Four Ways to Get Ready For College This Summer (and One Thing To Avoid)

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Summer before senior year: The calm before the storm. For many students about to embark on the final push from high school to college, a busy year awaits. So it only makes sense to take advantage of the slower days of summer to get college applications done before the frenzy of the school year kicks in.

That kind of forward thinking and planning shows a student who has the skills to succeed in college… but also one who might be jumping the gun. Here a few tips on where to move full steam ahead this summer and where to pump the brakes in prepping college applications.

To do:

Start organizing documents for college applications. If an application is screaming for a student to complete it, summer is a great time to start collecting the items needed. Checking transcripts and drafting lists of accomplishments, extracurricular activities and awards will save time later when it’s time to compile them for the application. While there will certainly be more to add to these lists as senior year progresses, it will be easier if the bulk of the work has already been done.

Approach teachers for recommendations. Just as students’ schedules slow down during the summer, teachers have a little more free time on their hands. Rather than approaching a favorite teacher during the early hustle and bustle of the school year, reach out during the summer to lock down letters.

Research and visit potential schools. Many families travel during the summer. Working a college visit into the road trip not only adds some excitement and fun, but also gives students a chance to get a look at their next potential home. Summer sessions won’t be as busy as the regular school year, but many colleges offer enough activities and student presence to give an idea of what campus life will offer.

Get ready for FAFSA. While many have called for a simplified version of the FAFSA, it isn’t coming any time soon. The more work families do to organize financial records ahead of filling out the FAFSA in January, the easier the form will be to complete.

To do later:

Write the college application essay. Many incoming seniors might try to seize the opportunity of summer’s lower homework level to focus on writing their college essay. But just as senior year will bring new memories, summer will offer new experiences, many of them possibly lifechanging, that could make for a fantastic college essay. By trying to lock down an essay now, students will rob themselves of the opportunity to create compelling, and more timely, essays down the road. Of course, writing a draft or compiling a list of ideas is never a bad plan. If inspiration strikes, follow where it leads.

Four Apps That Turn Your Phone In A College Planning Machine

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These days, many families use their smartphones as frequently as, or in some cases more than, their home computer. From tracking their diet and fitness to paying their bills, new apps make taking care of both planning and paying much more convenient for users. Creating and keeping a savings strategy for college doesn’t have to be confined to a computer, either, thanks to apps that put the power of managing your college finances in the palm of your hand. Here are a few to check out:

College Saving Wiz
This app from PFWiz also presents forecasts for college savings, but can also factor in average costs of living at college with information based on the College Board annual survey of college pricing for tuition/fees, room/board, books/supplies, transportation and expenses for Public in-state, Public out-of-state and Private Colleges. This app delivers information in reports more often than the charts of other similar apps and also provides tips for ways to save and prepare for college now. Available for both iOS and Android.

College Savings
Whether you’re at the start of your college planning process or have already started saving, this app from Apps Rocket offers a way to visually look at the projected cost of college, factoring in different savings approaches and shows where families might come up short down the road. Available for iOS.

Presented by TIAA-CREF, this college savings calculator offers users the ability to use sliders in adjusting such factors as savings amount, timeframe for college and impact of other investments. By adjusting the input, you can estimate the amount of lump sum and regular monthly savings that is required to cover the costs of your desired college. Available for Android.

Max U
Part of a series of apps in College Save’s “Small Steps, Big Dreams” program that introduces students to the ideas of financial literacy and college prep starting at kindergarten, Max U gives high school students a fun, interactive way to compare colleges, look at education costs, keep track of their extracurricular experiences and even organize their FAFSA. Available for iOS and Android.

These Summertime Tips Can Keep Your College Savings Plans Healthy All Year Long

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Summer might bring a break from hitting the books, but doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to take a break from saving for college. Here are some ideas to help families check in on their college savings plans and tips in case they need to reboot savings strategies before heading back to school.

Have a check-up
Many families follow a “Set it and forget” philosophy when it comes to investing. While this is a great way to allow for slow, steady growth in college savings accounts, summer can provide the perfect opportunity to check what is going on with an account. Do investments reflect the goals and needs of a family the same way they did a year ago? Can a change in portfolio help achieve those goals faster? Investigating investment options once a year isn’t reactionary. Think of it as a doctor’s physical, but for finances.

