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New Rules for Private Loans in House Financial Bill

December 15, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Students who are interested in applying for private loans may soon see the process changing. The House of Representatives passed consumer protection legislation last week that would further regulate private student loans, ensuring that students interested in borrowing them are aware of rates, federal alternatives, and borrowing limits at their school.

The bill moves to further regulate Wall Street in the wake of the credit crisis and ensuing economic recession, and also creates a consumer financial protection agency that's responsible for overseeing consumer credit such as credit cards, mortgages, and other bank loans. An amendment introduced by Democratic Representative Jared Polis of Colorado ensures that private loans to students are also included under this umbrella, and sets up additional rules that lenders and colleges must follow in issuing and certifying private loans.

Under this legislation, all private loans will have to be certified by a student's college, verifying the student's enrollment and the amount he or she can borrow. Before a school can certify a private loan, it must also inform the borrower of the availability of federal student financial aid. This builds on rules that will go into effect in February that state that students must be informed of interest rates and repayment terms up front by banks, and must certify that they have been informed of federal student loan options.

Effectively, it puts 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. With rising student loan default rates, risky loans like these have increasingly come under fire. These loans can be a quick way for students to find themselves in excess debt, as they make it easy for students to borrow more than they need to pay for school without having to investigate alternatives first.

The bill still needs to pass the Senate and be signed by the President before it can be enacted. Whether the Senate introduces language similar to the Polis Amendment remains to be seen, as it's unlikely financial legislation will be debate until after they finish with healthcare.

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Academics Suggest "Failure Insurance" Could Keep More in School

January 12, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

What if those worried about whether they can handle the rigors of college had an option to ease their worries about whether they were making a good investment? Would "failure insurance" get more of these hesitant students onto college campuses? How would students pay into such a program if they're already struggling to come up with the funds to cover college costs?

An academic paper called Insuring College Failure Risk put together by Satyajit Chatterjee, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and A. Felicia Ionescu, an assistant professor of economics at Colgate University, looked at the benefits of failure insurance, or policies that would reimburse students or offer forgiveness of some of their student loans if they flunked out of school. The paper concluded that the policies would be most useful to students from low-income backgrounds, a population that has been found to have higher college drop-out rates than other groups of students.

So how would it all work? The authors put forward a series of mathematical models that looked at both students' decisions to go to college and their decisions to drop out, finding that most any decision students make about college is a financial one. An insurance policy that offered students an amount that was high enough to make sense for them to continue taking classes, and often taking on more debt, but not so high that it would be an easy decision to drop out for the financial incentive, would be most successful. Students would be eligible for some loan forgiveness if they met the criteria for failing grades. Because students would still bear some of their student loan burden, that total would go toward something of a deductible, and could potentially work to keep more students in school so that they can avoid paying those fees to whatever insurance carriers would be offering these policies. Students would only have one shot at such an insurance policy, meaning they'd be on their own if they returned to school later in life after having flunked out.

Obviously something needs to be done to address high college dropout rates and the number of former students out there saddled with student loan debts but no degrees to speak of. According to the Federal Reserve Bank’s Survey of Consumer Finances, on average about 47 percent of those not in school with student loans to repay report that they don’t have two- or four-year college degrees. An article this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests there's no way to tell whether the academic paper has any legs outside of academic circles, and also points to other researchers' suggestions that offer students an incentive to stay in school - lowering tuition and fees and increasing access to and amounts of financial aid assistance, as examples.

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Credit Union Student Loans

January 13, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

After legislative changes in 2007 made lending less profitable and credit markets constricted sharply in 2008, major banks began to exit the student loan market in droves, leaving relatively few participants in the Federal Family Education Loan Program and even fewer options for private student loans. In addition to federal aid and alternative programs like peer-to-peer lending, another source of funding has been on the rise in the wake of the credit crunch: credit union student loans.

Credit unions are not-for-profit financial cooperatives that are financed and owned by their members. Membership is usually based on a common industry, location, or employer and often eligibility extends out to the families of members. Students who belong to a credit union have already been able in many cases to select their credit union as a lender for a federal Stafford loan through the FFEL program. But now you may also be able to borrow a private loan from a credit union to pay for school.

Since credit unions for the most part didn’t participate in the risky lending practices that got banks into trouble in the last couple years, they’ve remained relatively stable and able to lend money. Seeing the major banks exiting student loan programs en masse, credit unions have begun to step in and offer loans to students, as well, seizing the opportunity to gain new members through offering an increasingly hard-to-find service. New websites have also come into existence to help connect students with credit unions that offer college loans.

