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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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CollegeWeekLive

March 25, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Are you getting ready to kick off the college search, but unsure where to begin?  Today and tomorrow, prospective college students can participate in CollegeWeekLive, a free college prep event featuring college admissions and financial aid information from schools and experts across the country.  The event takes place online at CollegeWeekLive.com and kicks off today at 10 AM EDT, with the first keynote address scheduled for 11 a.m.

Participants in CollegeWeekLive will be able to visit virtual information booths and speak with admissions officers from colleges of all sizes in every part of the United States, as well as several online and international schools.  Current students from over 75 colleges will also be available to chat live and answer your questions about student life.

Admissions, testing and financial aid experts will also give live, streaming presentations throughout the day both days.  Topics range from athletic scholarships to standardized test preparation.  Speakers include Scholarships.com's Kevin Ladd, who will be sharing information and advice about finding and winning scholarships.  Kevin will be speaking at 5 PM Eastern tomorrow, so take the opportunity to hear what one of our scholarship experts has to say!

If you're a current high school student thinking ahead to college, this is a great event to check out.  Learn about colleges you may want to attend without spending hours in a car, and hear what people in the know have to say about paying for school.  Students who register also have a shot at winning prizes.

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The Recession and College Admissions

April 2, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Earlier this week, we blogged about the recession making getting into a PhD program more difficult for prospective graduate students.  Prospective undergraduates are also facing a changing admissions landscape, but the picture for them is more complicated. Articles about colleges' admission conundrums have abounded this week as acceptance letters and financial aid notices make their way to anxious high school seniors.

Top schools with big endowments and generous financial aid packages, such as virtually the entire Ivy League, are facing increased applications and some of their lowest admission rates ever.  Meanwhile, other private colleges are admitting more students than last year, and also putting more students on their waiting lists.  Many state colleges and community colleges are also seeing increased interest and jumps in enrollment, and schools with limited resources are forced to turn away a larger percentage of applicants.

All of this adds up to a lot of uncertainty for students, and for colleges trying to create next year's freshman class.  Many sources are saying it also means increased flexibility for some students in terms of negotiating admission or financial aid at their top choice schools.

Since schools are hurting financially and admissions offices are as nervous as students this year about their decisions, students who are able to pay full freight (either out-of-pocket or through a generous outside scholarship award) may face an advantage getting off the wait list, since several schools admit to considering ability to pay when deciding whether to admit waitlisted students. Students who have received an acceptance letter from their dream school, but have been offered larger amounts of institutional aid from other colleges may also have more options this year. Students in this boat may want to let their favorite private colleges know about their dilemma to see if they can get a slightly better offer.  Many schools may be willing to drop a couple thousand extra dollars on you if it will secure your tuition payment.

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House and Senate Pass 2010 Budget Outlines

April 3, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Yesterday, the House and Senate both passed outlines for the 2010 federal budget.  Both propose about $3.5 trillion in spending and preserve many of the priorities of President Obama's budget, including more spending on federal student financial aid. A conference committee will hammer out the differences between the two packages and create a compromise budget.

On financial aid, the main point of contention continues to be the proposal to eliminate the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program and switch to federal Direct Loans for Stafford and PLUS loans.  The language of the House budget outline paves the way for the elimination of FFELP by instructing the Committee on Education and Labor to find $1 billion in savings through the budget reconciliation process.  The Senate bill does not include such a provision, and instead includes (largely symbolic) language promoting a student lending system built on competition and choice.

After an outline is agreed upon, then specific spending legislation will start to emerge, and the fate of FFELP, as well as the proposed expansions to Pell Grants and Perkins Loans, can be determined.  So far, it appears that many of these changes, as well as healthcare and environmental reform, are on their way to becoming reality.

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Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter

April 9, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Along with acceptance and rejection letters, colleges are sending out another nerve-wracking piece of mail this month: the financial aid award letter.  For many families who have only recently discovered the "joys" of completing the FAFSA, the financial aid letter can bring about a whole new kind of terror and confusion.  Even for people who are somewhat familiar with aid, deconstructing the naming conventions and occasionally less-than-detailed explanations on various colleges' award letters can be frustrating, as can mounting an effective comparison among differing aid packages.  Below is the first part in a series on understanding your financial aid award letter.

Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter, Part I: COA and EFC

Two of the most important numbers on your award notice will be the cost of attendance (COA) and the expected family contribution (EFC). These are instrumental in determining your award, and they also have some of the most obscure and misleading meanings. Despite their prominence, they're occasionally tucked in strange places on the letter, such as near the bottom or in a box in the middle. Finding them can kind of be a Where's Waldo moment.

Cost of Attendance

The cost of attendance, often abbreviated COA, is occasionally referred to by other names, such as your "budget."  This number is not what you owe the school, nor what a year of education will necessarily cost you there. Instead, it is the average amount paid by a student in your situation: dependent living on campus, independent living off-campus, part-time living rent-free at home, etc. The COA will include tuition, student fees (these could change if you later register for classes with special fees, such as art or aviation), room and board (either what the school is charging you or what the average student in your housing situation pays), books, and miscellaneous living expenses.  Your school's financial aid office will likely have a detailed breakdown of this number available online or in the office if you ask.

