Author Archives: STRONGside

How to Dominate Scholarship Applications and Pay for College

money for college

The scholarship search can be intimidating. The most popular online scholarships searches, like FastWeb, force you to wade through thousands of worthless scholarships. They are not worthless because they are scams, rather they are worthless because they are not personalized. In fact, in my five years working in Higher Ed I have never met ANYONE who has won a scholarship through FastWeb. Obviously people do win these scholarships, but the chance of you winning a scholarship found through FastWeb is very low.

I highly recommend searching locally for your scholarships. I have written in length about the benefits of this in the past.  Your chances of winning increase drastically when the applicant pool drops from thousands of students to less than 50 for most local scholarships.

Once you have gathered a list of scholarships that you wish to apply for, you have to start the actual application process. This process can also be intimidating, but it does not have to do.

How to Dominate Scholarship Applications

I have compiled a list of the top 8 ways to dominate your scholarship applications and ensure that you maximize your chances of winning as many scholarships as you apply for.

  • Start early!! Almost every scholarship has a deadline and many scholarships give priority to applications submitted early.
  • Compile a list of accomplishments, awards, professional experience, education credentials, and volunteer organizations. Having this list handy will save you many hours during the application process since nearly every application will ask for this information.
  • Be aggressive! Scholarships are designed to reward deserving and persistent students who are willing to “do what it takes” to further their education. A scholarship committee is not impressed by a “less than your best” effort.
  • Identify and contact at least three people who would be willing to write an impressive recommendation letter on your behalf.
  • Apply for every scholarship for which you are eligible.
  • Follow up! Don’t let your scholarship application slip through the cracks. Scholarship committees will also appreciate the dedication you show in your future endeavors.
  • Be organized! This is great time to improve your organizational skills. Make sure to keep track of all deadlines, signatures, recommendation letters, and any necessary follow-up questions from a scholarship organization.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of applying for scholarships. After all, a successful scholarship search could land you with a free ride and money to spare!

The Bottom Line

Searching and applying for scholarships is not easy. If it were, everyone would have a full-ride to college.

FastWeb likes to say that there are millions of dollars in unused scholarships each year. I don’t believe this, but I do know that there are many scholarships which do not receive many quality applications and are forced to award their money to a less than stellar student. This is where you have an opportunity to swoop in, submit an impressive application, and win a scholarship over your classmates.

Following the above 8 tips will give you your best chance of conducting a scholarship search that is sue to land you some funds to help pay for college.

How to Find Legit Scholarship Opportunities

local scholarships

Searching for scholarships can lead to a frustrating mess of results.

More often than not, you are sorting through scholarships that are outdated and ones that you don’t even qualify for. When you are trying to find legitimate scholarship opportunities to apply, this can be incredibly frustrating. I often compare this to searching for a job in a difficult economy. You are trying to find a means to support yourself financially, and you are getting a little desperate because time is running by quickly and your hopes and dreams are on the line.

The good news is that there are ways to make the scholarship search a bit more efficient and effective

Start Local

The best scholarship search tip that I have is to start searching for scholarship locally. Every high school guidance counselor has a book full of scholarships notices that have been sent to their school. Many of these guidance offices post these notices on their website. Even if you do not attend that high school, these guidance counselors are often more than willing to share information with you about scholarships in the community.

Local scholarships are much more attainable because of the number of applicants, and the relevance of the student to the scholarship organization. For example, if a student lives in the same town where he applies for a scholarship from a local organization, it is very likely that the scholarship committee who reviews his application will be able to relate to the student. Members of the committee may know of organizations that the student has volunteered at, they may know the school the applicant attended, they will most likely know of the college that the student has applied to, and who knows, they might even know the student’s family.

Also, most local scholarships are only intended for a local applicant pool. This limits the number of applicants and guarantees a local student will win the scholarship. Simple math will tell you that if there are only 30 applicants for one scholarship you have a much higher percentage chance of winning than if you apply for a nationally competitive scholarship with thousands of applicants.

Local scholarship awards are also nothing to scoff at. We are not talking about piddly $250 awards. Most local organizations give a minimum of $1000, and often this is a recurring award. For example, when I was applying for scholarships I won an award from a local non-profit that only provided scholarships to students from my high school. The award was $3000 for 4 years. This was a huge boost towards paying for my college and one of the largest single scholarships I received. All from local resources!

