open multiple lines of credit go into effect Monday. The regulations, which fall under the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, were approved by Congress last May.

The key pieces of the act include the followin:

  • Creditors will be prohibited from issuing credit cards to anyone under 21 without the consent of that applicant’s parent or guardian, or proof that the consumer would be able to make the required payments on their own.
  • Creditors will be barred from offering students perks, such as coupons or T-shirts and book bags decorated with the companies' logos, for opening a new credit card account at campus events.
  • Companies will be required to disclose any existing relationships with colleges and universities annually to the Federal Reserve Board; colleges and universities will be required to disclose any existing relationships with credit card companies as well.

The regulations also included a strong suggestion to institutions of higher education that they provide education and counseling to students who may be struggling with credit card debt, or who may know little about managing credit card usage wisely.

Critics of the act since it was approved say that college students, who take on a slew of new responsibilities once they get on campus, should be treated as adults. For better or worse, students now are more apt to use credit cards to pay for their college expenses, and critics say they shouldn’t meet obstacles when using their credit cards for those costs. (According to a recent survey by student lender Sallie Mae, 84 percent of undergraduates have at least one credit card; 92 percent of those undergraduates use the cards toward college expenses. College students’ average balances are more than $3,100.) Some consumer advocates also say that while it's a good first step toward keeping students from incurring massive amounts of debt, it doesn't do enough, according to an article today in Inside Higher Ed. It fails to include any cap on the interest rate credit card providers can charge, for example.

We have a number of resources available to you about how to avoid credit card debt, make smart decisions about covering your college costs, and managing your money so that you're spending within your means. It may not mean much to you now, but it isn't all that easy to improve upon a credit score. The spending choices you make today will follow you down the line, so ideally, stick to one card if you need one, and if you find yourself in debt, pay off as much as you’re able to each month until you’re done.


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by Agnes Jasinski

To compensate for stalled negotiations on both health care legislation and a bill that would overhaul the country's student loan program and improve college students' access to federal aid, Democratic leaders proposed a solution yesterday that would move both of those hot-button issues forward—combine them, and pass them as one.

Both the comprehensive health care bill, which would guarantee health insurance to 30 million uninsured Americans, and the student loan bill, which would replace private lending with direct lending through the government and increase Pell Grant maximums, have faced opposition as Democrats work to pass both through Congress before the November mid-term elections. To kill two birds with one stone, Democratic legislators proposed bundling the two bills into one last night, not only to give the proposals a better chance at passage, but to keep them alive long enough for a vote by the full Senate and House.

An article in the New York Times yesterday describes the strong support a dual measure already has among the Democrats, suggesting that adding the student loan bill to the more expansive health care legislation would improve the health care bill's chances at passage. (Providing college students with more access to federal aid is undoubtedly more popular and less controversial than crafting a reasonable health care bill.)

The student loan bill had already passed in the House. Recent predictions have the government saving about $67 billion by going to direct lending; that new funding would go toward Pell Grants and other education programs. (A rise in the number of people attending college and seeking aid in the weak economy has raised the projected cost of new Pell Grants to $54 billion from $40 billion, according to the New York Times.) The student loan bill has been a consistent goal of President Obama's, as lenders have come under fire for a lack of oversight,  rising student loan default rates, and contributing to excessive debt among college students. Effectively, the bill would put an end to direct-to-student private loans, which students can borrow without even informing the financial aid office, and which can be taken out for more than the student’s cost of attendance for the academic year.

The private student loan industry has obviously not been very supportive of the bill, and Republicans have questioned whether giving the government control over the student loan industry is really a wise choice.


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by Agnes Jasinski

July 1 marks the official date that colleges, if they haven’t already, must transition to the recently approved Federal Direct Loans Program. Schools will no longer offer students the option of having private banks or credit unions handle their federal loans; federal loans will now be coming directly from the U.S. Department of Education. Advocates of the student loan bill have said this will make the process more seamless and fair, with the government taking responsibility for keeping interest rates manageable. And private loans will still be available via the traditional channels, although those loans are typically offered at higher interest rates.

The student loan debate has been a constant in the world of higher education, as legislators and administrators look for ways to reduce the debt of graduates. This week, The Christian Science Monitor considered student loans in a different way. Is it ethical to send students out into the world with all this debt, especially when they may not be making enough in their chosen careers to pay back those loans in a timely fashion? Are student loans moral?

The Christian Science Monitor piece looks at the history of the student loan industry, questioning whether it was ever right for Congress to increase borrowing amounts to current levels, or to offer students described as “in need” much easier access to federal loans through the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act in the 1990s. According to the Project on Student Debt, student loan totals only continue to rise. The average national debt for graduating seniors with loans rose from about $18,650 in 2004 to $23,200 in 2008. Meanwhile, employment prospects have not increased at comparable levels; by 2009, the unemployment rate among new graduates hovered near 11 percent, the highest on record.

