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House Votes on Student Loan Bill Today

September 17, 2009

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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More Scrutiny of Career Colleges Recommended

September 22, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Study Shows FAFSA Help Boosts Financial Aid Packages

September 23, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

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.

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Tags: FAFSA , Financial Aid , Need-Based


Financial Aid Offices Seeing More Aid Applications and Appeals

September 24, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Student Veterans May Finally Receive Fall Financial Aid

September 29, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Research Shows Need for Simpler Financial Aid Process

September 30, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Financial aid programs that are simple and transparent are most effective for low-income students when it comes to not only getting those students to apply for the aid, but getting them enrolled in college at all, according to a scholarly paper released this week.

In a review of more than a dozen studies looking at how to make college more affordable and attainable to the neediest students, the paper "Into College, Out of Poverty? Policies to Increase the Postsecondary Attainment of the Poor" from the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the effectiveness of a variety of programs, including popular federal and private scholarships, Pell Grants and subsidized student loans. The paper concluded that the easier it is for students to apply, the more likely they will be to apply, and the more likely they'll be going to college as they wouldn't have the funding to do so without applying.

The information that students are intimidated by paperwork and financial aid information isn't surprising. A recent blog post showed the results of a recent study on how professional assistance while filling out the FAFSA boosts the number of students filling out the financial aid application and receiving generous funding. What was more surprising this time around was that certain programs lauded for their assistance of low-income students could be doing better, according to the paper.

An article in Inside Higher Ed today describes the authors' position on the Pell Grant in particular. While the program is effective in targeting low-income students who may not have had the opportunity to attend college otherwise, the amount of paperwork required to receive an award makes the program not as accessible as it could - and should - be. A piece of a recent bill passed in the House and now awaiting Senate action (the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009) would simplify the financial aid application process and potentially make low-income students more comfortable with the process.

The paper also concluded that programs tied to academic performance and that have a broad base when it comes to who can apply - even if the awards are not specifically tied to a student's financial need - are more desirable to low-income students. Why would the neediest students want to compete against a larger pool of applicants for merit-based scholarships? Perhaps the applications for these awards are less time-consuming or easier to manage. Inside Higher Ed gives the example of Georgia's HOPE program, which awards free public tuition to any student with a 3.0 GPA in high school.

The paper was written by David Deming of Harvard University and Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan, with support from the Robin Hood Foundation. The Robin Hood Foundation is preparing to release a book on the topic: Targeting Investments in Children: Fighting Poverty When Resources are Limited. For more information on financial aid application strategies, including tips on filling out the FAFSA, browse through our site so that you're prepared when it's time to find money for college.

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Audit Reveals Problems with Colorado Scholarship Program

September 30, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Colorado's CollegeInvest agency, an organization in charge of state loan forgiveness and scholarship programs, is facing criticism and increased scrutiny from the state's legislature after an audit revealed conflicts of interest and a surprisingly low number of scholarship awards being made by the board. The state legislature will now require the agency to report to them monthly to ensure proper oversight of the state's scholarship and student loan funds.

The audit found that the CollegeInvest Early Achievers Scholarship, a fund that awards high-achieving high school students with college financial aid, had only given out a tiny fraction of the awards it was expected to since it was established in 2005. Students opt into the scholarship program as 7th, 8th or 9th graders and pledge to take pre-college coursework in high school and maintain a GPA of 2.5 or better. The Colorado legislature estimated that the scholarship fund would award about $3.8 million in scholarships per year, but awarded only $91,000 this year. A volunteerism scholarship program and a student loan forgiveness programs managed by CollegeInvest also fell significantly short of goals and projections.

Meanwhile, the fund incurred over $12 million in administrative expenses beyond salaries and benefits for its employees. Reports on the audit note that the program has spent $10 on administrative costs for every $1 in scholarships awarded. The audit also found conflicts of interest with the board awarding funding to other organizations they were connected to and giving out large payments to financial advisors.

