For VISTA Volunteer, Serving Community Brings Personal, Professional Growth

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At the heart of Iowa College Aid’s mission is the idea that education after high school is possible to every Iowan, regardless of age. To help bring deliver that message, Iowa College Aid’s “College Changes Everything” program works at the community level with a variety of different Iowa towns to help build momentum at the grass roots level.

Key to that success are the community-based VISTA volunteers through AmeriCorps. Celebrating 50 years of Volunteers In Service To America, these volunteers dedicate a year of service to working in towns to help be agents of positive change. In Council Bluffs, IA, Ben Thorp has served as a VISTA member working with the Council Bluffs Community School District as part of the “College Changes Everything” program and other Iowa College Aid programs such as the agency’s “3-Step Process” which helps students apply for college, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and celebrate college-going during “College Decision Day.” As Ben completes his year of VISTA service, he reflected on his experience serving Iowans:

I didn’t have a lot of expectations about my year of service, about where I was headed or what I was doing, and I think that ended up being for the best. When I got here it was a fairly free-form gig: my job was to figure out how best to serve the school district students get to college, but beyond that description there wasn’t much in the way of guidance.

For me then it became about communicating as much as possible with students, counselors (especially), and teachers to figure out what was needed, what was best, what could be the most helpful. My sense is that this, really, is what community work is all about: working with people to figure out what they need and then finding the best way to provide it. Relationship then, is the most important bridge towards this. Getting to know the people you’re serving personally as well as professionally has been one of the things that I’ve really come to value because it helped me to better understand what kind of work mattered in the community and how I could be a part of it.

I don’t know that there was a moment of “this is why I’m serving” for me, there were certainly moments that were great to be a part of, in particular the kickoff to the Pottawattamie Promise Scholarship program that is providing 40 students in the district with full ride scholarships to attend IWCC in the fall, something they hope to extend to every student in the district by 2018. Overall though, I’m not sure this year answered my bigger questions of how we can create a more equal society and where exactly I belong in that work.

Personally and Professionally is where the biggest changes were made this year. I feel much, much more confident and capable as a person (both as a work person AND as a everyday person person). While this year didn’t carve out exactly what I want to do moving forward it definitely gave me the confidence to pursue the things that I care about which I think has been the better lesson. One of the best pieces of advice I got this year was from a community organizer in Omaha who told me “there are the people who do service work that are there because they think it’s the right thing to do and there are the people who do service work because it’s what they WANT to do. The people who are here because it’s what they want are a million times more helpful.” For better or worse that really spoke to me. I have a a sense of civic duty and a desire to help, but I’m not really sure where best I fit in and what work I can both be engaged and helpful in. For that, I am still searching.

For more information on the AmeriCorps VISTA program, visit their website. For more information on “College Changes Everything,” and to discover more about VISTA openings around the state, visit Iowa College Aid.

Get a Head Start on College While Still in High School With These Tips

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The days of finishing a college career in four years is as modern as a CD Walkman. For the Spotify Generation, six years is increasingly the average time to complete a bachelor’s degree. But just like acid-washed denim can make a comeback (okay, who are we kidding. That’s never coming back), students getting ready for college can take steps to kick it old school, getting a head start on their college credits while still in high school. Doing so can help students get through some of their required college credits and get a jump start on their college career, often shaving semesters off their graduation date.

Your high school may participate in concurrent enrollment, advanced placement, postsecondary enrollment or career
academy opportunities which, in most cases, allow you to earn both high school and college credit. These programs are
typically offered at no cost to students (with a few exceptions). Talk to your counselor or AP coordinator to learn more.

1. Concurrent Enrollment
Community college courses often taught at the high school where students earn both college and high school credit.

2. Advanced Placement
College-level courses taught at the high school. Many colleges grant credit, advanced placement or both to students
who take and earn high AP exam scores. The Iowa Online AP Academy offers AP classes to students whose high schools
don’t offer on-site classes.

3. Postsecondary Enrollment
Courses taken through a college where students earn college credit as well as high school credit for those courses that meet district graduation requirements.

4. Career Academy
Programs in specific technical fields at community colleges that prepare students for entry and advancement in high-skill career fields. Students may earn both college and high school credit.

Asking Financial Aid Questions On Campus Visits Will Save Time, Money Later

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Summer is a great time for travel and, for students preparing for college, a great time for college visits. Earlier this week we discussed how to use virtual tours as a tour preparation tool and offered tips for how to get the most out of your campus visit.

Undoubtedly, the best thing a family can get from a campus tour is information. Information about programs offered both academically and socially. But for many the real questions looking to be answered are often the hardest ones to ask: The ones about money. Colleges and universities know that finances weigh heavily on families and are ready to help answer those questions as best they can as part of campus visits.

