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by Agnes Jasinski

Stressed about finals? Pet a puppy. That's what one college is urging students to do to relieve their stress over finals week.

A student group at Chapman University will station a group of puppies outside the school's main library next week as part of operation "Furry Friends for Finals," inviting studious students passing by to take a minute to pet the pooches. The group, the Active Minds Club, promotes mental health, and believes that the "puppy therapy" will help their worried peers relax a bit, and maybe even smile.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times today, Jennifer Heinz, an organizer of the event and a Chapman University sophomore, described the way her poodle-Maltese mix helped her keep things in perspective, even during the most stressful times of her college experience. "Dogs are always so happy and want to play, and that helps make you happier," she said in the article.

Using animals to relieve stress isn't a new idea. There's a lot of research out there showing that therapy dogs in particular have a marked positive effect on the people in hospitals, nursing homes, or in crisis situations they're "hired" to comfort. Dogs have also been used in motivating children to read, improving the communication skills of the disabled, and generally improving the quality of life of the sick and depressed. The dogs providing Chapman's student population with some much-needed puppy love include 10 Malteses, Yorkies, pugs and dachshunds, and will be provided by a pet group based in Torrance.

What kinds of things is your college doing to help you de-stress during finals? Many schools have events set up post-finals as a motivator for students once they reach the finish line, or host special meals outside of the usual cafeteria fare for those too busy studying to make decisions on what they'll be having for dinner. If you're worried about the studying getting the best of you, look through our site for tips on beating the finals week frenzy. It may seem right like you'll never get everything done that you need to, but winter break is just around the corner, so take a breather, get yourself organized, and pet a puppy if you have to.

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Tags: Just for Fun , Study Skills , Tips

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by Agnes Jasinski

One of the most important steps you'll need to take in the financial aid application process is applying for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The Department of Education starts accepting the FAFSA Jan. 1 of each year, which just so happens to be tomorrow. So start your new year off right by filing that financial aid document, or filing a renewal FAFSA if this isn't your first time. State financial aid deadlines fall as early as February, so it's best to get a head start and know how much funding you can expect come next fall.

Both the FAFSA and renewal FAFSA are available online through Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Department of Education. Completing the FAFSA online will speed up processing and leave less time for you to worry about how much financial aid you'll be receiving. Remember that it doesn't cost anything to fill out your FAFSA - the FAFSA is free - and some agencies will charge you for filling the application out for you. Once you complete the online form, you’ll be able to check its status, make any corrections as needed, and print your Student Aid Report once that is ready. (Your Student Aid Report summarizes what you've filled out on your FAFSA, and provides you with an Expected Family Contribution, or the total you and your family would be expected to come up with to fund your education.) If you aren’t comfortable filling out your FAFSA online, you can submit a paper form, but it does take longer to process than the online form.

In order to complete your FAFSA, you'll need the following:

  • your Social Security number
  • your driver’s license number (if you have one)
  • your bank statements and records of investments (if you have any)
  • your records of untaxed income (if you have any)
  • your most recent tax return and W2s (2008 for the 2009-2010 FAFSA)
  • all of the above from your parents if you are considered a dependent
  • an electronic PIN to sign the form online

We have a number of resources available to those filling out their FAFSAs and preparing to apply for federal aid. Browse through our site so that you know exactly where to begin, what to expect, and how to file the application successfully, because if you do make mistakes you may delay the processing of your FAFSA. Happy New Year!


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by Agnes Jasinski

High school seniors preparing for college and the task of choosing a major may be more aware now than ever before about the repercussions of choosing one field of study over another. Sure, the economy is looking like it could rebound this year, but all of those who lost their jobs in the crisis - many of whom have quite a bit more experience to boast than a recent college graduate - will be causing more competitiveness on the job market for years to come.

Should you sacrifice where your interests are for what you think may be a more secure, safe major? An opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week says "no." Obviously you need to exhibit some marketable skills to land a job post-graduation, but many of those skills are things you're able to pick up on your own. (The article gives the example of computer science majors. Many of the things you'll learn as a computer science major could be obsolete in the real world by the time you graduate, as those technologies are typically very fast-paced and ever-changing.)

It's also probably not a good idea to go into a field you have no interest in just because your parents think that major will land you an impressive salary later on. If you don't have a knack for a particular field of study, chances are greater that you won't do well in your core classes, and potentially even flunk out of school. You really won't be making that great salary if "college dropout" is a part of your resume. If you're interested in English, go for it. You'd be surprised to learn the premium employers place on good writing and communication skills. And if you're at the University of Texas at Austin, the course "The English Major in the Workplace" will offer you tips on building a resume, interviewing, and networking - skills that are important in all fields of study.