Two of the most prominent organizations connecting credit unions with student borrowers are Credit Union Student Choice and Fynanz, which runs CUStudentLoans.org. Credit Union Student Choice allows students to find credit unions they are eligible to join that offer student loans. Fynanz also connects students with area credit unions and offers a central student loan application for the credit unions on its site. Other credit unions not listed on these two sites also may offer loans for student members.

In addition to increased availability compared to bank-based private student loans, credit union student loans often carry lower interest rates or more favorable repayment terms. Since the credit unions aren’t specifically in business to make a profit and since borrowers must be members of the credit unions, borrowers may find they have a better relationship with the credit union than they would with a large national bank.  However, credit union student loans may not be the most attractive option for everyone. National banks have a broader reach than credit unions and students may have an easier time finding national student loans than finding credit union loans. Bank-based loans also don’t require students to set up an account with the bank and may still carry lower rates and fees, especially for borrowers with the best credit.

It’s a good idea to weigh your options carefully when considering a private loan. Be sure to exhaust all your options for federal financial aid and scholarships before you apply. Private student loans can carry high interest rates and can’t be discharged in bankruptcy in most cases, so it’s wise to only borrow what you need and to avoid borrowing to the greatest extent possible.

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Student Loan Demand Rises as Availability Decreases

January 22, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

Despite more cost-conscious students, demand for student loans has continued to increase over the last two years according to a new analysis by Reuters and the credit bureau Equifax. According to Equifax’s data, both the number and the balance of student loan accounts in the United States have risen markedly.

According to Reuters, the number of student loan accounts in the U.S. has risen 29 percent in the last two years, with the total loan volume increasing by $105 billion to $527 billion. Meanwhile, most other lines of credit are contracting, including car loans and credit cards. Equifax has called the current student loan activity unprecedented, and the bureau’s U.S. Information Systems president, Dan Adams, expressed concern over young adults’ ability to pay down this debt.

Banks also appear concerned about students’ ability to pay. Despite what may be a historic high in overall loan balances, private student loan origins are actually dropping, according to Student Lending Analytics. A recent post on their blog forecasts that the 50% drop in private loan originations in 2008-2009 will be followed by a further 24% drop in 2009-2010. The reduced volume is mostly attributed to wary banks making it difficult for students to borrow.

As private loan originations have been slowing, increases in federal loan limits, Pell Grant amounts, and some state and campus grant and scholarship programs have been helping students pay for college in the face of a recession. However, there is concern that many of these increases are temporary, while many funding cuts enacted due to the recession might be more permanent. There’s also growing concern in the higher education community that students may find themselves priced out of the colleges they want to attend or left in a lurch after college, either unable to find money to continue or unable to pay back what they’ve borrowed.

With widespread difficulties and concerns, it’s more important now than ever to start planning early for college and to focus on finding sources of college funding other than student loans. Starting a college savings plan for students while they’re still young is one step, and beginning the scholarship search as a high school junior (if not earlier) is another. With planning and determination, college success is still very possible, but without those things, it might be more difficult to come by than it used to be.

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Obama Proposes More Generous Loan Repayment Plan

January 26, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

Even as much of the student loan agenda President Obama announced last year remains stalled in Congress, he is expected to propose a new plan to assist middle-class workers in repaying their student loans as part of his State of the Union address on Wednesday. On Monday, the White House announced some of the points Obama plans to address, and among the items is a plan to make student loan payments more affordable.

Obama’s proposal would alter the federal Income-Based Repayment plan to make it beneficial to a wider range of borrowers. Currently, college graduates who choose Income-Based Repayment are expected to make loan payments equivalent to 15% of their discretionary income each month (defined as income above 150% of the poverty level for the borrower’s household size) and to make consistent payments for 25 years, at which time their remaining loan balances will be forgiven. Under the new plan, borrowers would have to make payments of only 10% of their discretionary income each month, and would only have to make payments for 20 years before their remaining balances are forgiven.

This change would have an added bonus for students pursuing careers in public service. Students who enroll in IBR and work in approved public service fields (such as teaching, healthcare, non-profit work, or government employment) can see their loans forgiven after just 10 years of payments in IBR. For many students, this can mean a substantial reduction in their overall loan obligations as well as more easily manageable payments as they begin their careers.

To illustrate the benefits of the President’s proposal, the Institute for College Access and Success provided the following example: someone with $33,000 in student loans who currently makes $30,000 per year would have a loan payment of $110 per month under this plan, compared to $170 per month under the current IBR plan, and $380 per month under the standard repayment plan.

