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by Agnes Jasinski

Sen. Edward Kennedy, a U.S. Congressman for more than 40 years, has left behind a long history of higher education programming, including the passage of an act last summer that expanded grant funding for low income students.

Kennedy died late Tuesday from the cancerous brain tumor he was diagnosed with in May of last year. One of his most recent efforts was working to pass the Higher Education Opportunity Act last August, which reauthorized the Higher Education Act for the first time since 1998. The act increased Pell Grant maximums, reaffirmed several scholarship programs, including the Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship Program, implemented loan forgiveness programs for eligible teachers and services in areas of national need, and detailed requirements that lenders provide borrowers with more information before issuing loans. The focus of the latest reauthorization was on expanding opportunities for scholarships and grant funding and streamlining the federal financial aid process in the wake of rising tuition costs and a more competitive student loan industry.

Kennedy had a long history of crafting higher education and student financial aid programs beginning with his work in 1972 on Pell Grants and Title IX, which prohibits the discrimination of women in education institution and has become known for increasing the number of women participating in college sports typically dominated by men. An article in the Chronicle for Higher Education today describes him as a "lifelong champion of equal rights and educational opportunity," attributing to him much of the work that went into the implementation of the federal direct-loan program introduced in the 1990s. The program allowed the government to lend money directly to students through their colleges.

>Kennedy, while not without his share of controversies, was able to get much of his work done through compromise and friends in the Republican base. Still, he was not without his critics. He publicly expressed his displeasure when the No Child Left Behind Act, legislation he had worked on with a number of Republican lawmakers, was passed with restrictions on grant aid to high-achieving math and science majors. In 2003, Kennedy attempted to move a bill through that would target colleges that gave preference to children of alumni, a timely topic today in the wake of the admissions controversies at several Illinois universities. His ties to his home state were obvious in much of his work in higher education, as Kennedy opposed any legislation that would impact the amount of student financial aid available to Massachusetts students

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Senator's sister and the founder of the Special Olympics, died earlier this month. Jean Kennedy Smith is the last surviving Kennedy daughter.


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by Emily

The University of Texas has announced plans to withdraw as a sponsor of National Merit, a popular national scholarship program that students qualify for based on standardized test scores. In an effort to focus on providing need-based financial aid, the university will no longer offer scholarships specifically for National Merit Scholars. The University of Texas, which was second only to Harvard University in the number of National Merit Finalists it enrolled, offered qualifying students awards worth up to $13,000 over the course of four years.

Texas is not the first major university system to choose to cease participating in National Merit, a program that offers $2,500 scholarships to high school juniors who do well on the PSAT, with the potential for honorees to receive much larger scholarship awards from partner companies and universities. Other institutions, including the University of California system, have previously chosen to withdraw sponsorship of National Merit, while many other schools have chosen not to offer awards specifically for National Merit winners.

National Merit has previously drawn criticism for its strong emphasis on high PSAT scores (other application materials are considered in selecting finalists, but semifinalists are chosen solely based on test scores). Students from wealthier families who have access to the best high schools and a variety of test preparation resources typically do best on standardized tests, such as the PSAT, which results in scholarship awards like National Merit skewing towards affluent students who need less assistance paying for college.

A University of Texas official cited similar reasoning in the university's decision to stop awarding National Merit Scholarships, stating that only one fourth of students receiving the scholarships typically bothered to apply for federal student financial aid, indicating the vast majority had access to other means of covering their college costs. The students who are most likely to be hurt by the loss of this scholarship opportunity will likely be helped by the increase in need-based financial aid that the university is promising.

University officials stressed that applicants who would have been eligible for this award will still be able to compete for other academic scholarships, and the undergraduate students currently receiving this award will continue to do so for their full four years of eligibility. Still, this announcement is likely to upset some students and to fuel the fires of the ongoing debate over merit-based versus need-based financial aid in colleges and universities.


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by Emily

The Obama health plan isn't the only hotly debated controversy in which the of the social good is currently being invoked. College rankings also fall into this category with the release of Washington Monthly's annual rankings this month, which differ sharply from the better-known U.S. News and World Report rankings, and focus primarily on universities' contributions to the "social good."