On the other side is the idea of "careerism," or that intense desire to succeed professionally. Schools are beginning to see this as a good thing, introducing ways to improve their graduates' chances when they're ready to start looking for jobs and to help those students worried about what they're going to do with their degrees. An article in the New York Times recently discussed ways colleges were adapting to a difficult economy by making drastic changes to their curricula. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has gotten rid of its philosophy major; Michigan State University did the same with American studies and classics. Declining enrollments in those fields suggested the students, at those schools, not administrators, were looking to more practical majors that would make them more marketable job candidates.

If you're able to, dabble a bit. You may not even know what you want to major in as soon as you get on campus. Reflect on where you'd like to see yourself after college, and what your goals are while you're in college. For some a high-paying major may be just the ticket. Others may not be left-brained enough to become engineers and computer technicians. It's fine to take some time to think about what you'd like to spend the next two to four years doing.


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by Agnes Jasinski

Whether you're an independent filing your own taxes, or a dependent whose parents or guardians are covering a good portion of your tuition, it's a good idea to be aware of the tax credits and tax benefits you and your family members could be eligible for this filing season.

The federal government has estimated that up to 2 million tuition-paying Americans will receive as much as $2,500 back on their taxes when they file in both 2010 and 2011 by taking advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit. That credit was established through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The American Opportunity Tax Credit, which can be claimed for tuition and certain fees you pay for higher education in 2009 and 2010, is targeted at low- and middle-income families, and isn't available to single filers earning more than $90,000 a year or couples earning more than $180,000. Even those who owe no taxes due to how little they make may receive refunds of up to $1,000.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit expanded (and renamed) the already existing Hope Credit. How did the two compare? 

  • The Hope Credit applied only to the first two years of college. The American Opportunity Tax Credit can be claimed for expenses for the first four years of post-secondary education.
  • The American Opportunity Tax Credit is a $700 increase over the Hope Credit.
  • The term "qualified tuition and related expenses" has been expanded to include expenses used for "course materials," which means books, supplies, and equipment needed for a course of study.
  • A qualified, nontaxable distribution from a Section 529 plan during 2009 or 2010 now includes the cost of the purchase of any computer technology, equipment, or Internet access and related services, if such purchases will be used by the beneficiary of the plan and the beneficiary's family during the time those beneficiaries are enrolled in an institution of higher education.

Other important facts before you file for an American Opportunity Tax Credit:

  • The credit is claimed using Form 8863, attached to Form 1040 or 1040A.
  • You have to choose between tax credits. You cannot claim the tuition and fees tax deduction in the same year that you claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit or the lifetime learning credit. (You should choose which one will offer you the best refund. It's fine to take advantage of all of your options.)
  • 60 percent of the American Opportunity Tax Credit is nonrefundable, so if your credit exceeds your tax, the difference isn't refunded to you.

Make sure you and your family are prepared this tax season, because the federal government does offer perks to going to - and paying for - higher education.


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by Agnes Jasinski

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) released its latest list of the highest-paying college majors of the class of 2010 last week, with engineering- and technology-related fields of study once again coming out on top.

This probably won''t come as much of a surprise to you. Engineering and technology majors consistently rank high on any list of highest-paying careers, and there have only been minor changes in the ranks over the last few years. (Information sciences and systems is a new addition to the list this year, coming in at 10th place.) The only non-engineering related degrees in the top 10 this time around were computer science and information sciences and systems. According to NACE, petroleum engineering earned the highest starting salary reported at the bachelor’s degree level ($86,220). That average starting salary was more than one-and-one-half times the average starting salary reported for bachelor’s degree graduates as a whole ($48,351). The average starting salary for all graduates has fallen about 2 percent since 2009, by the way.

It's certainly not always the case, but often, the more technical your skills are, the more potential you have of landing an impressive starting salary. There''s less competition in a field like petroleum engineering, for example, as it isn't the most popular of majors, so those engineers benefit from those odds with higher salaries. (Petroleum engineering degrees account for less than 1 percent of all bachelor’s degrees conferred, according to NACE.)

What does this mean for you liberal arts majors? Even you business majors may worry that you''ll have a tough time making ends meet, as business isn't exactly overrepresented on the NACE list. Still, not everyone is going to grow up to become an engineer. (And if they did, the list would surely shift, as it depends greatly on the supply and demand of new graduates.) Certainly, the kind of field you're interested in should play a big part when you're deciding on a college major. And most college students do still consider interest over salary potential when choosing their majors, as the most popular fields of study fall well outside petroleum engineering. (According to the U.S. Department of Education, the most popular college majors are in business, the social and health sciences, and education.)

