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House Passes Economic Stimulus Bill

February 13, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Radio Scholarships.com

February 18, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Yesterday Kim Stezala, better known as The Scholarship Lady, interviewed our own Kevin Ladd on BlogTalkRadio.com.  The topic of the interview was our upcoming 2009 Resolve to Evolve Scholarship competition, which we'll be announcing soon on our site.  Resolve to Evolve is one of the fourteen college scholarships we offer at Scholarships.com.  This year, Resove to Evolve awards will make up $5,000 of the $18,000 in scholarship money we provide to deserving Scholarships.com users through our scholarship essay contests.

In addition to talking about the scholarships we offer, Kevin also dispenses some valuable advice on scholarship applications in general.  You can listen to the complete interview here. And, of course, you can conduct your own free scholarship search on Scholarships.com to find out more about the scholarship opportunities mentioned in the interview, as well as the over 2.7 million college scholarships and grants worth over $19 billion listed in our database.

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House Approves 2009 Appropriations Bill

February 26, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Yet Another Boost to Pell Grants in 2010 Budget Proposal

February 27, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Colleges in Three States Tackle Affordability

March 4, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

As college affordability continues to be a major issue for many Americans, more states and colleges are implementing policies to save students money.  Three recently unveiled programs tackle different aspects of the college cost dilemma confronting different groups of students, parents, and graduates.

A partnership between the University System of New Hampshire and businesses in the state could pay up to $8,000 of New Hampshire residents' student loan debt.  The program is set to take effect this fall and the University System of New Hampshire hopes to recruit at least 30-40 businesses to participate in its first year.  Students will be eligible to receive payments of $1,600 per year for the first two years of employment and $2,400 per year for the next two if they graduate from a New Hampshire college and remain in the state to work for four years.

Meanwhile, in New York, one college is formalizing a program to save students one year of loan debt by offering a clear three-year path to graduation.  Hartwick College has long offered students the option of taking more classes per semester and graduating in 3 years, but now the practice has been turned into an official academic program for high-performing students.  Students must have a strong high school GPA to qualify, and will be expected to take 18 credits in the fall and spring, plus four credits during a J-term each year, finishing with 120 credits in three years.

Three Nebraska state colleges are also trying to minimize student loan debt, but are targeting a group of low-income students to receive more university grant funding.  Wayne State College, Peru State College, and Chadron State College have announced plans to pay freshman year tuition and fees for all students eligible to receive Pell Grants.  Students would still be responsible for room, board, and books, but removing the worry of paying tuition and fees may encourage more low-income students to attend college in Nebraska, as well as enable them to stay enrolled past the first year.

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The State of Federal Student Financial Aid

March 3, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Direct Lending Continues to Gain Popularity

March 10, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

According to US Department of Education data, over the last year colleges and universities have continued to leave the Federal Family Education Loan Program in droves, switching to the federally run Direct Loans Program.  Between February 2008 and February 2009, the number of schools issuing federal Direct Loans increased from 1,072 to 1,620, an increase of nearly 34 percent.

Direct Loans and FFEL are two competing programs schools choose between for the two most common varieties of federally funded student loans.  Both Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans can be issued and consolidated through either program (Perkins Loans are issued through separate loan programs).  Previously, FFEL was more popular, due in part to generous government subsidies that allowed participating banks to offer breaks on origination fees and loan repayment, as well as comprehensive programs to prevent borrowers from defaulting.

However, subsidy cuts and the collapse of credit markets in 2008 both took their toll on FFEL, as well as private loans, which are often issued by the same banks that participate in FFEL.  Many lenders left the program, and those still participating in FFEL could no longer afford to offer incentives to borrowers, and when the government stepped in to keep the system afloat last year, part of the deal involved taking other incentives and inducements (primarily ones involved in the conflict of interest scandals of 2007) off the table.  This ongoing string of troubles prompted more college financial aid offices to decide to make the switch to Direct Loans for Stafford and PLUS.

Direct lending has also received an endorsement from the executive branch of the federal government.  President Obama has called for an end to the lender subsidies that comprise the FFEL program, and urged Congress to consolidate funding into one federal student loan program: Direct Loans.

