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by Emily

Paying for college can be a struggle.  Nobody wants to repay student loans forever, not everybody is going to land a full-tuition scholarship, and federal student financial aid seldom takes care of all college costs.  If you're a parent or relative looking ahead to cover college costs for a child, finding scholarships is a great step now, but you may also want to consider college savings plans.

Read below for information on 529 savings plans, which are one of the most popular and diverse options for college savings.  If this is not for you, check back tomorrow for more information on other savings options.

529 Savings Plans While 529 plans have sustained average losses of 21 percent in the last year, they can still be a good idea, especially if you choose your plan carefully and have plenty of time to save.  Many 529 plans allow you to move your savings into a much more conservative portfolio when the student nears college, an option they're sure to publicize based on the recent behavior of the stock market.  While there are limits on how many changes can be made to a 529 plan per year, the plans are otherwise quite flexible and varied, so it's easy to find one that works for your situation. Plus, 529 plans can be taken out in the parent's name, rather than the student's, so they will only minimally affect a student's financial aid eligibility.

Additionally, contribution limits are high, income limits are nonexistent, minimum contribution requirements tend to be low, and many states offer a variety of incentives for residents who contribute to their plans.  As an added bonus, many 529 plans can accept contributions from anybody anywhere, not just the people named on the account, and several programs have been created to take advantage of this.  For example, some plans allow a portion of credit card purchases or purchases at certain stores to go towards a particular student's 529 plan.

Prepaid Tuition Savings Plans If you're hesitant about sticking money for college in the stock market with uncertain returns, another type of 529 plan is also gaining popularity.  Prepaid tuition plans allow families to contribute a fixed amount now in exchange for a certain portion of tuition being covered in the future.  Many states do this for their state colleges and universities, and the Independent 529 plan, which is accepted by over 200 private colleges, also fixes contributions to portions of future tuition.  Both of these varieties eliminate worries about tuition inflation, though if tuition actually goes down between now and when the student starts college, a prepaid plan might not be the most lucrative option.

The Down Side 529 plans do have drawbacks and limitations.  Money must be spent on education, and the expenses that qualify are limited to undergraduate tuition, fees, educational expenses like books, and now computers. However, if the student is enrolled at least half-time, money from a 529 plan can also go towards room and board, so even if your student earns a full-tuition scholarship, it's possible to still take advantage of 529 savings.  Money must stay in a plan for at least 3 years, so if you're saving for a college sophomore, you're out of luck with these.  However, you can transfer the unused portion of a 529 plan to another family member without incurring the heavy withdrawal penalties, and it may also be possible to use the funds towards graduate or professional school.

Plans also vary from state to state, so your state's plan might not have the best benefits for you, or might not offer as sweet a deal in terms of tax breaks or low fees as the next state over offers its residents.  Luckily, you can shop around among a variety of plans, including ones offered by several other states.

529 plans are not the only college saving option, though they remain the most popular and perhaps the most well-known.  Check back tomorrow for information on the rest of the pack.


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by Emily

Today is May 29, also known as "529 College Savings Day," named after 529 plans, which are popular state-sponsored college savings plans.  Today has been designated as a day to raise awareness of the importance of saving for college, as well as ways to do so. While 529 plans suffered along with everything else in the stock market, they are still being emphasized as a valuable tool for saving money for college.

According to a poll conducted by Gallup and Sallie Mae, 62 percent of families with college-bound children are already saving for college in some capacity, with the majority planning to contribute at least half of a child's tuition.  About half of families that are saving already regularly contribute to college funds, and around a third use state 529 plans.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has more information on the survey, as well as a link to the results.

If you're curious about college savings plans, we have some resources to help you get started.  A few months ago, we did a couple blog posts on saving for college, featuring a discussion of 529 plans, as well as other savings options.  While the focus of today is on saving for college, it's also a good time to look into college scholarships, especially for students still in high school.  Read up on college savings accounts today, then do a free college scholarship search to find more options for paying for school.