Take the NACE list with a grain of salt, and don't change your focus to aeronautics just because of the pay potential. If you have no interest in one of those high-paying majors, chances are you'll have a tough time getting through a four-year program in that discipline, and if you do graduate, an even tougher time liking a job in a career you chose for the money. But if you are passionate about engineering and technology, that's great. You'll have a good starting salary to go along with a job you enjoy.


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by Agnes Jasinski

If you've had classes since 2001, the year the (in)famous online, user-edited encyclopedia was launched, chances are you're guilty of using Wikipedia as a source of information while completing your coursework. A new report from First Monday, an online peer-reviewed journal, took a look at just how prevalent the site has become on college campuses in particular (although high school students are probably just as bad offenders), and how students have begun to rely on Wikipedia as a resource.

According to the study, more than half of all respondents use Wikipedia frequently or always for course-related research. Students in architecture, engineering, or the sciences were more likely to use the site in their courses than other majors. (This could have something to do with the fact that students in social sciences like psychology or history must provide reference lists more often for papers they turn in, and citing Wikipedia simply won't fly on a college level essay.) The study surveyed 2,318 students, and took qualitative data from 86 of those students who participated in focus groups.

Other major findings of the study include the following:

  • Most students said they used Wikipedia for a summary about a topic (82 percent), the meaning of related terms (67 percent), and to get started on research (76 percent).
  • About 52 percent of the respondents were frequent Wikipedia users, even if an instructor advised against it.
  • Only 22 percent reported that they rarely, if ever, used Wikipedia.
  • About 17 percent used Wikipedia because they thought it was more credible than other sites.
  • Only about 2 percent used Wikipedia toward the end of their research process.
  • Overall, the strongest predictor of using Wikipedia was being someone who also used Google for course–related research.
  • Those enrolled in two–year campuses were less likely than those in four–year institutions to report that they used Wikipedia.

Whether you're writing a college essay or applying for an essay scholarship, here's a good rule of thumb on citing Wikipedia as a reference—don't do it. While the site can be an excellent tool for you to kick off your search, as the study above suggests, it simply isn't reliable enough to be taken seriously by academia. Anyone can add to and edit entries on the site, so it's always best to do some fact-checking after you get your Wikipedia summary prior to the start of the rest of your research. (Stephen Colbert proved this point when he edited Wikipedia articles on his own show, George Washington, and elephants, all while viewers watched. He also coined the term "wikiality," which refers to the reality that exists if you make something up and enough people agree with you.)


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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

While many students marked April 1 as the day they found out whether they were accepted or rejected to their first-choice colleges, many others were given a different response - placement to the waiting list. High school seniors are then faced with a tough decision. Should you take a risk and bank on placement at a school you're wait-listed at, even if you miss notification deadlines at schools you've been admitted to? Or should you cut your losses and inform the schools you've been wait-listed at that you'll be going elsewhere?

The waiting list generally benefits the colleges. The schools' administrators are able to wait until their own first-choice students make decisions on where they intend to attend, moving to those on the waiting list typically by May 1, once students' deadlines to notify the school of their choice have passed. The schools may also use the waiting list to fill gaps in their student population, according to The New York Times, offering eventual admittance to a student with a particular musical or athletic talent that the school had hoped to enroll in their first-choice pool.

Knowing this, it may seem like a risky endeavor to bet on a school choosing you out of the hundreds of other students on waiting lists. Still, many do choose to stay, especially at the most prestigious, private schools. At Yale University, for example, about two-thirds of students remain on the waiting list. (More than 900 were wait-listed at Yale this year.) Of those offered eventual admittance to Yale, a majority do choose to enroll there.

So what should you do? It really depends. Here are a few tips: 

     
  • If you know you won't be attending a school you're wait-listed at, notify them of your intentions right away. There's someone out there who does want that spot, and you may be keeping them from being placed at their top-choice school.
  •  
  • If you know you're sincerely interested in the school you're wait-listed at, let the school know that. Notify them immediately that you intend to wait for their decision, and send admissions staff a personal letter on why you want to go to that school. If they're your top choice, tell them. If you know any alumni from the school, ask them to write a letter on your behalf. This is the stage of the game where admissions officials are looking at every piece of information coming in on an applicant.
  •  
  • Ask for an interview. You wouldn't be wait-listed if you didn't have the academic credentials to attend their school, so the admissions office will now be looking at other factors - extracurricular activities, outside interests, and whether your personality is a good fit for their campus.
  •  
 While waiting lists are more common at private institutions where enrollment numbers are much lower and the unpredictability of students’ decisions about whether to enroll in those private schools is much higher, some schools have used the list as more of a strategy to deal with uncertainties in state budgets or over-enrollment. California's public university system is using waiting lists to deal with a record number of applicants this year and a state budget shortfall that has made it impossible for the school system to accept as many students as it had been admitting in year prior. This is the first time the state universities have used waiting lists, and students have until April 15 to remove their names from the lists or continue waiting until around the first week in June. Any new admittances will be determined by the outcome of the state's 2010-2011 budget negotiations.