Get automatic
If not already done, an automatic investment plan (AIP) can help make consistent investing in a student’s college savings portfolio easy. Just as summer offers a great time for considering which investments and plans are the most effective, the middle of the year also gives families a chance to tweak the numbers on their AIP and adjust their investments to any changes in their personal budgets.

Stay on target
While checking up on investments, families can also use the summer break to make sure they are still on track to meet their savings goals. Online calculators allow users to select a student’s current age, the type of school they are interested in attending and the college cost inflation rate (the average national tuition inflation has been between 6-7%). The results of these calculations can help families adjust their planning accordingly.

Spread the word
Summer is a great time for getting together with family. When the topic of school and your student’s future comes up, make sure to mention your 529 plan. Many relatives might not know that they can gift a student’s 529 plan directly with contributions, making for a perfect holiday or birthday gift.

By following these steps, families and students of all ages will be better prepared to build savings accounts that will help as college approaches, be it next year or years down the road.

These Four Summer Tips Will Give Families a Head Start on Financial Aid

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School might be out for summer, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to slack off on planning for a student’s education. Preparing a good college game plan includes taking the early steps to be ready to spring into action when it comes time to act. Equally important, though, is being sure to avoid the pitfalls that can make financial aid planning more difficult. Here are some tips to use now in hopes of saving trouble down the road.

1. Do the math.

Crunching the numbers early in planning for college will help students and families get a clear picture of what is available for family contribution to paying for college. Students who get a clear understanding of what is available and what they will have to contribute are more likely to make informed decisions about everything from college choice to financial aid options.

2. Make sure to apply.

It might seem basic, but the first tip to remember falls into the “90 percent of success is showing up” philosophy. Many families choose not apply for financial aid because they think they make too much money to qualify. Before throwing in the towel (or ignoring the towel altogether), families should take advantage of calculators used for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and determine the amount they would be expected to pay before receiving aid. Since there is also no fee to submit the FAFSA, it costs families nothing to find out their eligibility for financial aid. Plus, complete FAFSAs go to colleges to which a student is applying, making them eligible for other financial aid and scholarships that might be available through the school.

3. Complete the application (or applications).

The FAFSA might be thorough (with many advocating for a shorter, less complex application), but some schools and often states, including Iowa, have other financial aid applications that are considered separately from the FAFSA. While much of the information of these applications are also found in the FAFSA, it’s important to check the requirements and deadlines for each school and state financial aid application to make sure that forms are completed correctly and avoid delays in being processed.

4. Talk with experts.

Whether a family is putting their first or fourth student through school, it always helps to talk with those who are closest to what is going on with financial aid issues. Talk with a student’s high school counselor, or even the financial aid department at a school in which a student is interested in attending. These experts will help provide the information that can save grief down the road.

Finding a College Major: More Than Just Lists

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College is about having a plan. These days, common wisdom tells students that they should have a clear, well-organized map to how they will navigate their time in college. Good planning helps save time and, hopefully, money in financial aid, but does it make for a rewarding college experience?

Choosing the right college major can weigh heavily on students as they enter college. While it’s fun to play the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” game as children, as students approach college that same question takes on more importance and urgency. At the same time, college provides numerous new roads of study and interest that students may have never experienced.

Turning to the internet helps students gain some perspective some help on potential salaries or employment rates for potential career paths, but choosing a college major can, and should, be motivated by more than its place on a list of potential salaries. When categorizing a “best” or “worst” major, these lists ignore benefits and skills learned in areas of study that pay off when students are staring their careers.

While a performing arts graduate may not go on to Hollywood or Broadway, they will develop creative thinking and teamwork skills that will serve any workplace. Journalism majors don’t have to take a job at the New York Times to benefit from having developed the ability to work on a deadline.

According to the American Philosophical Association, philosophy majors tied economics majors with the highest average score on the Law School Admissions Test, ranking ahead of majors like engineering, finance and psychology. Philosophy majors also have the highest rate of admission to law school.

While a major will help a student specialize in an area of interest, it has less of an impact the further a student gets from college after graduation. The skills that are learned during college are often more important than knowledge. Certainly, many fields require specific technical knowledge. A creative writing major is not going to be the best choice to work developing medicines for a pharmaceutical company.