CollegeInvest officials say that the program is off to a slow start and that potential conflicts of interest were disclosed and didn't affect board decisions. For now, the state legislature has just asked for increased oversight of the program. But for Colorado students who were expecting to benefit from academic scholarships, community service scholarships, or loan forgiveness programs for which money is in place but funds aren't being awarded in large amounts, any change in these programs cannot come soon enough.

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Balancing Work and School Key to College Success

October 1, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Community colleges are becoming increasingly popular options for young people looking to save money on their college degrees. However, despite their initial college plans, community college students are statistically less likely to earn a degree within six years than students who enroll immediately in a four-year college or university.

A report released this week by Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy institution, looks at the role of financial obligations in college completion rates for community college students under the age of 24. The report points to two things students can do to beat the odds and achieve their college goals: enroll full-time and work no more than part-time.

One of the key findings highlighted in the report is that most community college students have thousands of dollars in unmet financial need, even after accounting for grants and student loans. The lowest income quartile of students had $7,147 in financial need on average after grant aid, and $6,544 in need after accounting for all financial aid. Virtually all students in this quartile had unmet need and 92 percent of these students still had unmet need after all scholarships, grants, and loans. The overwhelming majority of students in the bottom 50% of family income had unmet financial need, averaging nearly $5,000 even after all financial aid.

Based on the substantial amount of unmet financial need these students had, it's not surprising that most community college students worked through school. The report shows 84 percent of young community college students worked while attending college in 2007-2008, and 61 percent of these students worked more than 20 hours a week, despite research showing that students who work fewer than 15 hours a week are the most successful academically. Community college students are more likely than students at state colleges to work their way through school and to work more hours while attending school. Of students who worked, 63 percent said they would not be able to pay for college without work, and 72 percent said they worked to help pay their college costs.

Community college students are also increasingly likely to enroll part-time, despite full-time enrollment being a key predictor of college success. Over half of community college students enrolled part-time in 2007-2008, compared to 19 percent of state college students, and most of these students worked more than part-time, primarily at low-wage jobs that are unrelated to their major or field of study. Just over half of students who initially enrolled part-time left college after 3 years without earning a degree or certificate, compared to only 14 percent of students who initially enrolled full-time.

This report adds to the growing body of research suggesting that borrowing heavily or relying entirely on income from work are not the best way to pay for college. In order to succeed in community college or any higher education institution, students should strongly consider attending full-time and only working part-time. To do this, saving for college or finding additional financial aid may be required. Applying for and winning scholarships can become a major component of college success--not only can scholarships help students meet their full financial need, but students who earn scholarships are also more likely to earn a college degree.

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New Report: Tuition and Financial Aid Rise, Private Loans Fall During Recession

October 21, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

On Tuesday, the College Board published the latest installment in its Trends in Higher Education Series, annual reports detailing changes in college costs and student financial aid. These newest reports cover the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 academic years and provide some insight into how economic difficulties have affected paying for college. Despite the recession, tuition continued to rise at a pace comparable to previous years, but financial aid has undergone some changes.

Between 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, tuition increased 6.5% at 4-year public colleges and 4.4% at 4-year private colleges. Tuition and fees for in-state students at four-year state colleges rose from $6,591 to $7,020. Out-of-state tuition and fees at public colleges rose to $18,548, a 6.2 percent increase. Private college tuition and fees rose to $26,273. Total costs of attendance also rose to $19,388 for public colleges (a 5.8% increase) and $39,028 for private colleges (a 4.4% increase). Rising college costs are attributed to declines in state funding and massive endowment losses brought about by the recession.