Washington Monthly publishes two sets of rankings, one for national universities and one for liberal arts colleges, each year. This year, the top three spots in the magazine's national university rankings all went to schools in the University of California system: UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and UC Los Angeles, respectively. The top three liberal arts colleges were Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, and Williams College. Amherst and Williams both appeared in U.S. News' top three, as well, but rankings differed sharply for many of Washington Monthly's other top schools, which included many state colleges, as opposed to the elite private colleges that dominate U.S. News.

A large part of the drastically different rankings comes from Washington Monthly's chosen methodology, which asks as much what colleges are doing for the country as it asks what they can do for their students. This is determined by looking at factors that include student involvement in national service, university involvement in research, and the social mobility attending college gives students.

The service index is achieved by looking at the number of current students involved in ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, as well as graduate participation in the Peace Corps. Research is determined by the university's production of PhD graduates, the number of degree recipients going on to achieve PhDs at other institutions, and other components such as research spending and faculty awards. The matrix is slightly different for liberal arts college, as many don't award PhDs and some don't provide data for all of the research categories. Social mobility is based on each school's ability to enroll and graduate needy students, determined by a calculation involving the percentage of students who receive federal Pell Grants and the school's undergraduate graduation rate.

Washington Monthly provides a more thorough description of their rankings system, as well as the rationale behind their decision to rank colleges, on their College Guide website. Other magazines participating in the college rankings game include Princeton Review and Forbes Magazine.


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by Emily

The new Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect on August 1, bringing expanded educational benefits for students who have served in the military since 2001. These benefits are supposed to be available to students for the fall semester, but a mounting backlog of applications has the Department of Veterans Affairs saying recipients should expect processing delays of up to 8 weeks.

This means that many veterans attending college may not receive their first payments from the VA until potentially October or even November, despite classes starting in August and September. So not only will their tuition and fees go unpaid, but they also will have to find other sources of funding for housing, books, and living expenses, which many veterans expected to rely on VA stipends to pay. While most colleges are working with their veteran students to arrange stopgap financial aid, the delayed payments still represent a huge problem for students going back to school after military service.

The application process for VA benefits under the GI Bill is somewhat complex and involves multiple steps between a student's initial decision to enroll in college and his or her ultimate receipt of a check from the VA. Students, schools, and the VA all need to complete paperwork to set up benefits, and May 7 was the earliest students could begin applying. In addition, current VA employees and new hires needed to be trained to process applications under the new program, so processing is taking longer than normal.

Add in the popularity of the expanded GI Bill benefits, the recession bringing students back to college in droves (with fewer financial resources available to them), and colleges across the country dealing with massive budget crises and increased demand for emergency aid, and you get the potential for disaster. More students are applying for benefits, the VA is less able to process these applications in a timely manner, and schools have more students in difficult situations to assist. All parties have fewer resources at their disposal to deal with the situation, making it still more challenging.

Still, vets who have found their benefits delayed should talk to the financial aid and veteran's affairs contacts at their school if they need additional financial aid to cover their expenses in the short term. While money is scarce, it is still available in most cases.


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by Emily

Penn State University's Schreyer Honors College offers admitted students $3,500 per year merit scholarships, a common practice among state colleges that want to entice the best students to attend. Students at Penn State and their parents are doing something unique with these scholarship awards, though: they're giving them to other Schreyer students.

Parents of scholarship recipients who did not apply for need-based financial aid receive a letter asking them to consider making a donation in the amount of the scholarship their children received. The letter, penned by the parents of other Schreyer students, emphasizes the amount of unmet financial need some of their children's classmates face and asks them to consider whether they need the extra $3,500 in order to pay their tuition bill. If not, they are asked to give the money to students for whom the extra money could make the difference between attending college at Penn State and staying home.

The university stresses that students are not being asked to give up their academic scholarships in this campaign. Rather, they ask that parents who can spare the extra money because their child received a scholarship would consider donating to help other deserving students who last year had more than $1 million in unmet financial need.

