Advanced Classes, Programs Offer A Head Start on College

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When it comes to paying for higher education, time almost always equals money. For high school students looking toward a college future getting ahead of the game at the next level doesn’t require looking farther than their own school. Many Iowa high schools offer concurrent or dual enrollment programs, as well as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, all of which can help students gain credits for college while still in high school.

While these programs offer some distinct differences, knowing about advanced classes now can help all students save on money when continuing on to college.


Students might hear the name concurrent enrollment or dual enrollment depending on their school and the community college district that partner with their high school. Regardless of the name, these programs offer students the opportunity to take college-level courses while still in high school. These classes might take place at the local community college or during the regular school day at a student’s high school. Whichever way a dual or concurrent enrollment program works, the end result is the same: exposing high school students to college-level courses before high school graduation.

In many cases, these courses can count toward degree requirements at a community college, or can transfer as undergraduate credits at a 4-year college or university. Most programs offer a selection of required classes for an associate’s degree or technical classes that will introduce students to career training available through a community college. Some programs, like the concurrent enrollment program at Sioux City Community School District, can lead to students earning their associate’s degree by the time they graduate high school.

Students can also get a credit toward college classes by taking Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes at their high school, if they are offered. These classes are often integrated into the regular high school curriculum and focus on a particular subject which is taught at a college level. At the end of the semester or year, students take a test which, based on their score, can lead to equivalent subject credits when they begin their college career.

Unlike dual or concurrent enrollment programs which may offer a limited number of classes, AP and IB programs offer a wide array of subjects for which students can study. If a particular course is not offered at a student’s school, they may still sit for an exam through the AP Program.

Before embarking on either dual/concurrent enrollment, AP or IB programs, students should consider their workload balance and not bite off​ more than they can chew. Students should strive for balance in their schedule and consider their intellectual capabilities and after-school activities when selecting courses.

Meeting with a school counselor to determine the best course of action is always a good idea for students looking to challenge themselves and explore the options available. Together, students, families and their counselors can come up with a plan that not only challenges students academically, but helps them prepare for college in a way that can save time and money down the road.

Remembering The Personal Impact of School Counselors During National School Counseling Week

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This week, we celebrate the work of school counselors throughout Iowa and the country during National School Counseling Week. This year’s theme, “School Counseling: The Recipe for Success,” truly speaks to how school counselors are often the key ingredient to helping students succeed both in school and planning for their future.

The personal impact that counselors make on students lasts longer than just their time in school, though, as Darcie Sprouse shares. Working for Iowa College Aid as the Program Coordinator for GEAR UP Iowa, Sprouse knows first-hand the impact that comes with interaction and motivation with students early in their educational career. It’s something that she learned early on as a student and a responsibility that she carries forward in her work building a college-going culture with GEAR UP Iowa students.


I went to a small elementary school where many of the teachers and other staff members had been there long enough to teach my parents as well as my siblings and me. While I appreciated that connection, it was exciting when a new guidance counselor started during my 4th grade year. She was young and energetic, and it may have been her first position as a school counselor. Her name was Mary and she was from outside of our close-knit community. I was immediately fascinated by her. Similar to our previous school counselor, Mary came into our classroom at least once a week for guidance lessons. She liked to have us do interactive and role-play activities, something I would normally dread as an introverted student. However, Mary had a way of making everyone feel comfortable and I usually looked forward to her lessons.

My parents went through a divorce when I was in second grade and I only knew two other kids in my class with divorced parents. I was a relatively quiet student in elementary school and that, combined with my split family, made me feel a little disconnected from everyone else. I don’t know if Mary knew that at the time but she didn’t treat me different either way. She was always happy to see every student and she truly cared about each and every one of us.  Thanks to Mary, I finally started feeling a little more confident and I eventually started getting involved in after school activities.

I lost touch with Mary when I started middle school in a different building and she eventually left the district. As luck would have it, our paths crossed again about 20 years later when we worked together at the same college. She knew exactly who I was and she even remembered the names of my three siblings! We both left our positions from the college within a year from each other and I didn’t keep in touch. Ironically, we ran into each other again in our current positions and I am fortunate to collaborate with her every few months.

