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by Agnes Jasinski

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

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

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

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

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


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by Agnes Jasinski

Despite some Republication opposition, The House of Representatives voted 253-171 to approve a bill Thursday that would stop lending from the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program in favor of the Department of Education-run Federal Direct Loans Program by July 2010. The bill, known as the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009, would also increase the current maximum Federal Pell Grant from $5,350 to $5,550 and provide for annual increases to the grant in the years to follow through a $40 billion pool of funding over the next decade.

The bill is expected to have more of a fight when it comes before the Senate, where even Democrats have voiced concerns about the potential for job losses in states that headquarter private loan agencies. Many Republican lawmakers argue that the student loan industry has served college students well, and oppose the government takeover.

Amendments to the bill that failed before its passage looked at ways to allow the private sector to continue student lending as a way to offer the college-bound more choice in financing their educations. Amendments that passed included strengthening support services to borrowers and making part-time students eligible for Year-Round Federal Pell Grants, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid and Administrators.

The bill would also:

  • use the projected $87 billion in savings from the move to direct lending to expand aid to students and colleges.
  • provide $10 billion in grants to community colleges as part of the Obama administration's American Graduation Initiative, a project that aims to nearly double the number of two-year institutions across the country.
  • overhaul the Perkins Loan program and expand its funding from $1 to $6 billion per year.
  • provide $8 billion in grants targeting early-learning programs over the next 10 years.
  • make interest rates on need-based federal student loans variable starting in 2012.
  • simplify the financial aid application process.

The legislation has broad support from the Obama administration. The president called the bill a "historic set of reforms," adding in a statement that the bill "will end the billions upon billions of dollars in unwarranted subsidies that we hand out to banks and financial institutions." Currently, about one-forth of students' loans come through the government's direct loan program.


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by Agnes Jasinski

To compensate for stalled negotiations on both health care legislation and a bill that would overhaul the country's student loan program and improve college students' access to federal aid, Democratic leaders proposed a solution yesterday that would move both of those hot-button issues forward—combine them, and pass them as one.

Both the comprehensive health care bill, which would guarantee health insurance to 30 million uninsured Americans, and the student loan bill, which would replace private lending with direct lending through the government and increase Pell Grant maximums, have faced opposition as Democrats work to pass both through Congress before the November mid-term elections. To kill two birds with one stone, Democratic legislators proposed bundling the two bills into one last night, not only to give the proposals a better chance at passage, but to keep them alive long enough for a vote by the full Senate and House.

An article in the New York Times yesterday describes the strong support a dual measure already has among the Democrats, suggesting that adding the student loan bill to the more expansive health care legislation would improve the health care bill's chances at passage. (Providing college students with more access to federal aid is undoubtedly more popular and less controversial than crafting a reasonable health care bill.)

The student loan bill had already passed in the House. Recent predictions have the government saving about $67 billion by going to direct lending; that new funding would go toward Pell Grants and other education programs. (A rise in the number of people attending college and seeking aid in the weak economy has raised the projected cost of new Pell Grants to $54 billion from $40 billion, according to the New York Times.) The student loan bill has been a consistent goal of President Obama's, as lenders have come under fire for a lack of oversight,  rising student loan default rates, and contributing to excessive debt among college students. Effectively, the bill would put an end to direct-to-student private loans, which students can borrow without even informing the financial aid office, and which can be taken out for more than the student’s cost of attendance for the academic year.

The private student loan industry has obviously not been very supportive of the bill, and Republicans have questioned whether giving the government control over the student loan industry is really a wise choice.


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5, 4, 3, 2, 1…Happy New FAFSA!

2011-2012 Application Available Tomorrow

December 31, 2010

5, 4, 3, 2, 1…Happy New FAFSA!

by Alexis Mattera

Ladies and gentlemen, prospective and current college students, I (or the federal government, rather) give you the 2011-2012 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Hooray!