But as students balance their personal passions with the desire to find a college major that leads to the best-paying career path, they’d do well to remember that the skills developed during college are often just as important, if not more so, than the knowledge gained. While college graduates will want to make the most of their college degree financially, being able to have a job that they love is also important. Finding a major that combines the ability to develop skills and individual passions is one of the true benefits of a college education. That worth can’t be found on any internet list.

Get Tools, Advice for Fin Lit Teaching at July’s Iowa Jump$tart Conference

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With the increase in financial literacy education’s presence in classrooms around Iowa, it’s more important than ever the educators find ways to work with students on a wide variety of financial literacy topics. Over the last 15 years, Iowa Jump$tart has helped teach and support Iowans, helping them embrace financial literacy.

The group’s annual conference, taking place July 16 in Ankeny, targets educators looking for the latest information and materials available to help them teach financial literacy, while providing a forum for teacher collaboration and discussion. Following on the success of last year’s conference which featured speakers from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and TS Bank, just to name a few, the 2015 conference will feature an array of vital and current topics.

Creating new financial habits, and challenging negative habits, will be at the core of the keynote speech, featuring Mike Finley (aka “The Crazy Man In The Pink Wig”) , who focuses on taking the mental concepts of financial education and translating their lessons to an emotional connection. Attendees will also hear the latest about FDIC’s Money Smart Program, Wells Fargo’s Hands on Banking ® Financial Education Program, Junior Achievement Programs, TS Institutes’ K-12 financial literacy resources, college savings and more. A list of exhibitors and full schedule of panels is currently being finalized.

As a further benefit to teachers, those who attended the Iowa Financial Literacy Summit in Des Moines this past May can receive teacher credit by registering and attending the Iowa Jump$tart Conference. Teachers can also enter to win a sponsorship to the national Jump$tart conference in November while at the Iowa conference.

Find out more and register for the 2015 Iowa Jump$tart Conference by visiting IowaJump$

College, Career Academy Visits Encourages 7th Graders To Ready For Future

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GEAR UP Iowa is Iowa College Aid’s initiative to increase college readiness. An acronym standing for “Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs,” GEAR UP Iowa started work with a cohort of about 6,300 7th graders in the 2014-15 school year. The long-term program follows their progress through school, ending after their first year of college, at which point every GEAR UP student will receive a scholarship from Iowa College Aid.

Getting 7th graders to consider college can prove challenging, but thanks to GEAR UP facilitators like Flor Slowing and school coordinators at partner districts throughout Iowa, these students are getting an introduction to college that is more than conceptual. Slowing discusses recent activities that showed GEAR UP Iowa students what college can offer if they prepare and focus on their goals:

It is well documented the effect of academic achievement and early career planning in success in postsecondary education and long term economic well-being. For this reason, GEAR UP Iowa and their partner schools are planning activities to expose middle school students to college and career exploration.

Last month, 7th grade students from Storm Lake Middle School had the opportunity to visit Buena Vista University. During the visit they met with college advisors and learned about academic programs and financial aid options. Students were asked to picture themselves in college as they toured the campus and ate lunch in a campus dining hall. College advisors highlighted the importance of keeping good grades in high school, getting to know their school counselor and getting involved in community service and extracurricular activities. In addition, students had the opportunity to listen to the inspirational story of David Walker, Assistant Professor of Theatre. A first-generation student Walker encouraged students to ask questions and seek help as they start planning for their future careers. He asked students to reflect on their interests and talents when trying to choose a career or college degree.

Career planning activities are equally important for success in postsecondary education. GEAR UP Iowa students are starting to explore their interests and potential careers paths. Last month, 7th grade students from Perry visited VanKirk Career Academy to learn through hands-on activities about the following fields: welding, criminal justice computer design and health sciences. DMACC instructors shared their works experiences and encourage students to explore different careers so they can make an informed decision in the future.

Similar activities are taking place in GEAR UP school districts thoughout the state to encourage students, teachers and counselors to start career planning as early as middle schools in order to increase their success in postsecondary education.

For more information on GEAR UP Iowa, visit Iowa College Aid’s website.