Many local scholarships also have additional benefits like banquet dinners in your honor, achievement awards, articles in the local paper, and billboards with your face on them. Even if you don’t enjoy that…your parents and family sure will!

 The Bottom Line

There is no one right way to search for scholarships. My advice would be to start local, then expand your search once you have exhausted your local scholarships. My hunch is that you will find much more success by staying at home rather than going abroad.

Cash in on Your Economic Woes

free money for college

Most media outlets would agree that we have officially risen out of the “Great Recession” and we are now on the road to recovery. However, with unemployments rates still sky high and jobs still difficult to come by, many of us are still feeling the effects of the stagnant economy of the last few years.

One glimmer of hope for the rising costs of tuition, is that the struggling economy has caused a few colleges and universities to broaden their financial aid programs. Tope tier universities such as Cornell and Harvard have instituted new Financial Aid initiatives aimed at further assisting families in the low-middle income section.

Cornell University

Cornell Financial Aid officers describe this new initiative which has eliminated the parental contribution (which is used to calculate your expected family contribution) if your parents make between $60,000 and $100,000. This means that your EFC number would only be based on the student’s income which will greatly increase a student’s financial need.

This adjustment is only applicable to campus based scholarships and grants however. Try as they might, Cornell (or no other college) can alter the Federal Financial Aid formula. So this new calculation by Cornell would not apply towards Federal Pell Grants, Subsidized Direct Stafford Loans, or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants.

Harvard University

Harvard University has drastically lowered the cost of tuition for all families making less than $180,000. All told, more than 90% of american families will qualify for financial aid at Harvard University. Harvard has the largest endowment of any college or university in the United States at over $30 BILLION. They have almost double the endowment of the second college on the list; Yale University with $19 Billion.

I don’t anticipate that Harvard will feel the impact of this change too much, however it is a great sign that colleges and universities are making moves to help their education be more accessible and affordable.

The Bottom Line

So you can see how many of the top universities across the country are allowing more and more students to access their educational services. With the economy continuing to struggle in recovery, I would predict that even more universities will implement sweeping financial aid reforms in order to continue to attract top talent.

As I wrote yesterday, Georgia Tech just started an online master of computer science degree and is offering the entire advanced degree for $7000. Programs like this one, and the changes in financial aid policies are all encouraging signs that the future of education is still bright, and will continue to make college affordable and accessible for all students.

Submit your FAFSA Before You Submit Your Taxes

free money for college

As a former Financial Aid Officer at a college I have become intimately familiar with the dangers of waiting until the last-minute to submit a FAFSA. Most people are not aware that as of January 1st, 2013, students are able to submit their 2013-2014 FAFSA for the upcoming 2013 Fall semester. The majority of colleges and universities have strict deadlines that must be met to be considered for financial aid. Missing these deadlines can have disastrous effects on your financial aid award letter.

Almost every institution of higher learning also has internal scholarship programs that can be accessed as additional sources of financial aid. All in all, the old adage “the early bird gets the worm” holds true. A lot of institutions have grant and scholarship programs that are awarded on a first come first serve basis.

File FAFSA BEFORE Filing Your Taxes!

Another bit of useful information for students and parents is that you can actually submit your FAFSA without having filed your taxes. On the FAFSA, when it asks you if you have submitted your 2012 tax returns, simply select the “I will file my taxes” option. Then once you have submitted your 2012 returns, simply log back into the FAFSA with your FAFSA pin and complete your tax information. If you have filed for an extension, this lets you submit your FAFSA while your taxes are still being processed.

Today is May 23, which means that many of the deadlines for the Fall 2013 semester have already been missed. It is not too late however to continue applying for more scholarships and grants to help earn more money for college.  Applying for free money for college will help you avoid taking out student loans and avoid the burden of paying back student loans after you graduate. By taking advantage of the financial aid available on your campus you can maximize your changes of that elusive “free ride” to college.

You can check the local public library or your local high school guidance office for excellent scholarship opportunities. I encourage you to apply for as many of them that you qualify for!

In review:

  • Submit your FAFSA early!! (As early as January 1st)
  • Submit your FAFSA even if your taxes have not been filed yet
  • Take advantage of ALL scholarships and grant programs by being one of the first students to submit their FAFSA for the upcoming school year.
  • Contact your financial aid office if you have any questions, they will be more than happy to help you.
master's degree

How to Earn your Graduate Degree For $12 Per Semester

master's degree

Getting a Master’s degree is time consuming, stressful, and expensive.