Although it has the potential to enormously benefit individual borrowers, the proposed adjustment to the IBR plan is likely to run into some opposition. In the example above, as in many other cases, the new IBR plan will result in a significantly smaller amount being repaid by borrowers, especially those who go into public service. However, it may substantially reduce borrowers’ likelihood to default, which would prove beneficial overall. Still, calculating the overall cost to taxpayers is likely to be vital to this proposal’s viability, especially given the Obama administration’s announcement of a planned three-year freeze on federal spending.

Overall, these changes would benefit an estimated 36 percent of borrowers, according to Inside Higher Ed. The National Association of Colleges and Employers lists the average starting salary for college graduates at $48,633, and depending on household size and overall debt, graduates in this bracket may not see much benefit from IBR. By contrast, the average starting salary for liberal arts graduates is $36,624, making them most likely to benefit from this program. However, many recent graduates are considering themselves lucky to find jobs paying substantially below these figures right now. It’s likely that a broad range of college graduates, especially those pursuing careers in fields that have been badly impacted by the recession, may welcome the proposed changes.

What do you think of this plan?  Would it help you or would you rather see federal resources being used in another way?

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Williams College Ends "No-Loan" Policy

February 2, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

As a response to "operating in unsettled and ... unsettling times," Williams College has decided to stop offering its no-loan student-aid program and to reintroduce modest student loans to students' financial aid packages.

In an open letter to the Williams community released over the weekend, the school's Interim President Bill Wagner said the change would not affect current students, but beginning with the class that enters in the fall of 2011. Families below a certain income will still not be expected to borrow at all, and other students will be offered loans on a sliding scale up to a maximum size that the school says will still be among the lowest in the country.

Student loans were eliminated at Williams in the 2008-2009 academic year, joining more than 30 private colleges that had adopted similar policies, such as Amherst and Claremont McKenna colleges. (There have already been rumors that Amherst College may join Williams in amending its own policy.) The decision to cut loans out of students' financial aid packages came at a time when the school's endowment had grown so large that there were demands to spend more. But at the same time, more students were applying for and qualifying for financial aid.

Williams isn't the only college to renege on a promise to students, nor is it the first. Lafayette College raised the loan limit it pledged to students from $2,500 a year to $3,500 a year if they had family incomes of between $50,000 and $100,000. Dartmouth College has been requiring loans again for those at certain levels now exempt from borrowing. Endowments across the country have plummeted, suffering their worst losses since the Great Depression. According to an article in The Chronicle for Higher Education published last week, the value of college endowments declined by an average of 23 percent from 2008 to 2009. An endowment student sponsored by the National Association of College and University Business Officers found that of the 654 institutions that reported carrying long-term debt, the average debt load grew from $109.1 million to $167.8 million.

Are "no loans" policies feasible at all? Some critics explain that there are students currently exempt from taking out loans who could easily be able to pay them off once they graduate. Students with family incomes of more than $120,000 have the resources to borrow less than other students, critics say, and the focus instead should be on helping low-income students keep their loan debts at a minimum. Williams hasn't been clear as to what the family income cutoff would be for its new policy, but it will undoubtedly hit the middle class hard.

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Students and Families Unprepared for College, Financial Aid Application Process

February 10, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

Despite recent trends of more students across the country enrolling at institutions of higher learning, many students and their families remain mostly uninformed and unprepared to navigate the college and financial aid application process, according to a report issued yesterday called "Planning for College: A Consumer Approach to the Higher Education Marketplace."

The report, from MassINC, a think tank in Massachusetts, looked at decisions students and families need to make when applying to and paying for college, and the information they need to make those decisions. It found that students and parents currently have great difficulty "getting the most out of their col­lege dollar," as the price of higher education only continues to rise.

Perhaps even more alarming is that families have started borrowing more to pay for college, without considering risk and the rate of their return. Related to increases in student borrowing amounts, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday looks at the idea that doctoral students finish faster if they take out large loans. The most obvious answer why is that taking out more student loans allows the students to take more classes, and quit part-time jobs that may have been reducing their college costs. It's a choice students must make every day - should you sacrifice some comfort to reduce your student loan debt, even if it means taking longer to complete your degree? It's a personal decision, but students should be aware that they'll be expected to start repaying any debt once they graduate.

The Massachusetts study also found that students and families had little knowledge of tax benefits and college savings plans, and how to compare them. For example, there are 118 different 529 Plans, and the resources out there do little in the way of pointing consumers to the advantages and disadvantages of each. Families and students also admit to knowing little about the actual sticker price of colleges, as that often depends on the funds available to assist incoming students, an unknown when those students first apply.

The report's authors suggest families and students must become more like "savvy consumers" who are able to understand and successfully manipulate the college and financial aid application process to their advantage. The process should also be made less complex, an idea that is already being explored by federal legislation such as the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Finally, families need reliable measures about the educational experience that colleges and universities offer beyond the annual rankings we see in the Princeton Review, for example. According to the report, while the U.S. Department of Education is providing increasingly consistent and accessible indicators, such as graduation rates, this branch of the college-bound decision remains the weakest.