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Senate Passes 2009 Appropriations Bill

March 11, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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More Early Filers for 2009-2010 FAFSA

March 12, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

More students are completing the FAFSA early for 2009-2010 according to data collected by the Department of Education.  By the end of February, more than 3 million students had filed their FAFSA for the next academic year, an increase of over 20 percent from the first two months of 2008.  As application deadlines approach, this flood of applications could slow, but right now it looks like there will be more demand for financial aid in the coming school year.

Federal student financial aid is becoming an increasingly attractive means of paying for college.  For starters, federal aid is up for 2009-2010--in the case of Federal Pell Grants, way up.  A combination of factors has boosted maximum grants to $5,350 in 2009-2010, while simultaneously raising the minimum award to $976 and the maximum qualifying Expected Family Contribution to $4,671.  Low interest rates and expanded federal loan cancellation and consolidation options are also making federal student loans more appealing.

Meanwhile, several other payment options aren't doing so well.  Private loans became harder to obtain in 2008, and also saw fairly substantial interest rate increases.  College savings plans, such as 529 plans, took big hits in the stock market, and even some prepaid tuition plans are struggling to guarantee payouts for upcoming years.  College endowments have also been affected by financial troubles, and some endowed scholarships may be reduced or unavailable for the coming academic year.

However, this doesn't mean the FAFSA is the only option for student financial aid.  Most states are maintaining funding for their scholarship programs, many colleges are increasing aid where possible, and scholarship opportunities are still out there--though many deadlines are approaching--for students who are willing and able to take the time to do a scholarship search and complete some scholarship applications.

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Don't Spend March Waiting: Take Action Now for Fall Financial Aid

March 17, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

While April may be the cruelest month, March can be especially rough for students bound for college or graduate school.  Late March and early April are when admissions decisions and financial aid letters roll out for those not immediately accepted or rejected by their dream schools, and around now, things are getting pretty agonizing.  While a large part of March is consumed by waiting, even those who have already received good news may be consumed by the crushing dread of all the work to be done before September.  After all, if you get into a college or graduate school, you still have to figure out how to pay for it, what classes to take, what forms to complete, what to do with your life between now and then, and for many students, how to graduate on time, as well.  So, while you may still be waiting for a decision, there are things you can do in March to make April through August easier.

First, budget your time.  Figure out the things you'll need to do, and make a plan to get them done.  While you can't yet pick your classes or contact an unassigned roommate to figure out who is bringing the fridge or the TV, you can take care of other things.

If you haven't done so yet, complete the FAFSA.  If you did a FAFSA with your 2007 tax information, do your 2008 taxes and submit a correction.  Check your student aid report to see if you were chosen for verification, a process roughly equivalent to an audit of your FAFSA that is conducted by your college.  Colleges receive a glut of verification forms towards the start of the school year, and a delay in completing it can result in a delay in financial aid.  If you're not sure you've done everything you need to receive aid on time, contact the college to make sure.  It's better to find out now than to find out on the first day of classes when you need to buy books and find that you can't.

Keep searching for scholarships and submitting scholarship applications.  Deadlines are approaching rapidly, and available scholarships for the 2009-2010 academic year will only get more sparse as you approach the start of the fall semester.  This doesn't just go for high schoolers--if you're a soon-to-be graduate student with an acceptance letter in hand, but no assistantship or fellowship, don't count on funding emerging later. This can and does happen, but many schools make these awards with their admission decisions.

If you've received your financial aid award letter at your college of choice and it's come up drastically short, look into options for appealing it, especially if your financial circumstances have changed or if you've gotten a better offer from a different school.  You may also want to start shopping around for student loans. You might not be able to apply until summer (and you might not want to if you're currently applying for scholarships), but knowing what's out there now can help later.

If you take these steps now, then it will be easier to direct your spring and summer towards enjoying (or enduring) school, preparing to graduate, and figuring out your summer plans.  You'll also be less rushed and less likely to forget to do important things, like signing up to register for classes or mailing in a deposit on time.

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