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by Emily

There was an interesting article in The New York Times today offering a rare behind-the-scenes look at a university financial aid office.  If you're still baffled by your financial aid award letter, or you just are curious to find out how it was created, this article is a good read.  While it focuses on Boston University, an elite and expensive private college, many of the processes discussed carry over to other schools, both public and private.

The article does an especially good job of explaining how financial need is determined, using the FAFSA, the CSS profile and an institution's policies.  It also includes a couple of concrete examples of financial aid packages and family circumstances that provide a valuable window into the logic behind determining financial aid awards, especially for families who may have received markedly different offers from different institutions.  While I'm not sure how universal the process of weighing aid so heavily in the favor of the top tier of students is, it definitely provides support for the idea of broadening your college search and applying to a wide range of colleges and comparing financial aid offers.

The complex nature of college financial aid awards, as well as the common practice of "gapping," where the school does not cover a student's entire financial need, also make a compelling argument for doing a thorough scholarship search.  While some of the largest college scholarships and grants come from universities, there's no guarantee you'll land a full-tuition scholarship anywhere you apply.  Winning scholarships from other organizations gives you more flexibility in where you attend college, as well as a greater level of certainty about how much help you'll receive.


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by Emily

With unemployment continuing to rise, college savings funds still performing poorly, and some states being forced to make cuts to grant and scholarship programs, many students are likely to be facing a very different financial situation when it comes to paying for college in 2009, as opposed to 2008.  Students who have experienced a significant change in their financial circumstances since completing the FAFSA, such as a loss of income and savings, can appeal to their college's financial aid office for a chance at more need-based college scholarships and grants.

Yesterday, U.S. News ran an excellent article by Kim Clark detailing the do's and don't's of appealing your student financial aid award, according to college financial aid administrators.  According to Clark, appeals are up this year and are more likely to be granted, as administrators take into account how drastically the financial landscape has changed.  If you are thinking of requesting a professional judgment appeal, here are some things you should do: 

     
  • Send a letter detailing changes in your circumstances and why you need more aid.
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  • Don't make demands for grants, but do explain how much help you need.
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  • Provide documentation, including pay stubs, medical bills, tax forms, or whatever helps show how things have changed since your 2008 tax return.
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  • Apply as early as possible.  While many colleges are increasing financial aid offerings, much aid is still first come, first serve.
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  • Write the letter yourself or have your parent write it if you are a dependent student and aren't comfortable doing it yourself.
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  • Tell the truth and don't lie or embellish--if caught, you could be fined or even jailed.
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 For more tips, you can read the entire article here.  If your circumstances have changed and you need more money for college, go beyond just requesting more aid from your school.  Update your Scholarships.com profile and do a scholarship search, paying attention to any new need-based scholarships and grants that may come up.  You could be eligible for more money than what is offered by your school, your state, and the federal government.


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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

As part of his campaign's focus on education, President Obama pledged his administration would address issues of the financial aid application process, such as the length and complexity of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has previewed some of the administration's proposed changes, with a formal announcement expected today. While not as sweeping as the two-page FAFSA EZ Congress already mandated when renewing the Higher Education Act last year, these changes are still a step towards simpler financial aid applications.

Changes will be rolled out in phases, with the first phase being a smarter FAFSA on the Web.  Rather than forcing students to read fine print to determine whether they need to provide information requested by each question, as of next January, the application will use the information students have provided to determine which questions they need to answer.  Students with independent status will not be shown the questions about parental income and low-income students will not be shown certain questions about assets that they don't need to complete.  This is a fairly simple step to save time and hassle, and eliminate some of the barriers that keep students most likely to be eligible for federal grant programs from applying.

A pilot program has also been initaited to test the feasibility of allowing students to access their tax information online to complete the FAFSA.  If successful, it could be expanded to all users, saving headaches involved in finding their 1040s, W2s and related forms, then scouring each for the correct lines to copy into the FAFSA.

Duncan also stated that the administration will seek permission from Congress to begin taking steps that could eventually result in eliminating the FAFSA entirely and relying solely on tax information to apply for federal student financial aid.  While not explicitly stated by Duncan, it could be an end result of his request to Congress to remove questions from the FAFSA that do not pertain to information reported to the IRS on a student's (or their parents') 1040.  Once the complicated need analysis formula of the FAFSA has been set aside in favor of this simplified process, the idea of allowing students to apply for aid by checking a box on their tax return seems almost within reach.