As bad as that sounds, an advanced degree is an essential element of career growth for many professions. A Master’s degree will often open the door for management opportunities, and separate you from your peers in a battle of credentials. For some professions, a Master’s degree is a required credential or “piece of paper” that can be a literal brick wall to your career if you do not have one. This is where I have found myself as a staff member in higher education.

I work for a large public university and the state human resources board has determined that virtually all management positions and the majority of positions with any responsibility (and therefore decent pay) require a Master’s degree. I have known since entering this career that I had to get my Master’s degree if I ever wanted to advance my career past entry level.

Master’s Degree Cost

Master’s degree can vary widely in cost. For example, the graduate programs at the school where I work range from $380 per credit hour, to $14,000 flat rate fee per semester. This wide range of pricing can be torture for someone who likes to plan. Thankfully, every program has a set price so you can narrow down your research to the programs that you are interested in applying to.

The graduate program that I applied for is $602 per credit hour. The program requires 48 credit hours to graduate which will come to an approximate cost of $28,896. That price does not include books, supplies, and the other little extra fees that colleges tack on every semester. So you can figure an even $30,000 by the time I would have finished my degree.

My plan is to take two classes per semester, which would total 6 credit hours, or $3612. A semester is roughly 4 months in length, which would mean that my master’s degree would cost me $903 per month.

That is more than my house payment!!

With the depressing cost of an advanced degree in my blurred vision I began to look around for alternatives to paying this tuition cost all by myself.

Employee Tuition Assistance and Reimbursement

My first place to look was the human resources website for my employer. What I found, was one of the few perks of working in higher education. The university I work for allows employees to take up to 6 credit hours per semester for free! Talk about a benefit. This essentially means that I just earned a $903 per month raise if I was able to take advantage of this benefit.

The only fee that I am required to pay is a $12 per semester software license fee that goes to support the IT infrastructure and the discounted software that we have access to as students. I think I can handle that!

If you work for a company that is not an actual higher education facility your company will likely offer tuition reimbursement of some form. Many companies will reimburse you up to a certain amount as long as you earn an A or a B in a course. Some companies may have a pool of professional development funds that you have to apply to every semester, and other companies may actually pay you an increased salary with the intent of using those funds to help cover the cost of your Master’s degree.

With a variety of different formats, it is a really good idea to speak with your human resources department to get an idea of how your employee tuition assistance program works.

If you feel stuck in your career, often times an advanced degree will give you the jumpstart that you need for upward mobility. It may even open up an entirely new career path. Who knows, you might learn the skills necessary to start your own business and break free of the 9 – 5 work chain.

A Master’s degree can be an incredibly rewarding experience, and it is even sweeter if you can get someone else to pay for it!

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Parents Lose a Job? Appeal Your Financial Aid!

It is now August, and many of your filled out the current year FAFSA way back at the beginning of the year. A lot can happen in 8 months!

Colleges often require a FAFSA to be submitted by an early deadline to give them the most time to have it processed, and to ensure that you are eligible for the maximum financial aid available.

The FAFSA is also based solely on the financial information from the previous tax year. For example, the Fall 2011 semester will use the 2011-2012 FAFSA, but it will use you and your parent’s 2010 tax information.

With the volatile economy we all live in, it should come as no surprise that many families financial situation has changed, some drastically (loss of job, other reduction in income), since the 2010 taxes were filed and the 2011-2012 FAFSA was submitted.

If you find yourself in this situation, please know that you have the right to appeal your financial aid directly to your college financial aid office.

Professional Judgements

All college financial aid offices are free, by federal law, to develop their own procedure for their appeal processes. Many colleges will call them a “professional judgement” while others might call them an appeal, or a review. The basic concept, is that your financial aid will be re-evaluated to better reflect your current financial situation.

Since there is not one name to request, please explain to your financial aid advisor that your financial situation has changed drastically since you filed your taxes and FAFSA, and that you would like your financial aid to be re-evaluated.

Please be aware that this process can often times be lengthy, and is not guaranteed. The financial aid advisor who manages these “professional judgements” will have the power to approve or deny your request.

That is why it is very important to plead your case, and to come prepared when you meet with them.