It isn’t just a case of telling college students not to borrow so much. Student loans are often a necessary evil, and while debt can be minimized some through scholarships and grants, most students will end up taking on some amount of debt. The Monitor questions whether there should be more strict limits on borrowers that exist in other scenarios where credit checks and expectations that borrowers will be able to pay back what they borrow are enforced. There is no guarantee of a job after college, after all, so why shouldn’t the fact that a student is unable to pay off more than the minimum on their credit cards be taken into account more when they take out loans? (On that note, the U.S. Senate has approved an amendment that would lower “swipe fees” that banks charge college bookstores when students use their credit cards for purchases.)

Student loans are a hot topic, and will continue to be. What do you think? What else can be done to reduce graduates' debt, especially among those graduates who are not entering high-paying fields?


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by Agnes Jasinski

For-profit colleges have been the talk of the town in Washington over the last week, with legislators concerned by their rapid growth and what they consider a resulting lack of oversight. 

Yesterday, a group of Democratic lawmakers called for a federal review of for-profit colleges, their recruitment strategies, and the value of what they provide students. In the letter they sent to the Government Accountability Office, the lawmakers were especially concerned about the fact that the for-profit sector accounts for less than 10 percent of total enrollments but about 25 percent of federal financial aid disbursements. According to an article in The New York Times this week, for-profit colleges collected $26.5 billion in federal funding last year, compared to $4.6 billion in 2000.

The letter came just after the U.S. Department of Education’s proposal that for-profit colleges be more forthright about students’ potential loan debt relative to their incomes, even going so far as to propose limiting federal aid to those colleges with the most uneven debt-income ratios. The for-profit colleges themselves have said that they would be comfortable with disclosing graduation- and job-placement rates and median debt levels, but that limiting federal aid would certainly force many of them into insolvency.

One case in Illinois serves as a cautionary tale, and an example of what is so troubling to legislators. The Illinois State Board of Education has launched an investigation of the Illinois School of Health Careers’ patient care technician program in Chicago after a group of students decided to file a class-action lawsuit against the institution. The students say they were misled into thinking that they would be able to take the state’s certified nursing assistant exams upon completion of the program. In fact, the program lacks the proper approvals from the Illinois Department of Public Health, leaving students with student loan debt and instruction in a field they say offers few, if any, job prospects.

Supporters of for-profit colleges say the schools are important in serving a population looking to learn a particular trade or get out into the workforce more quickly. Republican lawmakers on the other side of the issue have said Congress should be more concerned about looking for ways to monitor the bad eggs among the bunch and not be so skeptical of an entire industry, according to The New York Times article. Representatives for the Career College Association have said accredited institutions that focus on career-preparedness are critical in meeting President Obama’s goal of getting the United States on top in terms of higher education by 2020.

Most for-profit schools don’t report the kinds of dissatisfaction felt by those students at the Chicago school described above and are a good option for many students, especially those seeking flexible alternatives. The key is quality control. If you’re interested in a career college or an online degree university, do your own research. Make sure your intended school is accredited, as this means it meets a set of standards set forth by the U.S. Department of Education. Make sure the college you’ll be paying for—and may be paying for years down the line, even after graduation—is not only legitimate but worth paying for.


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Senate Approves Bill to Protect Against Lending Abuses

President Obama Expected to Sign off On Overhaul Legislation

July 16, 2010

by Agnes Jasinski

The financial overhaul bill approved last night by the U.S. Senate won’t only increase government oversight to prevent another economic collapse. Students who use debit and credit cards or who have taken out or plan to take out private student loans will also benefit.

The bill includes the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent entity that will exist within the Federal Reserve to protect borrowers. What does this mean for students? The bureau will be there to protect students from abusive lending, and gives students a point of resolution if they feel they have issues with their private lenders, according to an article on the measure in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The bill also requires that debit and credit card companies lower the fees that colleges must pay when students use the cards. Currently, companies are charging “swipe fees” of 1 to 2 percent of transaction amounts, according to The Chronicle, putting quite a bit of pressure on struggling college bookstores. The legislation next goes to President Obama, who is expected to sign off on it. Also in the bill, the government will get more power to shut down companies that pose a threat to the country’s financial system. As the troubled economy has led to marked changes in higher education, including increases in tuition and fees, the introduction of wait lists at colleges that had never used them before, and, in worst-case scenarios, the shuttering of colleges, the bill could even give struggling schools some sense of hope.