The important thing to realize here is that this number is significantly higher than the amount of money you will actually owe the school. If you plan on working your way through college or receiving assistance from your parents for living expenses, you may not need aid to cover your full COA. It can still be a good tool for comparing among colleges, though, especially since they factor in handy things like average living expenses in the area.

Expected Family Contribution

The other big number on your award letter will be the expected family contribution, or E FC. Again, this is not the amount your family actually owes the school or is expected to pay out-of-pocket. Instead, this is the amount that, according to the information you submitted on your FAFSA, a family in your situation should ideally be able to contribute towards a college education. This is used to determine your eligibility for "need-based" aid, which includes state and federal grants, work-study, and even subsidized loans. Certain grants and scholarships can only be awarded to students with an EFC below a specific number (for example, 4671 for Federal Pell Grants), so if you are not eligible for grants but your financial circumstances have changed since 2008, talk to your financial aid office to see if your EFC can be adjusted downward.

Your EFC should be the same at pretty much every school, since they're using the same information to determine it (some schools require both a FAFSA and a CSS profile, so there could potentially be some differences).  However, it's still useful for comparisons among schools, since you can use it to determine whether your full "financial need" has been met by each school. Like nearly everything else in student financial aid, this term does not necessarily mean what one might think it should mean. Your financial need is a number calculated based on the two numbers we just discussed.  Your full financial need is your COA minus your EFC, and your unmet financial need is generally your COA minus your EFC minus any need-based aid and scholarship awards you've received.

So, how do you determine what the need-based awards and scholarships are on your award letter?  Check out Part II for that information.

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Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter II

April 10, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

So you've figured out your cost of attendance, your expected family contribution, and the total amount of aid you're being offered at each college.  However, not all aid is created equal, and a package that appears to meet your full need could actually get you into more debt than a package that leaves a substantial gap.  A useful move both in choosing a college and budgeting out what you need for the year is to separate the grant and scholarship aid you've been offered from all of the other financial aid.  This is going to involve some more math and record-keeping on your part. We'll delve into the best kinds of aid in the second part in our series on understanding your financial aid award letter.

Understanding Your Award Letter, Part II: Grants and Scholarships

College scholarships and grants are money you will not have to pay back.  They come from a variety of places and have different terms attached.  Grants are almost universally need-based, and will typically be awarded based on your expected family contribution and your estimated financial need.  Scholarships are given based on a variety of criteria, and while some may carry a need-based component, not all do.  Below are some of the most common varieties of grants and scholarships you're likely to see on your award letter.

Grants

There are state grants, federal grants, and institutional grants, but they will likely all be listed in the same place.  The most common type of grant is the Federal Pell Grant.  For 2009-2010, Pell Grants come in amounts from $976 to $5350 for full-time students.  Especially needy students may also receive an SEOG, which stands for Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant.  Award amounts vary, but they are usually a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.  First-year students may receive an Academic Competitiveness Grant, or ACG, which carries an award of $750 to $1,300.

There are also federal grants for people in specific fields.  SMART grants and TEACH grants reward students pursuing training in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and education.  SMART grants are only available to juniors and seniors who meet eligibility requirements.

Most states have at least one state grant program, and students who met deadlines and other criteria may see an additional state grant award on their letter.  Many states also offer major-specific grant programs, as well as grant programs for other specific student populations.  You can talk to you financial aid office or visit your state board of higher education's website to find out more about these programs.

Scholarships

Most universities offer at least one need-based scholarship, which is roughly the same thing as a university grant.  Numerous varieties of university scholarships exist, but the most common are need-based, academic, major-specific, and athletic.  If you've received a grant or scholarship award from your college, you will likely receive a letter explaining it in more detail.  Make note of the terms of the award, including whether it's renewable and what conditions have to be met to receive it.  This is especially important for college academic scholarships, as many require a fairly high GPA or heavy course load to renew.

It's also important to keep track of the grants, scholarships, and other institutional aid you receive because sometimes the awards may not appear on your first award letter, or they may show up under a different name.  Many scholarships come from endowed funds, and you may get a letter giving the more general name of the award, but may see it on your letter under the donor's name.  This can cause confusion and disappointment if you think you got a bonus scholarship but actually did not, and if your award is missing, adding it on later may result in your financial aid being recalculated if you're funded beyond your financial need or your cost of attendance.

Finally, if you've received any scholarship money through places other than the university or the state (such as awards you found through our free scholarship search), make sure it's represented on your award letter.  Many scholarship providers send the check to your school, and the school will need to make sure it doesn't alter your aid package before they disburse it. If you need the money to pay tuition or buy books, you want to make sure everything's set up so the check can smoothly make its way from the scholarship provider to your account.

If you're comparing offers from different schools, tally up the grant and scholarship aid you will receive this year, as well as the aid you can anticipate in future years.  Compare what your total award over four years will be for each school for the most accurate picture of who has given you the best deal.

Now that we've gotten through the free money, we can get to everything else.  Check out Part III for information on work-study and loans.

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