What to Bring

The documents that you will need to bring can vary widely depending on your situation, but I will give you a quick list of the items that you absolutely must bring with you when you visit your financial aid office:

  • 2010 Federal tax returns for parents and students if they filed
  • All 2010 W-2 forms
  • All appropriate tax schedules (C, D, E, K-1)
  • Proof of reduction in income (ie. letter verifying loss of job)
  • Documentation of excessive medical bills (Typically over $10,000)
  • Documentation of a one-time lump sum disbursement that was included on the tax return (IRA disbursement, 401K withdrawal, Life Insurance benefit)

The Process

Once you have met with your college financial aid counselor and submitted all of your paperwork, you will now, unfortunately, have to wait. Depending on the time of year that you submit your appeal, it might take up to 4 – 6 weeks to process your request.

However, the end result is that your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) could lower. Your EFC is the calculation that is used to determine how much money for college you qualify for. This means, that you might qualify for more need-based grants such as the Pell Grant, Federal Work-Study, or FSEOG.

You also may qualify for a Subsidized Stafford loan as opposed to an Unsubsidized Stafford loan, if your EFC is lowered.

Once again, this process is not guaranteed, but I highly recommend it if you are struggling to figure out how you will pay for college as your family’s finances have taken a turn for the worse!

Have you ever gone through this process in the past?

What advice would you have for someone going through this?

Photo used under Flickr Creative Commons: John – Morgan

Stock Market Crashes 634 Points – How to Remain Calm

By now, most of you know or have heard that yesterday was a horrific day on Wall Street.

The first day of trading after Standard and Poor’s downgraded the United States credit rating to a Aa+ from a AAA sent shockwaves through the international community as well as Wall Street. The 634 point drop yesterday, might just be the tip of the ice berg. Analysts are convinced that the debt deal did nothing to convince investors that the United States is committed to getting out of debt, and therefore the massive sell fest began.

What does this all mean for you as a student, or as a parent planning for your child’s future?

Maximize the investments you can control!

Nobody can control or predict the stock market accurately 100% of the time. People claim they can, and they are all proven liars. In fact, when you invest in a security you will always see the disclaimer that “funds invested in the stock market are guaranteed and the investing company is not liable”.

So if the stock market cannot be trusted to secure our future, what can we put our trust in? You can invest in your education!

Studies have shown that students with higher degrees of education make more than those without, with an overwhelming majority.  Your college degree is the gateway to a world of opportunities that simply do not exist without a college degree.

I know you might be thinking about the rare exceptions in our world such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. I cannot deny that they did not graduate from college and they are two of the most influential and wealthy people in the world. But once again, they are a RARE exception.

The best way to secure wealth in the future is to arm yourself with the credentials and experience that will help you earn more money over the course of your lifetime. Having a college degree is an excellent start.

I also encourage you to become an entrepreneur, or at least have an entrepreneur mindset. The greatest source of wealth in our economy is small businesses. As a college graduate, you will have the chops to create the business of your choosing. Even if you decide not to start your own business, thinking like a business owner will get you far within any job that you have.

So, even though you cannot control the stock market, you can control your most important asset class: YOURSELF!

Time is on your side!

It is also very important to remember that time is on your side. Hopefully, you are not a Wall Street trader (if you are, please put down the coffee and breathe…), and since you do not trade stock minute by minute, you have time on your side.

The stock market has fallen more than 634 points before, and it has rebounded.

The stock market crashed in 2008, then it rose back to glorious heights in 2010. Now it is falling again.

If you look at a historical summary of the stock market you will quickly see that this is simply how life goes on Wall Street. A series of gains and losses, ups and down. However, the historical average return is hovering around 10%.

This means that if you invest your money for the long-term, and leave it untouched, it should eventually reach that 10% annual return mark. (Once again, historical prices do not indicate future results with the stock market).

We can get into much more detail later about how to re-balance your portfolio to ensure maximum safety, but for now please know that I highly recommend index funds that mirror the market.

They are cheap, and easily understood.

Take a Deep Breath.

So the stock market took a nose dive yesterday. It will probably fall again today. It might even continue to fall for the week. If you focus on the long-term investing time frame that you have, and continue to maximize your personal education and career, then you can switch off the news and stop worrying about Wall Street.