Pell Grants could also see a boost if a spending bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee yesterday continues to move through Congress. According to another article in The Chronicle, the bill would raise spending on Pell Grants by $5.7 billion for the 2011 fiscal year, keeping the federal grants at the maximum levels of $5,550 per eligible student. The Federal Pell Grant, which is available to those students with the highest unmet financial need, has increased significantly over the years; students were able to receive $4,050 in the 2006-2007 academic year. The panel also approved an additional $1 billion for the National Institute of Health. According to The Chronicle, legislators hope that funding could go toward “translating basic research results into practical and available cures and treatments.”


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by Agnes Jasinski

In response to recent criticisms of for-profit colleges, the U.S. Department of Education announced a rule today that will cut off federal aid to those schools that leave students with loan debts they are unable to handle once they receive their degrees and certificates. The new “gainful employment” rule would also penalize those programs with the lowest loan-repayment rates, meaning for-profit colleges will be more on the hook to make sure those enrolled in their programs are being prepared for the job search and for entering the workforce.

The for-profit sector currently accounts for less than 10 percent of total enrollments but about 25 percent of federal financial aid disbursements. Congress has also been looking at the issue this summer, with some legislators concerned by the large amounts of debt students were being saddled with at some for-profit colleges when compared to the comparably low salaries they could expect to receive upon completion of those programs, or the difficulty they may have finding work at all. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education today, officials with the Education Department said this was a way to both protect students and taxpayers, as the measure could help prevent both groups from incurring the high costs of student-loan defaults. 

According to the article, the new rule would consider the number of borrowers repaying their federal student loans against the ratio of total student loan debt to average earnings. About 5 percent of for-profit programs nationwide may be affected by the new rule, and thus would become ineligible for federal aid. About 55 percent on the cusp of ineligibility might need to become more forthright with potential students about excessive borrowing. The new rule doesn’t go as far as the Education Department had initially proposed; that first proposal would have cut federal aid to those programs where a majority of students’ loan payments exceeded 8 percent of the lowest quarter of students’ expected earnings over 10 years of repayment, according to The Chronicle.

Most for-profit schools do serve an important purpose, especially for students changing careers or looking for a flexible alternative. If you’re interested in a career college, just make sure you do your research. There are programs out there that are accredited, or that meet a set of standards from the Education Department, and qualified to give you an advantage in the job market.


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by Agnes Jasinski

A financial aid officer at a for-profit college that closed this week has been charged with felony theft of more than $7,600 in students’ tuition payments. The school, Ascension College in Louisiana, closed quite suddenly to the surprise of the students there, and has been under investigation for what officials say is a misuse of federal aid.

According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the school had to close when the U.S. Department of Education ruled that it was no longer eligible for federal aid, the school’s primary source of income, based on new rules targeting for-profits. The school already had financial problems before the Education Department’s decision. In recent weeks, students had begun to complain about the cost of their educations there versus the quality. The school had been awarding certificates in fields like office administration and dental assistance.

The news comes on the heels of a report released today by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) pointing to evidence that recruiters at for-profit colleges encouraged prospective students to lie on financial aid applications in order to receive more federal funding. The report also shows widespread misinformation from the recruiters about the cost of their for-profit programs, their quality, and how much money graduates would be expected to make once they received their degrees.

The GAO used four undercover investigators posing as potential students at 15 for-profit colleges to get the information. Recruiters at four of those 15 encouraged financial aid fraud; in one example, a recruiter suggested an applicant not report $250,000 in savings when applying for aid. All 15 of the for-profit recruiters made statements the GAO described as “deceptive or otherwise questionable” in their report. In one example, a recruiter based tuition costs on nine months of classes rather than 12, making the total costs seem much lower than they actually were. In another, a recruiter told an applicant that barbers can earn up to $250,000 a year, a gross exaggeration. The GAO also discovered how incessant some recruiters can be once they know a student is interested in a for-profit education. According to the report, one of the investigators received 180 phone calls in one month at all hours of the day and night after registering to receive information on for-profit colleges.

The GAO was quick to note, however, that there were instances where the investigators were given helpful information, such as warning students about borrowing beyond their means. While the report overall doesn’t bode well for for-profits, especially at a time when legislators are watching the industry more closely and calling for more federal review, there are good options in the for-profit sector. For students looking to get into a particular trade, a flexible schedule, or alternatives to a traditional four-year university, for-profit schools do meet a need. The most important thing is to get your facts from a reliable source. Don’t ever take everything a recruiter at any college, for-profit or not, says at face value. Do your own research in the college search to make sure you’re making the right decision and investing wisely.


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by Agnes Jasinski

You’ve read all about how colleges have been coping with budget cuts over the last year or so. Wait lists. Hiring freezes and holds on infrastructure improvements. Short weeks.

Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill they hope will allow administrators at those institutions of higher education to breathe a little easier. The $26 billion they approved will go toward those same state budgets that have suffered in the economic crisis; while the funding isn’t specifically earmarked for state colleges, any funding the states receive at this point will allow those schools to avoid further cuts in an already-hurting higher education system. About $16 billion of that total will go toward Medicaid assistance.