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by Scholarships.com Staff

Congress has passed and President Obama has signed a bill that provides "technical corrections" to the Higher Education Act, which Congress renewed last year. In addition to offering clarification on several points and correcting minor errors, the Technical Corrections bill also makes some useful changes to federal student financial aid.

Minor clarifications include:

  • Updating the list of veteran's benefits not counted as financial aid to include benefits from the new GI Bill that goes into effect this year
  • Stating that lenders can provide both entrance and exit loan counseling to students
  • Setting 2010-2011 as the year in which the EZ FAFSA will need to be implemented
More substantial changes include:
  • Authorizing the Department of Education to buy up rehabilitated student loans (loans that have gone into default and since had consistent payments made on them) under the provisions outlined in ECASLA--previously students who had defaulted on loans and since resumed payments would find their loans stuck in default status due to the credit crunch.
  • Creating a new grant program for dependents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan or Iraq since September 11, 2001
  • Making Pell-eligible dependents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan or Iraq after September 11, 2001 eligible for an automatic 0 expected family contribution on the FAFSA
  • Changing the information schools must provide to lenders when students apply for private loans

The Chronicle of Higher Education has more information on the HEA Technical Corrections legislation here.


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by Scholarships.com Staff

Yesterday, the House of Representatives formally introduced legislation to reshape federal student loans, federal Pell Grants, and other aspects of student financial aid. The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009 builds on presidential budget recommendations and features several substantial changes to student aid.

A preliminary breakdown of the bill provided by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators lays out the following proposed changes:

  • Dividing the Federal Pell Grant into mandatory and appropriated funding, then fixing the mandatory portion to the consumer price index plus 1 percent. Currently, the mandatory portion of the grant is $490 and the appropriated portion is $4860, so if these proportions remain the same, increases in the Pell Grant would still largely be at the whim of Congress each year.
  • Eliminating several questions on the FAFSA related to assets, but preventing anyone with assets of over $150,000 from qualifying for federal student aid.
  • Ending the Federal Family Education Loan Program and moving all federal Stafford Loans to Direct Loans.
  • Ending subsidized Stafford Loans for graduate and professional students in 2015.
  • Reverting to a variable interest rate that would be capped at 6.8 percent for subsidized Stafford Loans.
  • Expanding the Federal Perkins Loan program, with part of the new funding going specifically to schools that keep tuition low and graduate a high proportion of Pell-eligible students.
  • Changing the rules for drug offenses to make students ineligible for aid only if they've been arrested for selling a controlled substance.

The Democratic majority in the House has indicated a strong intention to pass this bill quickly, with the Committee on Education and Labor planning to vote on it as early as next week.


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by Scholarships.com Staff

We're nearly a week into August, and for many students, that means that back-to-school preparations have begun. Whether you're picking out notebooks and extra-long twin sheets, or trying to squeeze one last trip or a few more hours of work into your calendar, now is a good time to start looking ahead to the fall term if you're in college. This includes thinking about financial aid. One of the least pleasant aspects of the start of the semester is finding yourself in the line for the college financial aid office as it grows to epic proportions the first week of class.

Luckily, at most colleges the fall rush has not yet started, so if you have some extra time now, you can take steps to make sure you won't find yourself standing in a packed office and trying not to panic on the first day of class. From a financial aid office veteran, here are three things to check into now to avoid waiting in line later.

First, if you are applying for federal student financial aid, by now you should have filled out a 2009-2010 FAFSA and received a financial aid award notice from your college's financial aid office. If you're still waiting to complete a FAFSA or hear back from your school, now would be a good time to take care of these things. You may want to call your college's financial aid office, or check your account online if you have the option, to make sure that everything is in order for timely disbursement of your fall financial aid. Ask if you have any other paperwork you need to complete (such as verification or a master promissory note), especially if it is your first time receiving financial aid. Double check disbursement dates, as well, so you know when you are due to receive the money.

Second, if you've won any scholarship awards (and we hope you have!), now would be a good time to make sure you know when you will be receiving the funds, whether the checks will go to the school or to you, and whether you will need to sign anything or wait for the school to do any additional paperwork before you receive the money (the financial aid office may need to recalculate your aid based on the scholarships you've received). Many scholarship providers notify you of disbursement arrangements or include this information in their official rules, so review correspondence with them, as well as information they've published. If you have questions, you can check with your college and the scholarship provider.