To help get the best financial picture of how a student will fit at a college or university, ask these questions. It will help clarify just what the financial expectations will be for attendance.

  • May I meet with a financial aid counselor today? (Making an appointment with the financial aid department when scheduling the campus visit is the best way to ensure availability, but many schools may have advisors on hand to answer questions as part of the campus visit)
  • Is unmet aid included in your financial aid package?
  • Does income from an ex-spouse or stepparent factor on your aid calculations?
  • How much grant assistance do you provide to those with an Expected Family Contribution of $0?
  • To maintain a grant, how many credits must I take each semester?
  • Does grant aid continue across all four years?
  • If my student receives an outside scholarship, how will it affect the aid package and any institutional grants or awards?
  • Are institutional scholarships renewable?
  • If my student is attending from out-of-state, do you have state reciprocity agreements? (Reciprocity agreements allow out-of-state students to attend certain programs at in-state prices.)
  • What opportunities for work-study or other employment are on campus? Will that income effect aid eligibility?
  • How long is it taking current students to graduate and what is their average debt load when they graduate?
  • Will the school package loans in accommodation of loan forgiveness programs?
  • Do you provide aid for summer classes?

These questions will not only help families better understand the differences in financial aid packages at schools, but will also show financial aid departments that families take a strong interest in understanding the financial options available for funding their students education.

By asking the same questions at various campus visits, families will have a thorough, and important, set of information that will further help them decide which schools are the best financial fit.

“What I Wish Someone Told Me Before College:” A New Education Empowers Video

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Today Iowa College Aid releases the first video in the “Education Empowers” series, interviews with students on issues facing students who are making the transition to college from high school. Students of lower income, students of color and first generation students (those students who are the first in their family to continue into higher education) often find themselves unprepared for many of the changes that await them in college.

We’ve interviewed professionals who faced many of those issues to provide insight that can help students prepare and succeed in college. College is possible and we’re here to help! Please let us know your thoughts on this first video and share your ideas for subjects that students might find useful in future installments.

These Tips Will Have Students Taking College Campus Tours Like Pros

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Yesterday, we discussed the pros and cons of taking a virtual college tour as students start to create their game plan for finding the college that fits them best. But it’s summer, time to get outside and enjoy the weather, freedom and travel. Students getting ready for college can combine all three of summer’s elements and throw in a dash of college planning for a summer trip that is not only memorable, but also great for future planning.

Just taking the time and showing up for a college tour visit is half the battle, though. Here are some tips for getting the most out of a student’s college visit:

Ask Questions
Even though it is summer, many students are still on campus. As a result of the slower pace of summer sessions, many tours may have time where prospective students can talk with current students. Take advantage of this source of firsthand knowledge and ask what current students like and dislike about the school. Don’t just stop with students, though, ask questions of the admission counselors. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Campus tours are designed to provide a forum for questions. Even if a student hasn’t applied to a school, tour guides, counselors and other staff know that a tour can often make or break a decision to apply or attend.

Students can go the extra step and do a little research ahead of time to ask questions of professors or other teaching staff in their areas of interest. Visiting the school’s website will give you access to faculty in various departments on campus. A politely worded email, reflecting a student’s respect for the faculty member’s time, can easily result in some great insider knowledge about studying at a school and what, in particular, makes that school’s department great.

Don’t take things at face value
A campus tour is, in all honesty, a sales pitch. Tour guides are going to show students all the things that are great about a campus and showcase what the school has to offer in the best possible light. By finding a variety of students and faculty to talk with about the realities of a school, students might find that, like in all things, everything isn’t always postcard-perfect. Combining sources of information will help students get a much better, and broader, understanding of what school has to offer and where it might not meet their individual needs.

Be impressed by the right things
When a prospective student visits a college for the first time, things like campus coffee shops, large libraries and football stadiums will seem impressive. Of course, these are things that most colleges have on campus. The more colleges a student sees, the more they will realize what is common and recognize what sets schools apart. Looking for those things that make a college truly unique will help students find what matches best for them.

Not taking the tour
Sure, this was mentioned above, but it bears repeating. Taking the official campus tour means the difference between learning about what school has to offer and just seeing what the campus looks like. Even more, when a student takes the campus tour it shows a school that they are interested in being a student there. Often this can come into play as a factor when it comes time for admissions officers to review a student’s application. Not everyone who takes a tour is forced to apply and knowledge is power. So don’t be afraid to take the official tour and find out the latest about the campus. Why else come all that way?

Save The Gas: Use These Tips To Save Time, Money with Virtual Campus Tours

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There’s no debate that the internet is one of the greatest communications tools of the last 50 years (if not of all time). At what other time in history has it been easier to find videos of cats falling down or collections of baby panda pictures? Gutenberg would be proud at how easily information is disseminated in the future.

