September 17, 2007
After what seemed like a never-ending battle between the Senate and the House, a compromise was finally reached on the College Cost Reduction and Access Act. What’s more, based on White House reports, President Bush is even going to retract his earlier threat to veto the bill. The proposal was sent to the president on Friday, and a signature is expected shortly.
The main points of the bill include an increase in Pell Grant allocations to students and a decrease in government subsidies to student lenders. According to Bloomberg L.P., about $20 billion of the estimated subsidy savings will be redirected to student loan programs. Among these is the Pell Grant program which, for the 2007-2008 year, awards a maximum $4,300 per student per year. Over the next few years, the maximum sum is expected to rise to $5,400.
Lenders are obviously unpleased and warn that the new bill will harm students in the long run. Certain lender and Congress members predict the changes will push many smaller lenders out of business and will lead to cuts in fee reductions for students with good payment records. However, with many large lenders still competing for business, the bill is likely to help much more than it hurts.Additional bill provisions include a forgiveness plan that will allow students to stop loan payments after ten years of work in public sector fields such as education. Only those who borrow under the Federal Direct Loan Program are eligible, but students who borrow under the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) can still apply by consolidating their loans under the direct plan.
The bill was initially proposed as a reply to the student loan investigation that uncovered numerous illegal actions within the student loan industry. Many student lenders were found to have offered financial aid officials money in exchange for spots on preferred-lender lists. As the investigation continued, incentives such as stock tips, vacation packages and tickets to entertainment venues were found to be offered regularly.
As always, students should look to free grants and scholarships before taking out loans. However low the rates are, loans still have to be repaid. By conducting a free scholarship search at Scholarships.com, students will be exposed to a world of financial aid opportunities that may enable them to bypass loans altogether.
September 28, 2007
After an anxious wait on the part of students and lenders, President Bush finally signed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act into law. And you know this is big if MTV reported on the bill even though partying at club Les Deux wasn’t involved.
According to the new law, the maximum Pell Grant offered to students will increase while the subsidies the government offers student lenders will decrease. This is the biggest boost in student aid since the GI Bill for veterans---and a fresh change from the 2005 $12 billion financial aid cut.
Among those who will benefit are needy students eligible for government grants and those who borrow from the government. Currently, students are eligible to receive a maximum $4,310 Pell Grant each year. This number will increase gradually, reaching a high of $5,400 by 2012.
Under the act, new subsidized Stafford loan interest rates will also be cut. A low point of 3.4 percent will be available to students who borrow between July 1, 2011 and July 1, 2012. Unfortunately, students will have to wait until 2008 to take advantage of this change. Until then, they are stuck with the current fixed 6.8 percent loan interest rate.
Students who plan to teach in low-income neighborhoods after graduating may also benefit. Future teachers may receive a $4,000 TEACH Grant for each year they attend school (up to $16,000 for undergraduates and $8,000 for graduates), but a pretty detailed list of additional eligibility criteria must also be met.
The bill was largely a result of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s investigation into illegal actions within the $85 billion student loan industry. The investigation revealed that numerous financial aid administrators, including one from the Department of Education, received financial incentives from lenders who hoped to improve their standing with schools.
Some of the financial aid changes outlined in the act were previously considered, but Cuomo’s investigation provided much-needed impetus. Although Bush had initially threatened to veto the bill, he agreed to sign once recommended changes were made. In a White House photo, the president is shown signing the bill with four smiling college students, three smiling congressmen and a smiling Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings looking over his shoulder. A sign that read, “Making College More Affordable” hung from his desk.
November 20, 2007
Last Thursday, the House of Representatives approved a renewed and altered version of the recently expired Higher Education Act. A similar renewal act was passed by the Senate in July, and it was also unanimous. Before the bill is sent to the president, it will have to be reviewed again, and one version must be created. The amended portion, otherwise known as the College Opportunity and Affordability Act, addresses financial aid hardships faced by students attempting to afford a college education. Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney stated that, "Access for all Americans to a college education is a roadmap to a strong middle class."
Based on information provided by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor, the College Opportunity and Affordability Act will:
1. Encourage colleges to lower or maintain costs by making sure that states provide them with sufficient funding. Schools that choose to increase tuition will have to provide reasoning for the change as well as plans to again decrease costs.