Mary hasn’t changed much from what I remember in elementary school. She is still one of the most optimistic people I know. Mary’s caring and welcoming personality helped me through a difficult time and I give her a lot of credit for being one of my first role models. I know there are many school counselors just like Mary and I am fortunate to still have her in my life.

Get the Upperhand on Financial Aid Prep With This Powerful Tool

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Financial aid planning can seem like a daunting task for students and families looking to find financial aid for education after high school. And while the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a vital tool, most families wait until a student’s senior year to explore the impact that federal financial aid can have on their educational plans.. Regardless of a family’s income, the FAFSA helps families and schools connect and see what financial aid packages are available for students if they attend a chosen school.

Families can get a head start on on planning as early as middle school thanks to the FAFSA4caster, a free financial aid calculator that provides an early estimate of federal student aid eligibility.

It’s a great planning tool for anyone who either is getting ready to file a FAFSA, but also for those who aren’t ready to file a FAFSA just yet. That means high school juniors can get a head start on their FAFSA planning. Even families of middle schoolers can get an early idea of what financial aid options might be available down the road and start planning accordingly.

Parents of younger students can use the tool to receive early estimates, create scenarios based on future earnings, and then establish college funding strategies. Adult students also can use FAFSA4caster to get an idea of what aid they might receive.

The FAFSA4caster is pretty easy to use. Just answer the same types of financial questions that are used in the FAFSA to estimate your federal student aid eligibility. While some questions might be easy to answer, others may require referencing personal records such as federal tax information or bank statements. Using the most current information you have will help give the clearest estimate, but an estimate or guess will take care of other questions. Either way, be sure to answer all the questions on FAFSA4caster to get the best financial aid estimate.

After completing the questions, FAFSA4caster displays a worksheet to help determine the net cost of attending a chosen school:

  • At the top of the page, enter the school’s cost of attendance (there is a link to College Navigator in case you need to look up the cost).
  • Next, a number of sources of college funding are listed. FAFSA4caster indicates estimated Federal Pell Grant amount (if any), Federal Work-Study amount (based on the average nationally), and maximum Direct Subsidized Loan and Direct Unsubsidized Loan eligibility.
  • Other fields allow for amounts of expected (or anticipated) state and college aid and private scholarships.
  • Click “Calculate,” and FAFSA4caster summarizes the cost, the total aid entered and the difference (the net cost of attending college). It will also show the estimated Expected Family Contribution (EFC). With this information, families can compare schools by changing cost of attendance, adjusting state aid, amending the amount of aid available from the school, and so on.

FAFSA4Caster is not only a great tool for students and families preparing to complete the FAFSA this year, but a way for families of all students to consider their financial aid options at any point in their student’s education, as they prepare for college.

How to Handle The 5 Most Frequently Asked FAFSA Questions

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the most important tool for prospective college students looking to receive financial aid for their education. Regardless of a family’s income, schools use the FAFSA to determine the best financial aid packages for students, while state agenices, such as Iowa College Aid, use the FAFSA to help award state grants and scholarships.


Needless to say, the FAFSA is vitally important, as is making sure that families fill out the FAFSA correctly. In order to help, the U.S. Department of Education created a list of five frequently asked questions to help students and families better handle the application process. Some highlights from the FAFSA FAQ include:

1. What is an FSA ID and do I need one?

The FSA ID is a username and password you use to log in to your FAFSA. You should get an FSA ID before you start the FAFSA. If you are required to provide parent information on your FAFSA, one of your parents needs an FSA ID too. Keep in mind that parents should not be making an FSA ID for their child or vice versa.

Parents will use their FSA ID to sign a dependent child’s FAFSA. However, if they are unable to get an FSA ID, they can mail a signature page.

2. How can I complete the FAFSA if my parents or I haven’t filed 2015 taxes yet?

When filling out the 2016–17 FAFSA, you’ll want to use financial information from the 2015 tax year. At this point in the year, many people haven’t received their Form W-2, let alone completed their 2015 taxes. But that shouldn’t stop you from submitting the FAFSA! If you or your parents have not completed your taxes yet, you can estimate your income and other tax return information, and then correct your application after you have filed your taxes.

