Monday, June 29, 2009

Changes to the FAFSA: Sooner Than You Think

For those of you who have struggled through the dreaded process of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, in order to be eligible for financial aid or just to apply for unsubsidized Stafford loans, take heart. The Department of Education announced last week that it intends to substantially modify the process by making the FAFSA shorter, simpler and more user-friendly.

This streamlining will take place in 3 steps:
- Beginning this summer, enhanced skip-logic on the web-based FAFSA will allow applicants to bypass many more questions that are irrelevant to their situation. For example, students who are married or 24 and older, and therefore considered independent, will no longer have to answer questions about their parents’ finances.

- In the second phase, the Department of Education will ask Congress to pass legislation allowing the elimination of numerous questions that ask for financial data not found on tax returns. The department claims that since much of this information is not verifiable, especially that pertaining to assets, it adds little value to the process of awarding aid. So expect to see many of the asset questions discarded should Congress agree to the changes…no more reporting home equity which actually counted little towards the Expected Family Contribution anyway.

- The third step will be rolled out first as a pilot program to students applying for aid in the spring term of 2010. The program will allow students to populate 18 questions on the revised form with data retrieved from their most recently filed tax return. Why use this target group? Keep in mind that most of us have not yet filed our tax returns by the time we are required to submit the FAFSA to schools in early February in order to meet their financial aid deadlines. We complete the form as soon after January 1 as possible using estimates, to be updated with actual tax return data at a later date. Those applying for financial aid for the spring term start the process several months later, after the April 15 tax filing date. Again, this is only a pilot program. Questions still abound as to whether this will be a fair measure of need since using the last filed tax return in most cases for those filing for fall will mean relying on information that may be up to two years stale. One potential consequence is that colleges and state institutions cease to rely on the FAFSA and institute their own forms if they believe the information is too dated to be meaningful.

Will these changes be sufficient to generate greater accessibility to students or do they go to far? While that is being debated. some streamlining is already in the works, and that’s the good news for those who do not eagerly anticipate completing another FAFSA form come January 1, 2010.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Honors College Education at a Bargain Price

Don’t rule out state universities in the south if you are looking for honors college experiences at a far more reasonable price than you will find for comparable educations in the northeast. My recent trip down to Georgia and Alabama included four state universities (Georgia Tech, University of Georgia, University of Alabama-Birmingham and University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa), all with top quality honors colleges that are actively seeking to increase their geographic diversification and draw students from outside the southeast. These top-notch programs are well kept secrets just waiting to be discovered. The number of Fulbright, Goldwater, Marshall and Rhodes fellowship recipients is comparable to that at the Ivy League colleges. What’s more, for the student who is looking for a reasonably priced education, small classes, plenty of research opportunities, yet the campus spirit and excitement that come with attending an athletic powerhouse, these schools should not be overlooked. You can go to each university’s website to check out their honors programs and the types of scholarships they offer.

I also had the opportunity to visit several wonderful private colleges and learned that most offer meaningful tuition discounts, especially to candidates they are anxious to recruit (read: out-of-state!). Two of my favorite lesser known colleges were Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama (one of the Colleges That Change Lives), and Agnes-Scott College, a gem of an all-women’s college in the charming Atlanta suburb of Decatur. Its graduating senior class produced two Fulbright scholars this year and more fellowship recipients than the colleges in the Ivy League.

So think about expanding your horizons and looking beyond the colleges in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states. You may be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the education, beauty of the campuses, lifestyle, and cost!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Looking to Canada for Value

While Canadian colleges and universities have been increasing in popularity among American students over the past few years, the state of the economy has contributed to a recent surge in interest. Primary reason: Value! The cost of attending many private colleges in the U.S. has topped $50,000 a year. By contrast, the total annual bill for foreign students at a Canadian university is in the $30,000 range, a 40% savings!

But cost is not the only reason that Canadian schools have experienced an increase in applications and matriculation by American students. Canadian universities had been attracting more and more U.S. citizens well before the current economic crisis. Over the past 12 years the number of U.S. students studying in Canada has more than tripled to top 9,000. And as more American students head north, the benefits of attending a Canadian university are no longer such a well-kept secret. Those benefits include globally recognized academic programs, the opportunity to enjoy an international college experience without venturing far from home, state-of-the-art campus facilities in cities such as Montreal or Toronto, and a far less cumbersome and more straight-forward application process (no essay or letter of recommendation requirements).

American students attending schools in Canada can take their Stafford or PLUS loans with them across the border, though Pell Grants are not transportable. So if you are sensitive to cost (and who isn’t), want a top quality education with a vibrant student life experience, and are willing to explore beyond the U.S. border, then you might consider the Canadian university option. Check out the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada’s website at to learn more.

Friday, June 5, 2009

New Option for Federal Student Loan Repayment

Borrowers graduating from college with student loans are about to get some relief from the federal government starting on July 1. Those in good standing on their student loan payments will be able to take advantage of a new program that will allow them to tie their monthly loan payments on federal loans to what they make, rather than to what they owe. Monthly loan payments will be capped at 15% of the amount by which gross income exceeds the federal poverty level (now $16,245 annually). Furthermore, if the loans are not fully paid off after 25 years, the unpaid balance will be forgiven. While this is generally great news for graduates starting out with modest post college incomes, there is some fine print of which borrowers should be aware.

As income rises, so will your monthly debt payments. That’s not a reason to turn down a raise, but don’t be surprised when the required loan payment suddenly increases.
Income used in the calculation is household income, not just the borrower’s; if a person is married, the spouse’s income will factor into the formula to determine the maximum payment amount, provided the couple files jointly. Filing separately will get around this issue. However, the taxpayers will forfeit other tax benefits such as student interest deductions which are only available to married couples who file jointly.
Payment reductions will slow down debt amortization. The not-so-desirable result is higher interest charges over the life of the loan.
Any debt that is forgiven after year 25 will be treated as income and therefore subject to taxes.
And as noted, borrowers must be in good standing to take advantage of the payment option.
This program applies to federal loans only. In other words, payments on high interest private student loans cannot be tied to income.

In an earlier post I discussed the advantages of the federal, or Stafford loan program, over other types of borrowing to finance one's education. The new income-based repayment program will provide another reason to exhaust this borrowing source before resorting to other types of loans.