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Student Loan Bill May Become Part of Health Care Package

March 12, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

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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Should More Changes Follow Switch to Direct Loans Program?

May 14, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

July 1 marks the official date that colleges, if they haven’t already, must transition to the recently approved Federal Direct Loans Program. Schools will no longer offer students the option of having private banks or credit unions handle their federal loans; federal loans will now be coming directly from the U.S. Department of Education. Advocates of the student loan bill have said this will make the process more seamless and fair, with the government taking responsibility for keeping interest rates manageable. And private loans will still be available via the traditional channels, although those loans are typically offered at higher interest rates.

The student loan debate has been a constant in the world of higher education, as legislators and administrators look for ways to reduce the debt of graduates. This week, The Christian Science Monitor considered student loans in a different way. Is it ethical to send students out into the world with all this debt, especially when they may not be making enough in their chosen careers to pay back those loans in a timely fashion? Are student loans moral?

The Christian Science Monitor piece looks at the history of the student loan industry, questioning whether it was ever right for Congress to increase borrowing amounts to current levels, or to offer students described as “in need” much easier access to federal loans through the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act in the 1990s. According to the Project on Student Debt, student loan totals only continue to rise. The average national debt for graduating seniors with loans rose from about $18,650 in 2004 to $23,200 in 2008. Meanwhile, employment prospects have not increased at comparable levels; by 2009, the unemployment rate among new graduates hovered near 11 percent, the highest on record.

It isn’t just a case of telling college students not to borrow so much. Student loans are often a necessary evil, and while debt can be minimized some through scholarships and grants, most students will end up taking on some amount of debt. The Monitor questions whether there should be more strict limits on borrowers that exist in other scenarios where credit checks and expectations that borrowers will be able to pay back what they borrow are enforced. There is no guarantee of a job after college, after all, so why shouldn’t the fact that a student is unable to pay off more than the minimum on their credit cards be taken into account more when they take out loans? (On that note, the U.S. Senate has approved an amendment that would lower “swipe fees” that banks charge college bookstores when students use their credit cards for purchases.)

Student loans are a hot topic, and will continue to be. What do you think? What else can be done to reduce graduates' debt, especially among those graduates who are not entering high-paying fields?

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NYU Looks for New Ways to Address High Cost of Attendance

June 16, 2010

by Scholarships.com Staff

It’s rare for a college to tell a prospective student that their school may not be affordable enough for them to attend come fall. For a year, New York University did just that, calling admitted students and their parents and families to talk about the debt they could get themselves into if they chose to attend the pricey college. Citing little effect on enrollment rates, however, the school will not be pursuing a similar effort this summer, according to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The purpose of the calls was to make sure students and parents were aware how much an education at the school cost long-term. NYU doesn’t offer as much “free money” in scholarships and grants as many other schools, leaving students no choice but to take out student loans to cover the more than $50,000 annual tuition, fees, and room and board bill. According to previous articles on the school’s efforts in The Chronicle, the 58 percent of students who carry debt loads once graduating from NYU do so with an average of more than $33,000 in student loans. (The national average hovers around $20,000.)

NYU won’t be abandoning all efforts to inform students and parents about the costs of attending the college. Administrators say they’re now looking for ways to make sure those admitted know of ways to finance the “significant investment” that is NYU, according to The Chronicle, and that these efforts need to start sooner rather than later when students are still deciding where to enroll. The college also plans to give students a more “general financial education” rather than giving them advice based on their specific circumstances. However, Randall C. Deike, NYU’s vice president for enrollment management, said in the Chronicle article that he has already told some students it may be better for them to start out at a less expensive college and then transfer to NYU later on.

NYU has gotten quite a bit of criticism lately from students graduating with mountains of debt, degrees in the humanities, and limited job prospects. One article last month in The New York Times took a look at Cortney Munna, a 26-year-old graduate of NYU with nearly $100,000 in student loan debt. Munna is saying she wasn’t counseled properly about the true cost of college and what it would be like to repay a loan that high once she was done at NYU. According to The New York Times article, it was NYU that suggested she take out an additional $40,000 private loan when she and her mother found that the lower-interest student loans didn’t cover all of the costs of attendance. The college has since said it would have been inappropriate for them to counsel Munna out of NYU, or to counsel her out of taking on more debt to remain at the school. Who is to blame here? Were Munna and her mother naïve in assuming they could handle the loan? Should private lenders consider students’ existing loan totals when doling out funds? Should the college have been more forthright?

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