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by Emily

During his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Arne Duncan, Obama's appointee for Education Secretary, disclosed broad ideas but few specific plans for education in America.  Much of the hearing before the U.S. Senate focused on elementary and secondary education, though questions related to paying for college did surface.  Duncan's primary focuses appear to be on college access and college affordability, moving away from the emphasis on accountability the nation has seen under Margaret Spellings, the current Secretary of Education.

According to coverage by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, Duncan's primary goal related to college aid is to guarantee access to student loans for everyone attending college.  Taking up one aspect of Spellings' policy, he also expressed an interest in simplifying the FAFSA to make applying for federal student financial aid more enticing for college students.  Additionally, Duncan pledged to work towards the goals of increasing Federal Pell Grants and instituting the $4,000 education tax credit that made up a major part of Obama's campaign platform.

Congress may already be taking steps towards some of these goals in drafting the next economic stimulus package.  Reports have abounded this week that plans are in the works to increase the maximum available Pell Grant by $500 and to consolidate two existing federal higher education tax options into one $3,000 tax credit for higher education expenses.


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by Emily

With President Obama's proposal to end the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program, there has been much speculation on what role would be left for banks in student loans, as well as which banks would be allowed to play that role.  An announcement made yesterday by the Department of Education indicates that at least four banks will remain involved in federal student loans for the forseeable future.

The Department of Education has selected four companies to service loans made through the federal Direct Loans program.  Sallie Mae, Nelnet, American Education Services/Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, and Great Lakes Education Loan Services will all be awarded contracts of five to ten years to manage the increasing volume of student loans the federal government owns.

The servicers selected will be responsible for the student loans currently in the Direct Loans system, as well as loans the federal government has purchased as part of the federal rescue plan.  If all federal student loans are moved into Direct Loans, these agencies will also service them.  For now, what this means for student borrowers is that you may be dealing with different people if you have questions about your Stafford loans next year.  However, if Congress eliminates FFEL, this news could become more significant.


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by Emily

While it falls in the middle of summer on most academic calendars, July 1 marks an important date for financial aid each year.  On July 1, the Education Department switches from the 2008-2009 academic year to the 2009-2010 one, and new federal rules for financial aid go into effect. This means new loan consolidation and repayment options, lower interest rates on some federal student loans, among other changes for students receiving federal student financial aid.

One big change you likely already know about if you have applied for financial aid for fall is that Pell grants are going up from a maximum of $4,731 for 2008-2009 to a maximum of $5,350 for 2009-2010.  This change has already been widely publicized and is already reflected on your financial aid award letter.

Changes for current undergraduate students that you may not already know about include lower interest rates and lower loan fees on federal Stafford loans.  The interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduate students will drop from 6.0 percent to 5.6 percent on July first.  Rates will not change for unsubsidized loans, graduate students, or federal PLUS loans.  The upfront loan fees on all Stafford loans will fall from 2 percent to 1.5 percent. Students who have older Stafford loans or PLUS loans with variable interest rates will also see lower interest rates as of July 1, provided they have not already consolidated their loans.

Those who are considering loan consolidation will see one of the biggest changes on July 1, with the unveiling of a new consolidation program through the federal Direct Loans program.  It will allow students to participate in an income-based repayment plan that will forgive any outstanding debt after 25 years.  Payments will be capped at 15 percent of whatever you earn above 150 percent of the federal poverty level and no payments will be required if your earnings fall below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

Finally, since July 1 marks the start of the new academic year for financial aid, today is the last day to file a 2008-2009 FAFSA.  If you are planning to enroll in summer courses and have not yet applied for aid, you may want to check with your school to see whether summer is counted as part of 2008-2009 or 2009-2010 for financial aid purposes.  If your school counts summer as part of the previous academic year and you have not yet filed a FAFSA, you will want to do so right now.


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by Emily

The much-lauded new Income-Based Repayment plan for federal student loans has been available to student borrowers since July, but those who could potentially benefit may have difficulty enrolling in it. The Department of Education's Direct Loans website allows borrowers to enroll online in several student loan repayment plans, including the Standard, Graduated, and Income-Contingent options using a convenient drop-down menu. However, after over three months Income-Based Repayment is still missing from this menu, making it more difficult for borrowers to enroll in this plan, and possibly preventing some students from even realizing it's an option.