Princeton Review Annual Best College List

A few days ago the Princeton Review unveiled it’s annual review of the best colleges in America.

They found 376 colleges that made up their lists, and they ranked everything from happiest students, to most stone-cold sober schools.

They also had a list for the school’s with the best financial aid policies.

You can learn a lot from this list, and it could come in handy if you are a parent or a student trying to determine which college you want to attend next year. It is just as useful of a tool as

You can read more here from the Princeton Review Best College List

Debt Deal Leaves Students With Higher Loan Costs

We all know by now that Congress passed the debt deal yesterday, and it was signed into law by President Obama.

That sounds great, as our nation avoided default and a potential market crash, but what does that mean for you as a student?

There were three main categories of student financial aid that were affected by the debt deal. Here is the recap from

  • Pell Grants: While many programs faced cuts in this bill, the Pell Grant program was provided with additional mandatory funding for both FY 2012 and 2013.  Specifically, the package provides an additional $10 billion in mandatory funds for Pell in FY 2012 and $7 billion for FY 2013, amounts that should come close to preserving a $5,550 maximum award.  When the President released his budget in February, Pell faced a projected $20 billion shortfall for FY 2012.  The elimination of the Year-Round Pell Grant in the final FY 2011 budget bill reduced this shortfall to $11 billion.  Even with the additional mandatory funding provided in the debt reduction package, Pell will still face a $1.3 billion dollar shortfall for FY 2012.

  • Interest Subsidy for Graduate Students: The Budget Control Act also eliminates the in-school interest subsidy for graduate and professional students beginning July 1, 2012, a provision that would save $18.1 billion from FY 2012-21, $8.2 billion of which is from FY 2012-16, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  The legislative language clarifies that the subsidy elimination does not apply to students taking preparatory coursework and those in programs leading to teacher certification where the credential is awarded by the state instead of the institution.

  • Direct Loan Repayment Incentives: Repayment incentives were also eliminated in the final package.  The incentive for using automatic debit repayment provided borrowers with a 0.25 interest rate reduction and the up-front interest rebate incentive was equal to 0.5 percent of the loan amount and applied toward the 1 percent loan origination fee.  For PLUS loans, the up-front interest rebate was 1.5 percent applied toward the 4 percent origination fee. Borrowers were able to keep the rebate if they made their first 12 payments on time.  The language prohibits the Department of Education from authorizing or providing repayment incentives on new loans disbursed on or after July 1, 2012, except that an interest rate reduction may be provided to a borrower who agrees to automatically debited electronic payments.  The CBO projects the elimination of the origination fee rebates would yield $3.6 billion from FY 2012-21.

So what this means for you as a student is that your Pell Grant is safe.

If you are a graduate student, you will be stuck with paying the interest on your loans while in school, which will drive up the cost of your students loans.

When you go to repay your student loans (all federal Stafford, Grad, and PLUS loans) you will not have access to repayment incentives that will lower the cost on your loan.

Bottom line, you will end up paying much more for your loans!

Also, please stay tuned as another provision of the debt deal is to continue looking for ways to further reduce costs. This means that all federal student aid programs might not be out of the water yet!

Once again, it is important to contact your congressman to let them know how you feel about your federal student aid.

Your voice is important!

The Top 5 Private Student Loan Questions

We have talked at length about the hierarchy of financial aid. Financial aid awards that you do not have to repay come first, followed by work-study programs, then Direct Stafford Loans, and finally, private student loans.

Unfortunately, with the rising costs of tuition, private student loans are becoming much more common. These loans are a viable option for funding your college education, but it is important to ask questions first before you choose your lender.

Here is a short list of the top 5 questions you should ask every lender before you decide on which private student loan is best for you!

Top 5 Private Student Loan Questions

  1. What is your range of interest rates, and are they variable or fixed?
  2. What fees are involved with disbursing the loan?
  3. Will I need to have a co-signer?
  4. Is there a grace period (will I have to make payments while in school)?
  5. Are there deferment or forbearance payment options for financial hardship?

Here is one more just because I care about you!

6.  What is the estimated monthly payment, and how much will I pay total over the lifetime of the loan?

By asking these questions to each of your lenders, you will be able to compare their answers and ensure that you are getting the best deal possible on your private student loan!

Have you had experience dealing with private student loans?

What questions have you asked your prospective lenders?

Photo used under Flickr Creative Commons: Omar Omar