Vacuum up the confetti because it’s time to get down to business. January 1st marks the first day college-bound seniors, continuing undergraduate and graduate students, and their parents can begin filling out the FAFSA online. Completing the FAFSA is a vital part of the college process: The Department of Education uses it to determine eligibility for federal student financial aid for college. This aid includes federal grant programs (such as the Pell Grant), federal work study, and federal student loans; it is also used by states to determine eligibility for their college aid programs, such as state grants. Colleges also use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for the need-based aid programs they administer and, finally, many scholarship opportunities request FAFSA information as part of their application processes. Even if you think that you won’t qualify for free money in the form of need-based college scholarships and grants, you should still apply. At the minimum, the vast majority of students qualify for Stafford Loans, low-interest federal student loans that represent one of the best deals in borrowing and paying for school.

Submission deadlines vary by state (verify yours sooner than later here) so, as with any sort of college funding, we recommend you complete the FAFSA as early as possible because funds do run out. For more information, visit the official FAFSA website or review our federal aid pages. Happy filing (and New Year)!


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Obama (Sorta Kinda) Keeps His Promise

Changes in Higher Ed Funding Afoot

February 15, 2011

Obama (Sorta Kinda) Keeps His Promise

by Alexis Mattera

While "Honest Barack" doesn't have quite the same ring as our 16th President’s nickname, we have to give him credit for keeping his promise to privilege spending on education and research...for the most part: Some potentially painful cuts could slice through the higher education pie relatively soon.

First, the good news. The 2012 budget blueprint reveals the maximum Pell Grant (currently set at $5,550 per year) would not be slashed by $845 as originally expected and funding will continue for financial aid programs including AmeriCorps, the Perkins Loan and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Programs and academic research agencies. The Education Department's overall budget would grow by 4.3 percent in 2012 under the President's budget but despite this positive information, it won’t be all unicorns and butterflies for college students. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the administration had to make some "tough choices" to maintain the current level of funding and compensate for future spending. For example, the department's 2012 budget calls for ending a three-year experiment allowing students to qualify for two Pell Grants in a calendar year and use this funding to attend college year-round, as well as eliminating the subsidy in which the government pays interest on graduate student loans while the students are in school; the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership Program, the Byrd Honors Scholarships and the TEACH Grant program would also be eliminated.

Obama said, "Education is an investment that we need to win the future...and to make sure that we can afford these investments, we’re going to have to get serious about cutting back on those things that would be nice to have but we can do without," but student advocates, like Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, were quick to show their displeasure. "It is regrettable that the administration is proposing to maintain Pell by making cuts to other student aid programs that provide much needed funds to students," he said.

The information above merely scratches the surface (check out Inside Higher Ed’s article for all details) but it’s enough to get the conversation started. What do you think of the proposed budget? Will the changes impact your ability to pay for school? Would you propose a different course of action?


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What Ever Happened to No Takesy Backsies?

Possible Pell Cuts Could Mean Revised Financial Aid Offers

April 6, 2011

What Ever Happened to No Takesy Backsies?

by Suada Kolovic

If you’re a high school senior and have received your financial aid package from your dream school, listen up: Congress may cut the Pell Grant program’s budget this year and colleges may have to roll back a portion of the financial-aid offers they made to students for the coming academic year. Translation: You may receive a smaller financial-aid package than was originally offered.

According to the Chronicle, both parties acknowledge that some type of restructuring will be necessary to put the program on sound financial footing, but lawmakers disagree on the size and scope of the cuts. Some proposals suggest lowering the maximum award, ending the year-round program and changing the income requirements in order to reduce the number of people eligible for the grants.

At a news conference held by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a college administrator and student advocates agree that cuts in award levels this late in the admissions process would be particularly hurtful to the low-income families the program serves. "Families with the most unsteady income, or who don't have much financial flexibility ... need the most time to thoroughly plan out their expenses," said Misty Whelan, a Pennsylvania high school counselor. With most decision deadlines around the corner – May 1 at many colleges – how do you feel knowing these cuts could potentially dictate where you go? Do you think it’s fair for colleges to backtrack on their offers? What ever happened to no takesy backsies?