3. When is the FAFSA deadline?

Because some types of aid are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, it is highly recommended that you fill out the FAFSA as soon as you can to ensure that you do not miss out on available aid.

4. Do I have to complete the FAFSA every year?

Yes, you need to fill out the FAFSA each school year because your eligibility for financial aid can differ from year to year for various reasons, including your family’s financial situation and the number of your family members enrolled in college.

5. Which FAFSA should I complete?

When you log into, you will be given two different options: “Start a 2015–16 FAFSA” and “Start a 2016–17 FAFSA.” Which should you choose?

  • If you’ll be attending college between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, select “Start a 2015–16 FAFSA.”
  • If you’ll be attending college between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017, select “Start a 2016–17 FAFSA.”

Remember, you must complete the FAFSA each school year, so if you’ll be attending college during both periods of time, you should fill out both applications.

To read the U.S. Department of Education’s FAFSA advice in further detail, visit their blog.

Avoiding 5 Common Errors When Completing the #FAFSA

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January is the start of FAFSA season, as students and families prepare and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. For any student looking to receive financial aid for college, the FAFSA is vitally important, as it is the primary document that schools and states use to determine financial aid packages. In spite of its importance, though, the majority of FAFSA applications are submitted with either incorrect or incomplete information. These errors can make a significant impact on how much aid a student can receive for school. So in order to get the most out of the FAFSA application, here are some tips to avoid common errors:

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  1. Failing to Submit Because of Income

The FAFSA doesn’t serve only need-based financial aid options for students, but is a critical tool for determining financial aid options for all students. The most crucial error families make is not submitting a FAFSA at all. Some families will think that their combined family income will be “too high” to qualify for financial aid while other families will feel that because their combined family income is “too low,” that they shouldn’t bother submitting a FAFSA. Any student attending college should encourage their family to submit a FAFSA

  1. Understating Income or Overstating Assets

New rules will start for the 2016-17 school year intended to make it easier for families submitting accurate tax information. But even with those new rules, it’s important to make sur that all income is reported on the FAFSA. Contributions to a 401(k) or any other pre-tax retirement account often get ignored as reported income and can show, in effect, a higher FAFSA income than what might be shown on your tax return. Just as many families also mistakenly include retirement assets or real estate equity as part of their investments or net worth, when in fact retirement assets should not be included here. Income from rental property or vacation homes, however, can be included.

  1. Attributing Information to the wrong person

While it is often a parent completing the FAFSA for their student, it’s important to remember that the FAFSA is written from a student perspective, as if they are the one completing it. When the FAFSA refers to “you” and “yours,” it is in fact referring to the student.

  1. Not filing electronically

Online submission provides built-in edits to help prevent errors, is more time-efficient, includes an online help feature, and offers a much simpler renewal process. But make sure to avoid another common error and save as you go. Saving the application after completing every page or two will help prevent any problems if an internet connection goes down or you face some sort of technical issue.

  1. Not Paying attention to details

From making sure that the correct year’s FAFSA is being completed to making sure to take time to consider each question thoroughly, it’s important to make sure that full attention is being given to the FAFSA process. Give yourself time to think through the questions and what they are asking. Answering questions a certain way can preclude you from receiving aid or valuable information.

Make Completing the FAFSA Easier With These Tips

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January is more than the start of the New Year; it also marks the availability of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the next academic year.  The FAFSA is a standardized application used to determine eligibility for federal grants, loans and work-study funds from the federal government.  Additionally, many colleges and states, including Iowa, use FAFSA information when determining eligibility for institutional and state financial aid programs. It’s kind of a big deal!


When it comes to the FAFSA, remember these tips:

File the FAFSA no matter your financial situation.  Even if you do not think you will qualify for need-based financial aid, you should still file the FAFSA.  Many colleges require that you file the FAFSA to be considered for institutional aid.  In addition, you are required to complete a FAFSA to be eligible for federal Stafford loans and completing the FAFSA does not obligate you to accept any of the aid offered.

Never pay to file the FAFSA.  You can file the FAFSA for free at  Reputable resources, including Iowa College Aid, are available to help for free.  In addition, more than 50 College Goal Sunday events will be held throughout Iowa to provide one-on-one assistance with FAFSA filing.