Honors colleges, even at large state universities, tend to be relatively close-knit communities of top-performing students who are engaged in their studies and their campus communities. It's not surprising, then, that parents of Schreyer Honors College students hit upon an idea to help their children's struggling classmates last year when the economy first began to sink into recession. The campaign was initiated by parents and supported by the university, which sends the letters on the parents' behalf.

Last year's appeal raised around $228,000, with over $120,000 of that going directly to 34 students who needed help paying for school. The remaining $100,000 went towards establishing an endowed trust to ensure that this effort continues helping students in the future. So far this year, the campaign has raised $13,000 from 11 donors.


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by Scholarships.com Staff

The House of Representatives is poised to vote today on legislation to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program and increase funding for Federal Pell Grants. The bill, currently known as the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009, is widely expected to be approved by the House, possibly with some amount of bipartisan support.  While most of the provisions in the bill have relatively widespread backing, one element has generated a fair amount of controversy. Under the proposed legislation, all federal student loans, such as Stafford Loans and Plus Loans, originated after July 1, 2010 would be part of the Federal Direct Loans Program, rather than the current bank-based system.

While initially both sides appeared ready for battle over the proposed legislation, controversy and rhetoric have cooled since the legislation was introduced. Alternative proposals that preserve some element of FFEL or otherwise grant a larger role to banks than in the bill currently before Congress have been proposed, but ultimately failed to generate the savings the Congressional Budget Office estimates this plan to carry, and thus have gained little momentum. Some Representatives still suggest submitting the proposal for further study and reviewing alternatives, but the plan to eliminate FFEL has gained the most widespread support.

Many Republican lawmakers still oppose the proposal to switch entirely to Direct Loans, with some making comparisons to the bank bailouts of earlier this year and the healthcare legislation currently being debated. The move to direct lending has also been repeatedly framed as eliminating choice for students, though the choice of direct loans versus bank-based loans has always rested with colleges and never with student borrowers.

Despite these objections, though, the bill appears to have the support necessary to pass the House and move on to the Senate, where it may face greater challenges. The option of passing it through the process of budget reconcilliation, which requires only a majority vote in the Senate, has been proposed, but whether the Senate goes that route remains to be seen.


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by Emily

For-profit career colleges have had a rocky history, being met with skepticism and criticism from traditional academic institutions, as well as undergoing a great degree of government scrutiny over the years, as some institutions have been revealed to engage in a variety of questionable practices. So, when the Government Accountability Office announced an investigation of proprietary institutions that participate in federal student financial aid programs, few in the education industry were surprised. The results of these investigations were released on Monday, and they indicate that in at least some cases, distrust towards career colleges may still be warranted.

For-profit colleges have higher student loan default rates than any other sector of higher education, with two-year cohort default rates topping 11 percent according to recently released annual Department of Education data, and four-year default rates clearing 23 percent according to the GAO report. By comparison, state colleges have two-year default rates of 6 percent and 9.5 percent respectively, with the default rates for private colleges falling even lower.

While acknowledging that much of this discrepancy is likely due to the different student populations these institutions serve, the GAO found that part of this high default rate could be connected to questionable admission and aid application practices at for-profit colleges. Under current federal law, in order for students to qualify for financial aid, they need to demonstrate "ability to benefit" from higher education. This means that they must have either earned a high school diploma or GED or passed a test indicating they are prepared for college-level instruction. Some of the proprietary colleges investigated by the GAO encouraged students to purchase high school diplomas from diploma mills to circumvent the testing process.

It appears that in at least one case, employees of a career college helped prospective students cheat on an ability to benefit test, even changing their answers after the fact to ensure their scores were high enough. GAO investigators posed as sudents at a school in the Washington, DC area and attempted to deliberately fail this test.  According to the report, they were given some of the answers to the test and also saw evidence of the school tampering with their scores to ensure that they passed and qualified for aid.

These practices allow students who wouldn't otherwise qualify for federal aid access to college instruction and money for school, but also can saddle students who are likely to be unable to complete and benefit from college coursework with large amounts of student loan debt. The Career College Association, which represents proprietary colleges, assures that these practices are not widespread and that strict standards are in place. However, the GAO still urges the federal government to provide more oversight of ability to benefit testing and financial aid disbursement at for-profit colleges.