Finally, make sure you will have sufficient funds to cover your bill and make arrangements if necessary to take care of whatever costs grants, scholarships, or federal student loans do not cover. Your parents may want to take out a PLUS loan, or you may want to take out a private loan to cover whatever gap is left. You will want to do paperwork for these as soon as possible, as processing times may take up to a few weeks, especially once things get busy. Many colleges also offer payment plans if you'd like to pay the rest of your bill without borrowing, but you cannot afford to do so all at once.


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by Agnes Jasinski

A new study out today shows that it literally pays off to ask for help if you're feeling lost while filling out your FAFSA. The National Bureau of Economic Research has found that low- and moderate-income financial aid applicants who received help from professional tax preparers when filling out their FAFSAs not only received more generous aid packages, but were more likely to apply for aid compared to those navigating the process independently.

The FAFSA can be daunting, and it isn't surprising to hear many students are intimidated by the process or skeptical that they will  receive any need-based aid at all. Still, it's rare to see data on such anecdotal topics. The study was based on results from three groups. One group received help from several H&R Block tax professionals; the second received some financial aid advice, but did not receive personalized assistance; the third received no help in completing their FAFSAs. The results showed that it isn't enough to tell students to fill out the FAFSA and give them the form. The group with the most personalized assistance fared best in terms of how much funding they were approved for, and more generally, whether they would be going to college at all.

The federal government and higher education advocates have been working for years to come up with ways to simplify the financial aid application process. The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009 that recently passed in the House of Representatives includes a clause that would streamline the application and make it easier to understand for students. The study suggests that students who have trouble filling out applications or who avoid the financial aid process altogether for one reason or another are significantly less likely to go to college. Often the financial aid students receive is a determining factor in the campus they'll find themselves come fall, and if you don't apply for the need-based aid, no one is going to hand you any or often even urge you to fill out that FAFSA application.

Researchers from the study hope the results will lead to programming and services where students are not only told to fill out the applications as part of the college admissions process, but receive automatic assistance in completing their FAFSAs. If you're nervous about doing it on your own come Jan. 1 when the applications first become available for processing, ask for help. Browse through our site to find tips on landing the most free money and filling out the application correctly, as the smallest mistake can lead to delays in not only the processing of your FAFSA, but in the awarding of scholarships, grants and student loans that you're relying on to pay for that college degree.

Posted Under:

FAFSA , Financial Aid , Tips

Tags: FAFSA , Financial Aid , Need-Based

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by Agnes Jasinski

Soon enough, financial aid application season will be upon us, and you'll need to know how to navigate the process so that you don't make any mistakes that could delay that application, and your funding for college. The first and important step will be getting ready to fill out your FAFSA, which the U.S. Department of Education starts accepting starting Jan. 1 of each year. If you take away anything from this blog though, remember this: FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It should never cost you anything to fill it out.

The easiest way to fill out your FAFSA will be online, directly through the Department of Education's website at www.FAFSA.ed.gov. In your research you may find sites that charge to prepare your FAFSA for you, like www.FAFSA.com. That site, run by Student Financial Aid Services, Inc., charges a fee of $79.99 to prepare and advise you about your FAFSA, and while studies have shown that professional help through the financial aid process does lead to some positive results and more generous aid packages, with some time and effort you can become a FAFSA expert, too, without the added cost. Your intended college's financial aid office will also be happy to help you - for free - if you come across any roadblocks or feel like you've make a mistake when filing your FAFSA.

The Department of Education's site will walk you through the FAFSA application process, even allowing you to come back to your application if you find that you don't have all the necessary paperwork handy. While some students have reported feeling intimidated by the process, you won't be awarded financial aid from your college if you don't fill it out. And if you're uncomfortable filing the FAFSA online, you can also submit the paper form through the mail. (This could delay your application somewhat, though.)

Remember that you should never feel forced to pay to apply for and receive financial aid. Also avoid scholarship search engines that charge you to come up with a list of awards you may be eligible for, and awards that come with large processing fees attached. Scholarship scams are unfortunately a common occurrence, but if you know what to look for, you should have a positive financial aid experience. Browse through our site for more information on filing your FAFSA, and conduct a free scholarship search to see scholarships you may qualify for to supplement your financial aid package - all without paying a dime.

Posted Under:

FAFSA , Federal Aid , Tips

Tags: College Tips , FAFSA , Financial Tips , Tips

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