Electronically access the FAFSA. Beginning May 10, 2015, a new login process will replace the FAFSA PIN as the process by which students, parents and borrowers authenticate their identities to access student- and borrower-based websites, including the FAFSA. The new FSA ID will comprise of a username and password. Users who have not already done so, will be directed to a link to register for a new FSA ID upon arriving at the website. The registration process should take less than seven minutes.

Meet state and college deadlines.  Many states, including Iowa, have FAFSA filing deadlines for state-funded scholarships, grants and work-study opportunities.  Several state of Iowa financial aid programs have priority filing dates as early as March 1. Keep in mind most colleges and universities have their own FAFSA filing deadlines.  You should check with your college of choice to determine its priority deadline for financial aid and if additional documentation is required.

Double check information to avoid delays.  Review your FAFSA information before you submit it for processing.  Make sure your Social Security number and your parent’s Social Security number are typed in the correct spaces.  Mix-ups like these will cause processing delays.

It’s easier than ever with the data retrieval tool.  The IRS Data Retrieval Tool allows students and parents to access their IRS federal tax return information from the IRS website and securely transfer the necessary data directly into their FAFSA. It is highly recommended that you use the data retrieval tool if you are eligible as it is the best way to ensure that your FAFSA has accurate tax information.  An added bonus is that IRS transferred information means that you won’t need to provide a copy of your or your parent’s tax return to your college.The tax data should be available within 1-2 weeks of electronically filing taxes and then the IRS Data Retrieval Tool can be used to make a FASFA correction, streamlining the completion of the FAFSA.

Iowa Residents: don’t forget to complete the Iowa Financial Aid Application! Upon completion of the FAFSA, all Iowa resident applicants have the option to link to the Iowa Financial Aid Application directly from their FAFSA confirmation page. If eligible, you will have the ability to pre-populate most of your demographic data to the Iowa application in the process.  This not only streamlines the federal and state financial aid application process but also solidifies access to the Iowa application if you had not been informed of its availability.


Enjoy The Holidays Without The Financial Stress With These Tips for College Students

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Black Friday has come and gone, leaving us in the middle of the prime holiday shopping season. Studies show that consumers will spend an average of $749.51 on gifts, decorations and other holiday items this year¹. Are you prepared? The following pre-holiday shopping tips can help to keep you out of debt, reduce stress, and ensure a merrier holiday season.


Create a budget.

If you already have a monthly budget, then you have an idea of what you can afford to spend. If not, you can easily create a budget by subtracting your monthly bills such as rent or mortgage payments, car payments, utilities, etc. from your monthly income. The remainder of your income gives you an idea of your holiday budget, plus any money that you had stored away throughout the year. Why stop there! This is a great opportunity to initiate a budget for next year, setting aside money each month for holiday spending. Another idea for budgeting money: if you are paid every other week, create a monthly budget based on two paychecks. This will leave two months out of the year with three paychecks! Put these “extra” paychecks away for savings or retirement, or save them for special events such as the holidays or family trips and large purchases.

Make a list and check it twice.

This statement is relevant for the holidays in more ways than one! Make a list of all the people you need or want to give a gift to, including family, friends, co workers, etc. Write down an estimate of what you plan to spend on each person, also including money that you plan to spend on holiday wrappings, decorations and holiday food and parties, and then add it up. How does this compare to your budgeted amount? Rework your list, spending less on things that you don’t really need, until your list number matches your budget number. Now stick to the list!

Look for holiday deals and be creative.

Holiday sales are everywhere. Do your research and shop around for that perfect gift at the best price. Also, remember that the perfect gift is not always sold in stores; putting together a gift basket of goodies or making something by hand demonstrates that it truly is the thought that matters! is a great place to find creative holiday gift and goodie ideas.

Track your spending.

Most experts advise to pay with cash to help prevent you from over spending. Whether you use cash or plastic, keep your receipts and track what you spend. If you do use a credit card for holiday purchases, sticking to your list will ensure that you have the cash to pay the credit card bill entirely, avoiding high interest rates while possibly earning cash back points on certain types of cards.

¹Survey conducted by BIGinsight, for the National Retail Foundation.