According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than half of the country’s state lawmakers have been counting on varying amounts of emergency federal aid from Congress. While the expected totals aren’t as much as many had hoped—Maine had budgeted for $100 million, but will receive $77 million; Pennsylvania had budgeted for $850 million, but will receive about $600 million—the funding will help public university systems avoid further cuts. In Maine, administrators were preparing for cuts in the $8.4 million range, according to The Chronicle. While they had already reduced their budgets by $8 million over the previous year, the new funding will allow the state’s colleges to remain steady in the coming fiscal year.

Some states had already been preparing for massive cuts had the funding not come through. In Massachusetts, funding for public colleges there was already cut by 12 percent, a move lawmakers there must analyze now that some additional funding has come through. In Texas, a higher-education panel recently recommended that students take more of their learning off campus to save public institutions some money. According to another article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the proposal suggested students should complete at least 10 percent of their degrees via online courses and remote programming. The plan would affect undergraduates at all of the state’s public colleges. While this is still just a proposal, a push toward online learning isn’t a new idea. In Minnesota, higher education officials hope to have students earn 25 percent of all credits earned through the public college system through online coursework by 2015.


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Save the Perkins!

Proposed Amendment Will Keep This Loan Alive

September 23, 2010

by Alexis Mattera

The Perkins Loan Program has played a vital role in the quest for higher education (mine included) since 1958 but in two years, it could end up just as extinct as dinos and dodos. Can it (and the dreams of countless students) be saved?

The Perkins, or as one supporter affectionately calls it, “the David among the Goliaths of other aid,” is used by 1,800 colleges across the country yet Congress hasn’t provided any new money for the program since 2004. In 2009 alone, colleges awarded 495,000 new Perkins loans at an average of $2,231 per student and its demise would shut out college access to low-income students and eliminate the jobs of campus officials and loan servicers who help distribute the funds. Representative John Spratt clearly understands the importance of the Perkins and is sponsoring an amendment to delay the program’s cancellation – so much so that he held a hearing in Washington yesterday discussing the Perkins’ significance; though it probably won’t pass this year, Spratt is optimistic that with the support of the House Budget Committee and the schools relying on the loans, the amendment has a shot at approval next year.

“By its very nature, the Perkins Loan Program provides schools the flexibility to provide additional aid to needy students. The importance of this flexibility cannot be overstated,” said Sarah Bauder, assistant vice president of enrollment services and student financial aid at the University of Maryland at College Park, in her testimony during the hearing. “Financial aid administrators work where the rubber meets the road and have a unique perspective that allows them to assess students’ and families’ ability to pay for college in ways that aid applications will never be able to assess. When aid administrators see students and families struggling with unique circumstances, they need some flexibility to deliver funds to ensure the success of these students.” One such student, Joseph Hill, also testified. The Georgetown senior stated that though he received $26,000 in scholarships, the Perkins was what made it possible for him to attend the school of his dreams. “Last week, I was talking to my mother, and without hesitation, she said, ‘It still wouldn’t have worked without that Perkins Loan,’ ” Hill revealed.

There’s a lot more to the history of the Perkins and the fight to save it (get the details here) and as a former Perkins recipient, I can’t help but root for this little amendment that could. I'm definitely making a t-shirt.


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Obama Extends an "Opportunity" to College Students

The American Opportunity Tax Credit, That Is

October 13, 2010

Obama Extends an "Opportunity" to College Students

by Suada Kolovic

The financial aid process can be a daunting one but if you’re planning on attending college any time soon, you should know that there are tons of federal student aid options out there – from Pell Grants to Perkins Loans to FAFSA – but your eligibility to receive aid depends on your level of need and, subsequently, how much aid you are eligible to receive. So, to the folks right in the middle: How does a tax credit sound? The American Opportunity Tax Credit, created in the 2009 economic stimulus bill, expires in 2010, but President Obama has proposed making it permanent, with a price tag of $58 billion over 10 years.

Now what does this mean to you? Because the Opportunity Tax Credit is more generous than its predecessor, the Hope Tax Credit, it provides a credit of up to $2,500 rather than $1,800 and it phases out at a higher income level – $160,000 for married couples filing jointly instead of $100,000. According to a report by the Department of Treasury, it’s also partially refundable so students and families with little or no tax liability can receive up to $1,000 of it as a tax refund. The report comes as lawmakers are debating a bill to extend several expiring tax credits. Recent versions would not extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit, but President Obama hopes lawmakers will reconsider.

"The president obviously feels strongly that this is an important relief for middle-class families," said Gene Sperling, counselor to the Treasury Secretary.


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