Despite tuition increases and greater financial difficulties for students and families, total student borrowing dropped by 1% when adjusted for inflation in 2008-2009.  Federal student loan borrowing increased by $11 billion, or 15 percent, to about $84 billion. Most strikingly, there was a 50% drop in private loan volume in the 2008-2009 academic year, as a result of the tightening of credit markets. The 2008-2009 academic year also saw a growth in grant aid (both need-based and merit-based college scholarships and grants). About 2/3 of full-time undergraduates receive grants and the average grant was $5,041. The College Board anticipates that students will receive an estimated $5,400 in grant aid and tax benefits in 2009-2010.

A large portion of grant aid is made up of merit-based awards, like academic scholarships, which worries some analysts who are concerned with the increasing cost of tuition pricing lower income families out of college entirely. While, after adjusting for aid, the average net cost of tuition actually has declined for families over the period covered in these reports, another recent report by Postsecondary Education Opportunity research Tom Mortenson showed that students from the poorest families tended to have the largest amount of unmet financial need. The sharp drop in private loans suggests those families may be less likely to be able to secure funding to cover that unmet need, even if colleges and the federal government have made more aid available this year.

Much of the growth in federal student loans and college grants and scholarships is likely due to the increased amount of aid colleges and the federal government made available to struggling students as a result of the recession. However, much of this emergency aid is intended to be temporary, so these changes may turn out to be anomaly, rather than an overall trend.

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Survey Shows Students Know Too Little About College Aid

October 22, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Can college students correctly answer basic questions about federal student financial aid? Researchers from CALPIRG, the California Public Interest Research Group, sought to find out, asking California community college students three questions about financial aid. The results of the survey were published this week. The majority of students did not do so well, with over half of students answering one or zero questions correctly.

How would you do? Students were asked to say whether the following three statements were true or false (the questions below are paraphrased from the report):

  1. I have to go to school full time to be eligible for financial aid.
  2. Taking more classes per term could increase my financial aid award.
  3. Financial aid can be used to cover expenses beyond tuition and fees, such as living expenses.

The answers:

  1. False. You do not have to go to school full time to be eligible for financial aid. Students enrolled at least half-time are able to apply for and receive federal student financial aid, including Pell Grants and Stafford Loans. Only 47 percent of students surveyed answered this correctly.
  2. True. If your tuition goes up, your aid award can go up, especially when it comes to federal work-study and low-interest student loans. Additionally, students who move from half-time to three-quarter-time or full-time enrollment can see an increase in Pell Grant awards and also potentially become eligible for more college scholarships and grants. Half of students answered this correctly.
  3. True. Financial aid can be used to cover college expenses including food, rent, car maintenance, books, computers, and other essentials. These items are included in the living expenses portion of the cost of attendance figure used by the financial aid office to calculate your aid eligibility. Students surveyed did the best on this question, with 54 percent answering correctly.

Knowing About Aid Can Boost College Success: At this point, it's becoming fairly well-documented that not enough community college students apply for federal student financial aid, despite the fact that many are eligible. While some students don't apply because their schools do not participate in federal aid programs, others don't apply because they don't know they're eligible for aid. The results of the CALPIRG survey suggest that this is a fairly substantial group of students. Namely, 13 percent of students surveyed didn't get a single question right, 44 percent of students answered only one question correctly, and only 2 percent of students who did not apply for aid got all 3 questions, compared to 10 percent of students overall.

Additionally, the survey shows that many students are loan-averse, with almost half of students saying they would drop a class or an entire semester than take out a student loan to cover books or other expenses, and students showing nearly as much willingness to put their books on a credit card than to take out a federal loan for books.  A full 57 percent of surveyed students saying they would only borrow as a last resort or would not borrow for college at all. With additional research suggesting that many community college students are not balancing work and college effectively and that their reluctance or inability to borrow is hurting their chances of graduating, more financial aid education is important.

Community college students are not the only college students who may need help learning about financial aid. If you found that you answered one or more question incorrectly, you may want to review information about paying for school. We have a wide variety of student resources available that can help you learn about financial aid programs and requirements and maximize the amount of aid you receive.

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