With so much information and experience available as close as a keyboard, it’s no surprise that virtual campus tours have become a widely-used tool for students looking to learn more about colleges and universities. While these videos might not be as popular as tabbies flying off a couch or little pandas yawning, virtual campus tours offer more than just time-wasting fun. These tours give students and families a fuel-efficient way to learn more about potential schools during the college selection process.

While virtual tours might not give the same “feel” as being physically at the campus, they can give a good starting point for learning more about a potential match for students. Here are some things to consider about what virtual campus tours can, and can’t, do for students that take them:

  1. Virtual tours offer a limited point of view: Since these videos are meant to show campuses in their best light, students will get a good look at the highlights of the school environment, such as its architecture and landscaping. Clean and neat, this is the way that the school wants its campus to be seen. Usually, virtual tours will be led by a tour guide, narrating video and photos of the school. Often, if presented free to the use, the tour may be paid for my sponsors or advertisers. What impact that relationship may or may not have on the information provided should also be considered by the viewer.
  2. Virtual tours are a great starting point: A virtual tour can offer users a taste of the school and what it offers. Perhaps a department or program is mentioned in the virtual tour that sparks interest for a student. Not every area of academics or student life can be covered in an online tour. But often these tours will give information on how to find out more about certain programs. If not, students can exercise their Google Ninja skills to dig deeper and learn not only more about a program or department, but start to find out more about what is available to them in that area.
  3. Virtual tours offer just a taste of student life. Just like those high-res postcard-quality photos of the campus, virtual tours will offer a thin slice of student life. It only makes sense that a student won’t get a complete picture of what it’s like to be enrolled at a campus by watching a video. While a virtual tour might give an idea of prominent campus landmarks and the roles of various buildings in campus life, digging further by using Google Images, Maps or other tools will give a more balanced look into the campus experience. Check out YouTube channels or Reddit boards to get a broader sense of what student life might be like at a particular school.

Though it’s always better to visit a campus in person, a virtual tour, combined with a little bit of research afterwards, can give students a good approximation of whether or not a particular college fits with their needs. Think of virtual tours as a way to get a taste of what a campus offers without spending the money to travel to the campus. If it fits, families can then consider taking a visit IRL (in real life) already armed with a fair amount of knowledge about what to expect and be that much more prepared to talk about issues like academics, financial aid and other practical realities instead of wanting to see the sales pitch for a school.

Speaking the Same Language Key To Progess in Higher Education Debate

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As issues surrounding higher education swirl into national political conversations, the benefit of discussing the impact of finances on education in a broader spotlight is often offset by competing viewpoints on the importance of education or even a basic agreement on where money comes into play for those continuing their education after high school. A recent article from the Center for American Progress points out that the issue often isn’t the content of the argument, but frequently how the conversation is framed that leads to confusion about issues surrounding financial issues as they apply to college.

Here are a few tips that help clarify where students and families (not to mention politicians and newsmakers) might not be speaking the same language when it comes to college:

“Price” vs. “Cost.” One of the most frequent areas of concern as the advocacy for more affordable education (and the backlash against it) grows, is understanding the bottom line in terms of dollars and cents. Where some obsess over the “cost” of tuition, that amount accounts for less than half of what students pay in order to attend college at certain institutions. Tuition costs for in-state students attending a four-year college, accounted for almost 40 percent of the total student budget in 2014, not factoring in the cost of books and supplies, housing and transportation. Students at public two-year colleges faced almost 70 percent of their expenses coming in non-tuition areas. So while the “cost” of tuition may be affordable in many areas, other necessary costs in the true “price” can impact students completing their studies with as little debt as possible.

College students are not kids. Increasingly, more adults are returning to college to continue or complete their education. Today, 4 out every 10 students enrolled in colleges and universities are older than age 25. In community colleges, it’s closer to 50 percent. The impact of assuming that college students come exclusively from high school ignores that many undergraduate students are actually working adults who face very different issues based where they are in life. Frequently, this means juggling multiple roles in their lives (parent, spouse, worker) that can impact their ability to engage with education in the same way as someone just starting life as an adult.

Knowing the difference in financial aid options. Students of all ages often find themselves confused over the difference between loans, grants and other types of student aid. So it is only natural that many politicians or those not dealing with college finance issues on a daily basis might use the two terms interchangeably. Grants and scholarships are considered aid for students because they do not have to be repaid. Loans are debts that come with interest and students must repay them. While having loans, and other similar products, available is a benefit to students, they are not part of “aid,” which policymakers might inadvertently use as an overarching term that includes both grants and loans. Referring to loans as aid can mislead students about what the term really means. As a result, they may not have a clear understanding of what they owe when they finish college.