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by Agnes Jasinski

As the number of returning adult students continues to grow and the "traditional" student population has only become more diverse to include those with backgrounds and life experience in varying fields of study, some schools are looking at rewarding those new students with credit hours for "prior learning," rather than prompting them to start over as most freshmen do.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education explores schools that consider academic achievements alongside individual accomplishments before students step onto campus, and look at their volunteerism, years in the military, or on-the-job training, among other life experiences. Formal assessments of those experiences are then used to evaluate incoming students as a way to award them credit hours, often as a replacement of general education coursework.

At Valdosta State University, professors conduct assessments of students' experiences by having them demonstrate what they already know about a certain field. The Chronicle describes a biology professor who awards credit to students who may have a background in science from volunteering to clean up local streams, for example, or lab experience. The school has been conducting such assessments for about a year and a half; the program started when the school decided to begin training students who had come from non-traditional backgrounds to become teachers.

At Empire State College, which is part of the State University of New York, students are able to write their own degree plans. Faculty committees and administrative offices review portfolios students craft based on their work experience in a particular field, for example, and determine how many credits students should receive based on that information. The school's administrators say having the students reflect on what they've learned before going to college helps them realize their potential and make obvious the kinds of skills they may have, as they are forced to put those talents on paper. At Inver Hills Community College, students are asked to complete two courses at the school before attempting a portfolio, which not only involves writing about their past experiences, but being able to discuss them.

Other schools conduct more standardized tests and formal assessments for students to demonstrate prior learning skills, such as the American Council on Education's evaluations of work and military training or the College Level Examination Program tests. According to the Chronicle and Stamats, a higher-education marketing company, the availability of credit for life experience is the top thing adults look for when selecting a school in their college search. About half of all schools have some kind of prior learning assessment available to students, according to the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning, so if you're a returning adult student, consider that the work you've already done could save you some time—and money—as you take on that college experience.


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by Agnes Jasinski

A new survey looking at entering community college students' opinions on the obstacles they face during their first year found that those students need more guidance to succeed as they transition from high school to higher education.

The study, released yesterday, was the ongoing Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE), which was first given to poll students in 2006. Since then, more than 91,000 students have been polled, with the results used by community colleges to improve preparedness programs and tactics to help new students achieve. The survey this time around looked at data from more than 50,000 students at 120 participating community colleges in 31 states and the Marshall Islands.

The survey looks to examine the first three weeks of new community college students' experiences at their respective colleges. Most of the respondents felt their colleges were doing a good job with the welcome wagons, and making them feel comfortable in their new surroundings. But others still felt more could be done to help them prepare for college, and to navigate administrative processes that seemed complicated at times. The findings included the following:

  • About 72 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they felt welcome the first time they came to their colleges; 25 percent expressed no opinion on this item, which concerned the providers of the SENSE survey.
  • About 49 percent said they agree or strongly agree that their colleges provided them with adequate information about financial aid, while 25 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.
  • About 33 percent agreed or strongly agreed that a college staff member helped them determine whether they qualified for financial assistance; 40 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.
  • About 45 percent agreed or strongly agreed that at least one college staff member (other than an instructor) learned their names, compared with 37 percent who disagreed or strongly disagreed.
  • About 23 percent said that a specific person was assigned to them so they could see that person each time they needed information or assistance.
  • About 90 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they have the motivation to succeed in college, but about a quarter of those students also admitted to skipping class or failing to turn an assignment in at least once.

According to an analysis of the survey from Inside Higher Ed yesterday, the results point to the missed opportunities that face students and administrators on a daily basis on community college campuses. When students were asked to elaborate on their answers using short answers, some said they were forced to make decisions on choosing college courses, for example, with little guidance from their counselors, something they could well enough do on their own. The article also pointed to contradictions in the study; for example, students responded that they enjoyed the access they had to college staff members, but still felt unprepared to navigate college processes.

The providers of the survey suggest more needs to be done to engage students, and that administrators should take regular looks at their processes to make them even more easy to access by students who may need more help as first-year community college students.


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