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Ed Secretary Duncan: “DREAM Act Would Benefit Our Country”

by Suada Kolovic

From the get go, the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented college students, has faced an uphill battle. With it failing in the Senate last year and both sides expressing skepticism about the bill, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Congress yesterday that the Administration supports its passage.

According to Duncan, the students who could benefit if Congress approves the DREAM Act would fill 2.6 million jobs and would bring in $1.4 million more in revenue than it would cost over the next 10 years. Duncan also addressed several misconceptions about the DREAM Act: It does not create an amnesty program with an easy path to citizenship, it will not affect the availability of federal student loans or Pell Grants for citizens and it will not create incentives for an increase in undocumented immigration. “Simply put,” Duncan concluded, “educating the individuals who would be eligible under the DREAM Act would benefit our country.”

Keep in mind that in order for undocumented students to qualify for the DREAM Act, they must prove they came to the United States before the age of 16, have lived here for at least five years, graduated from high school or received a GED, possess good moral character and been admitted to an institution of higher education or serve in the military. Do you hope the DREAM Act becomes a reality? Let us know what you think.


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The Best Financial Aid Policies in Higher Ed

by Alexis Mattera

Did you know that more than 70 colleges across the country have replaced loans with grants? That’s right: Schools are offering more free money to entice students to enter their hallowed halls, meaning they will not be saddled with the often-dreaded student loan payments after graduation. What institutions come out on top? Here are a few of the best aid policies, courtesy of the Washington Post’s Daniel de Vise:

For de Vise’s complete top 12, click here. If your school made the cut, are you reaping the financial benefits? If your school is not represented, how are you paying for your degree?


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Debt-Ceiling Deal Spares Pell Grant Program

by Suada Kolovic

Unless you’ve taken residence under a rock for the past few weeks, you’ve heard about the debt ceiling crisis. Thankfully, the White House and Congress have reached a deal to raise the nation’s borrowing limit and shrink the federal deficit which avoids many of higher education’s worst-case scenarios, namely cuts to Pell Grants, the end of subsidized student loans or a government default that would leave student financial aid and other funding for colleges in limbo.

Here’s the breakdown: The agreement would cut $1 trillion right away and create a committee to reduce the deficit by another $1.5 trillion by November. If approved in Congress, it will avert default on the nation’s debts and ensure that the government has enough money for federal benefits, including student aid. In layman’s terms, the bill would provide $17 billion for the Pell Grant program but the measure would only be temporary. Because House conservatives oppose tax increases, it is likely that the committee charged with reducing the deficit will favor spending cuts over revenues increase, putting Pell Grants and other student aid programs at risk for cuts in the near future.

Do you think slashing funds for higher education is problematic? Let us know what you think.


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Debt Deal Not So for Graduate Students

by Suada Kolovic

If you’re a graduate student or considering graduate school, listen up: The debt deal reached by Congressional leaders and President Obama would make graduate school much more expensive.

According to the agreement, Congress would scrap subsidized federal loans for graduate students in an effort to trim the deficits. These loans don’t charge students any interest on the principal of student loans until six months after students have graduated; if they’re eliminated, some students will have to start paying back loans while they’re still in school. And if that isn’t bad enough, Congress will also ax a special credit for all students who make 12 months of on-time loan payments. The changes would take place July 1, 2012 and would save the government $21.6 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

For graduate students who do qualify for the maximum amount of subsidized loans, this new agreement could tack on thousands of dollars to the already staggering cost of going to school. The reason behind the changes is the theory that the money saved by the student loan cuts would help pay to keep Pell Grants, which so far are maintained at a maximum grant of $5,550 a year for some 8 million poor students. “Full funding for Pell Grants is absolutely essential to fulfilling the president's goal of the U.S. once again having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020," said Pauline Abernathy, vice president of the Institute for College Access & Success.

Those considering graduate school, will these changes affect your decision to attend?


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