2. Lower the chance that lenders and schools will engage in inappropriate relations (such as the use of biased preferred lender lists) by requiring that lenders and schools abide by codes of conduct and by making more loan information available to student borrowers.
3. Simplify the FAFSA application process by creating a more straightforward FAFSA-EZ form for low-income families and by allowing families more time to create plans for tuition saving.
4. Assist students in affording textbooks by providing information about the costs of books in advance.
5. Improve education by creating programs that encourage students to act on their interests in the sciences and by providing financial assistance to graduates who work in the public sector.
6. Help low income, minority and disabled students afford an education by improving the effectiveness of the TRIO grant for low-income students, by helping colleges recruit and retain students with disabilities and by allowing students to receive Pell Grant scholarships aid year round.
7. Increase financial and social support for veterans and military families interested in receiving a postsecondary education.
8. Improve safety by helping colleges create emergency systems and by establishing disaster relief loan programs in case of disaster.
December 18, 2007
January 29, 2008
In last night’s State of the Union address, President Bush called on Congress to cut down on bill earmarking. Earmarks, often attached to spending bills at the last minute, have been used to designate money to benefit legislators' personal interests. Local and state projects that may not have otherwise been funded are often successfully snuck into an earmark and financed.
Sometimes used as “paybacks” for organizations that donate money to a legislator’s campaign, earmarks have received negative attention in the press. However, numerous colleges and universities have also been able to profit from them. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, $2 billion for research, construction and school projects was earmarked for colleges and universities in 2003. Criticizing the practice, President Bush stated that most earmarks don’t even make it to the floor of the House or Senate saying, “You didn’t vote them into law. I didn’t sign them into law.”
If earmarking is curbed, some schools may see a decline in their budgets, and will have to look elsewhere for additional funding. But because Mr. Bush was referring to the 2009 budget, legislators still have the option of bypassing a veto by delaying approval of the spending bill.
January 31, 2008
Each year, I heard complaints about the textbook policies of my old college economics teacher. He wrote the only textbook required for class and re-released it—in a nearly identical format—annually. As a result, previous students couldn’t make money by reselling their old books, and new students couldn’t buy used books at a discounted price.
If the House passes its proposed textbook bill, universities might be forced to curb this type of practice. The new bill would make it mandatory for colleges to release course supply information in catalogs thereby giving students the chance to consider class costs before signing up and the time to search for cheaper resources.
Publishers would also have to play a part in decreasing the supply prices. The bill proposed that publishers be forced to minimize textbook costs by cutting down on attached CDs and workbooks. They would also have to publicize the wholesale costs of books and to make known the previous versions costs. If the new versions were revised, the revisions would have to be summarized. With this information, students would be better equipped to decide whether a new textbook version was worth the price.
The book addendum, a part of the House’s new version of the Higher Education Act, was not a part of the corresponding version already approved by the Senate. If the House passes this bill, Senators will again have to approve the changes.
February 5, 2008
On February 4th, President Bush unveiled his much criticized national budget to a frustrated Congress. Members of both parties found fault with the president for his proposal to increase funding for the military at the expense of Medicare. According to the Los Angeles Times, President Bush’s proposal could slow the growth of Medicare programs by nearly $208 billion over the next five years.
The budget for the Department of Education, on the other hand, was received with mixed reviews. A firm advocate of scientific research, the president proposed that funds for physical-science research, much of which would go to colleges and universities, increase in the upcoming year.
While physical scientists cheered in one corner, medical researchers jeered in the other. Once again, The National Institute of Health (NIH), the primary government agency responsible for health-related research, was upset with the president's funding proposal.
After his decision to veto a bill that would increase NIH funding in November, the president's budget did not come as much of a surprise. Upon hearing last year's proposal, Bush claimed that Congress was, "acting like a teenager with a new credit card." Ironically, if Bush's budget is approved, skyrocketing national debt is expected. The current U.S. debt could more than double over the next two years if Congress chooses to accept the budget. More likely, the proposal will be stalled until President Bush leaves office.
February 19, 2008
Despite investigations into shady business practices of study-abroad programs across the nation, Congress continues to support the idea of travel for college students. Last June, a bill to increase study-abroad funding was passed in the House, and a similar version was approved last week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The initial version of the Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation bill was passed by the House in June, 2007 and introduced to the Senate by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Norm Coleman (R-MN). If passed, it would allow Congress to appropriate $80 million each year towards a foundation awarding financial aid to study-abroad students.