If you're considering attending a career college, be sure to make sure its practices are legitimate and you are likely to enhance your earning potential by completing a degree or certificate there. Do your research about the school's reputation, the program's reputation and job and salary prospects for graduates of your prospective program.  Also, be wary about borrowing and make sure you don't get into a position where you've taken out too many federal or private loans to be able to pay them back. Attending a career college can help you land a better job or a higher salary, but this report indicates that there are still schools with dodgy practices out there, so diligence is still required when choosing a college.


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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 Emily

The global economic recession of 2008-2009 has had an impact on seemingly every aspect of life, especially large expenses like college tuition. There has been much speculation about the economy's effect on college financial aid, and as the fall semester gets underway at colleges across the nation, information is starting to emerge that helps paint a picture of paying for school in a recession. So far, the results are mixed.

While a poll by Gallup and Sallie Mae showed fewer students borrowing for college this year, a survey conducted by NASFAA, the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators, shows more students applying for and receiving federal student financial aid this year than last year. Additional data from the Department of Education also backs this up, showing 25 percent more borrowing in federal student loan programs this year.

The NASFAA survey of nearly 500 financial aid offices shows that in comparison to the same time last year, 61 percent of colleges and universities are seeing an increase of 10 percent or more in financial aid applications, with 63 percent of institutions also seeing a significant increase in Pell Grant awards this year. Only 8 percent of institutions saw no increase in aid applications, with only 5 percent reporting no increase in Pell awards. Also, despite 65 percent of schools seeing an increase in financial aid appeals by 10 percent or more, 51 percent saw an increase of 10 percent or more in the number of students with unmet financial need.

Additionally, the majority of colleges have increased institutional aid (such as scholarships and grants), with 74 percent of four-year colleges and universities offering some increase in aid. Community colleges were the majority of institutions not increasing aid, with many citing a lack of available funding as the reason for this decision.

Many of the changes found by NASFAA and the Department of Education can be attributed to the federal response to the economic downturn. The increased borrowing is most likely due to the increases in loan limits, with larger unsubsidized Stafford loans being made available to both undergraduate and graduate students in the last two years. Financial aid administrators speculate that the increased aid awards are likely due to a combination of the increasing unemployment rate, changes in rules for adjusting financial aid awards, and nationwide awareness campaigns to let those collecting unemployment benefits know they are eligible for increased financial aid for college.


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by Emily

Student veterans still waiting on their financial aid this fall have finally gotten a bit of relief from the Department of Veterans Affairs.  The VA announced Friday that due to delays in processing requests for veterans' education benefits under the new post-9/11 GI Bill, they will be issuing emergency checks of up to $3,000 available to students whose benefits are still pending. These advances will be available through regional VA offices starting October 2, and students will need to bring a photo ID, a class schedule, and a certificate of eligibility to receive them.  The emergency funds will come out of future benefits checks due to the students.

The massive backlog at the VA office first began to make headlines in August and early September when it was revealed that the VA had made it through only a tiny segment of pending benefits requests. The VA has hired additional staff and ramped up processing since then and anticipates dispensing with the backlog entirely by November 1. However, as the weeks wore on, a clamor has been growing among veterans and the press as students went days, then weeks, and now potentially months without receiving payments for tuition and fees or, more importantly, monthly stipends that allow them to pay for living expenses while attending college.

Part of the delay is due to the massive popularity of the new benefits, with requests simply overwhelming the capacities of the VA office, especially since implementing new rules and procedures can also slow down processing. In addition, the procedures themselves make speedy processing difficult. The VA cannot issue benefits checks until schools have confirmed students' enrollment and tuition charges, which in some cases didn't take place until late summer. Between back and forth correspondence with schools and veterans, and the manual labor involved in processing each claim, a backlog built up quickly and veterans wound up having to borrow money or use credit cards to pay for rent, books, and other expenses.

Colleges have been working with veteran students to minimize the impact of delays, accepting late tuition payments without dropping students from their classes, allowing students to charge books to their bursar accounts, and issuing emergency loans where possible. Between schools' efforts and the new emergency aid through the VA, most student veterans should be able to make it through the next month until they--hopefully--begin receiving regular benefits checks.


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