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by Agnes Jasinski

As students begin evaluating their offers of acceptance from colleges, one factor may weigh more heavily than any other on the tough decisions of choosing the right school - financial aid. The financial aid opportunities School A offers to incoming freshmen that School B does not may be what makes or breaks the decision on where a student will enroll, even if School B is the student's "dream school." Comparing financial aid offers is then an integral process in the decision-making process, and unfortunately you don't have a lot of time to send your notice back to each school you've been accepted to. Here are some tips to navigate the process, and help you determine how to find the "best value":

  • Compare the scholarships and grants available at each school. Have you already been offered either, or has the school simply notified you of your eligibility for more free funding?
  • Compare student loan amounts. What may seem like the best offer at first may actually be anchored by a significant amount of student loan debt. Student loans should be your last resort as far as covering college costs.
  • Compare your expected family contributions. Schools may handle this piece of information differently, and may even accept more information about your family's financial situation after you've received your financial aid package. It's fine to question a school's offer, especially if there are big discrepancies between what each school is offering you.
  • Compare the tuition and fees of each school, and what that financial aid package covers. Some schools may offer you what appears to be an impressive amount of aid based on the cost of tuition alone, and you already know college costs include a lot more than that base price - fees, books and supplies, and room and board, for example.
  • Be aware of what you're eligible to receive next year. Some schools may offer a more impressive financial aid package to incoming freshmen, and pad students' offers the following year with more student loans. Do your research. Compare average student loan debts at each school, talk to students already attending each school, and be frank with your financial aid administrator.
Some students may have been lucky enough to have been accepted into a program that has offered them a tuition-free education. A recent article in USA Today took a look at colleges that offer to pay the tuition of all new students, despite all you've already read about tuition and fee increases across the country. Some are military schools that require a commitment from you to serve in the military post-graduation, but others are schools where there exists a need for new graduates, either due to the school's locations or lack of graduates in certain fields of study. Webb Institute, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and the College of the Ozarks, for example, all offer tuition-free educations to students. Do you know of more? Tell us about them!


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So You’re a College Grad

Part I: Dealing with Post-Graduation Anxiety

May 18, 2010

by Agnes Jasinski

As graduation season begins on college campuses across the country, many of you are well-prepared and excited for this new chapter in your lives. You have jobs or internships lined up in your fields of study, or have travel plans set for the summer before you’re officially labeled “adults.” For many others, however, the months after graduation are more nerve-wracking than anything else. So we’ve come up with a series of posts this week that will hopefully ease your minds a bit, and perhaps more importantly, help you see that you’re not alone.

Before we get into ideas on what you could do with your life post-graduation if you haven’t yet nailed down a job or other plans, we think it’s important to address the anxiety many graduates feel when their college experience is coming to an end. You probably became used to the freedom you first felt as a freshman on a new campus with endless possibilities. Now, as you’re watching your senior year come to end, you’re probably faced with endless questions instead from family and friends: "Have you found a job?" "What are your plans?" "Where will you live?"

First of all, take a step back and breathe. Although the economy has yet to rebound completely, there are thousands of others in the same boat as you, and it’s fine to take some time to be indecisive about what you want to do next. Once you’ve done that, you need to prepare to confront your future and do a bit of self-reflection. Graduating from college can be overwhelming. Many college students end up in careers unrelated to their majors, or take time off after college (if such an option is financially feasible) to figure out what it is they really want to do, via travel, volunteerism, or internships in fields they may be interested in exploring further.

Speaking of finances, much of the anxiety felt by recent graduates comes from the doom and gloom that comes with budgeting once you’re out of college. You no longer have your financial aid package or the option to increase your student loan totals (a bad idea, by the way, that should only be considered as a last resort) as a cushion, although there are things you can do to ease the burden a little bit right after graduation. If you’re unemployed, defer your student loans. You don’t want to face fees and interest charges for being unable to make payments on your loans and hurt your credit score in the process. If you have any prospects for part-time work or full-time temporary work, start saving. Finding a job isn’t a science, and sometimes it does take a while to find that perfect fit.

Tomorrow we’ll talk more about what you can do in the short-term as a recent graduate, because you really do have quite a few options. Were you floundering until you came across that perfect post-graduation plan? We'd love to hear your stories!

This is the first post in a three-part series on dealing with that “What’s next?” feeling college students may get post-graduation. Return to the Scholarships.com blog tomorrow for a look at popular short-term plans for recent college graduates, especially if your upcoming summer is looking fairly open!


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