The bill would encourage one million students to study abroad, especially in non-traditional settings. According to Senator Durbin, the travel will, “allow students the opportunity to grow and gain skills to help our nation compete in the globalized world.”
Now that the bill has been approved by the Senate committee, it will move to the Senate floor for a full vote. Approval seems likely as positive feedback has been expressed by both parties.
The proposal is particularly aimed at assisting minority students with scholarships and grants. Senator Coleman stated that, “The goal of the Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act is to make study abroad in high-quality programs in diverse locations around the world the routine, rather than the exception, for American college students.”
Over the past year, study abroad programs have received more publicity for their troubles than their benefits. Inquiries into the actions of program representatives who received free trips and money for meeting student traveler quotas have marred the image of numerous programs. If the appropriations are approved, increased financial accountability is likely.
Students interested in studying abroad need not wait until this bill clears both chambers. By completing a free college scholarship search, students can find information about numerous college scholarships and grants that can help them afford school. Both study-abroad scholarships and awards based on different criteria are available.
March 26, 2008
The recipe for the No Child Left Behind Act seems simple: identify ineffective schools, and improve their student performance. Sprinkle in a dash of funds, a threatening environment for underperforming teachers, and melt away problems at 365°.
Unfortunately, most successful plans call for more than a dash of funds. And as was demonstrated by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the No Child Left Behind progress, funding problems have been leaving states struggling to comply with the program’s requirements. Of particular concern were two NCLB provisions responsible for regulating the allocation of federal education funds.
As mandated by the No Child Left Behind, states are required to set aside 4 percent of the federal assistance they receive to help low-income students and use that money to improve schools that have failed to meet state academic expectations. No problem there. Because most poorly-scoring schools are low income, the 4 percent used to improve schools would indirectly help the low-income students.
The problem arises when another provision comes into the picture. According to the “hold-harmless” rule, states are not allowed to set aside more money for a poorly-performing school if it means having to cut back on other school district grants, reports the Washington Post. Because of this stipulation, numerous states have been finding it difficult to come up with sufficient money to help poorly performing schools while maintaining previous assistance levels to other school districts.
According to the GAO report, the “hold-harmless” provision has prevented 22 states from setting aside the required NCLB funds. Some states have made up differences by taking advantage of other federal and state funds, but not all have been able to do so successfully.
Insufficient funding is just one of many concerns cited by NCLB critics. Others have included a diminished focus on untested material and a decrease in attention paid to advanced students. High school seniors interested in voicing their opinions on the NCLB, both positive and negative, may do so by applying for the Scholarships.com 2008 Resolve to Evolve Scholarship. Seven applicants who submit the most thought-out and well-crafted responses will be awarded with scholarships ranging between $1,000 and $3,000. For additional information about this and other college scholarship and grants, students may conduct a free scholarship search.
March 28, 2008
Just two weeks ago, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings addressed the US House Committee on Education and Labor about its fear of a federal lending program meltdown. To the best of her ability, she tried to qualm the legislators' fears and to convince them that negative speculations were exaggerated. “More than 2,000 originating lenders participate in FFEL,” she said. “A small number of these lenders have reduced their participation or stopped originating new loans.”
However, the Department of Education’s request for Lender of Last Resort (LLR) preparation painted a somewhat different picture. In a letter sent to 35 guarantee agencies, the Financial Student Aid’s Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Warder laid out the basic LLR provisions and asked that the guarantee agencies quickly respond with plans for enacting the emergency program, should the need arise.
With lenders leaving the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program at increasing rates, both legislators and families have been feeling uneasy about college loan options. And while the department maintained that things were largely under control, the letters spoke for themselves.
The LLR provisions state that when a student eligible for federal aid is denied by at least two lenders, guarantee agencies and lenders who have signed agreements with them are responsible for awarding the loan. Being nonprofit entities, the guaranty agencies would use government funding to repay lenders for any student defaults.
To be certain that individuals have quick access to student loans, regardless of decisions made by cautious lenders, the department has asked that guaranty agencies submit their plans to put the LLR program in place. Among other things, they were asked to prepare a timeline for issuing LLR loans to students, provide a method for informing students about LLR eligibility and plan for meeting the increased administrative requirements. Recipients of the letter were given up to 30 days to respond with a new outline for their LLR program.
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