For many students who have large debt loads, are struggling to find work or are currently working low-wage jobs that make repaying student loans difficult, the new Income-Based Repayment plan may be their best option for repaying their federal student loans. It allows borrowers to only pay 15% of their discretionary income (their adjusted gross income minus 150% of the poverty line for their household size) once they've entered repayment, then cancels their remaining loan debt after 25 years of repayment. Borrowers enrolled in Income-Based Repayment can also take advantage of the 10-year public service loan forgiveness program, meaning they can make 10 years of affordable payments while working eligible public service jobs, then have their remaining debt forgiven.

Despite its appeal, though, students can currently only apply for Income-Based Repayment using a paper form, blank versions of which are available on the Direct Loans website, though not at all well-advertised. Students can eventually dig through the Direct Loans website to find it (we found it by clicking on the announcement in the upper right corner of www.dl.ed.gov, then following links through two additional pages), then complete it and mail it to the Department of Education. This is a somewhat time-consuming process, obviously, and may deter some borrowers who either lack the time or resources to locate, print and submit the form.

In addition to a missing online option and a buried enrollment form, the Direct Loans website also doesn't list Income-Based Repayment on their repayment options comparison site for logged-in borrowers (a calculator allows you to compare payments among Standard, Graduated, and Income-Contingent options but makes no mention of Income-Based Repayment). While a calculator is available through the Federal Student Aid website, it's not readily accessible from the Direct Loans site. To even choose Income-Based Repayment, then, borrowers will need to employ two different calculators on two different Education Department websites simultaneously, adding another confusing and time-consuming hurdle to the process.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Department of Education is aware Income-Based Repayment is missing from the online enrollment options on their site, but they don't plan to add it until March, citing a lack of resources due to the possibility Congress will soon switch all federal student loans to the Direct Loans program, as called for in a student loan bill currently under consideration. Hopefully, other revisions to the website will happen then, as well, but for students investigating student loan repayment options before then, enrolling in Income-Based Repayment will remain a hassle.


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The Fight Against Federal Student Aid Fraud

by Alexis Mattera

Firefighters. Police. Ghostbusters. Your mom. There are certain people you instinctively contact when you need assistance and the same holds true for the federal government. When the Department of Education noticed there was something strange in the neighborhood regarding federal student aid, they knew just who to call.

Less than a month after releasing a report detailing how organized fraud rings were exploiting distance education programs, the ED contacted colleges across the country urging them to develop additional ways of identifying threats to federal funding. Schools were encouraged to combat potential fraud rings by monitoring groups of students using the same IP or email addresses to apply and participate in online programs, paying closer attention to students living outside the schools' normal coverage areas and delaying the disbursement of federal funds or releasing said funds in multiple disbursements. In addition to the steps colleges are taking internally, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the department will be working with Congress and schools "to ensure we have all the tools we need to prevent criminal elements from defrauding federal student aid dollars."

Do you think colleges are doing enough to prevent federal student aid fraud?


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The RESPECT Program: Will Its Selectivity Increase Teacher Effectiveness?

by Alexis Mattera

We’ve all had at least one teacher that has impacted our lives in a positive way. Whether their passion for the subject they were teaching led you down a new educational path or the skills they imparted are still ones you use today, more educators like that are needed and a newly-funded program may make that possible.

The Obama administration showed its support in increasing teacher effectiveness with a budget proposal for a $5 billion grant competition to reward states and districts in a variety of ways including making teacher education programs as selective as their law, medical and business counterparts. While the Department of Education has not revealed full details about the endeavor known as the RESPECT Program, some colleges fear some of the requirements may actually negate the anticipated outcome: The feeling is that exemplary high school grades and standardized test scores are not the only traits that make great teachers and increased selectivity could exclude many studentsadult students looking for career changes or students from disadvantaged backgrounds, for example – who could excel at teaching. “We’re in education because we believe that education matters, and that people can grow and learn given the right experiences,” Virginia McLaughlin, dean of the School of Education at the College of William and Mary, told Inside Higher Ed. She continued to explain that future teachers should be evaluated regularly and judged on their progress, including how well they master both knowledge of the subjects they will teach and the techniques they will use in the classroom.

Do you think the RESPECT Program will produce better teachers or could it keep some of the most capable would-be educators out of the classroom?


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