Four Ways That College Savings Is Like Good BBQ

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The kids might be starting summer break, but that doesn’t mean that planning for college needs to take a vacation. May 29 is National 529 Day, celebrating 529 savings plans, like those offered by College Savings Iowa, that allow family members to help save and prepare for a college education with a dedicated savings account that can be funded by any family member, anywhere in the country. For less than the cost of a backyard BBQ ($25), families can start an account for their student at any age.

And just like any grillmaster knows the secrets to making delicious BBQ, a few tips can make families masters of college savings:


  • Just like smoking ribs, college savings plans can work best by adding small amounts over time and letting compound interest turn investments into a war chest. Automatic investment plans (AIP) are a “set it and forget it” approach that helps families set up automatic contributions to a 529 plan on a regular basis by connecting their savings account with their financial institution. Already use an AIP? Consider increasing the contribution amount this summer. Even a few extra dollars a month could mean big savings when it comes time to write that first college check. Knowing that this set amount will be withdrawn automatically each month makes it easier to budget summer plans without sacrificing savings.
  • Any good grill master knows that you have to check the heat every once in a while to make sure the meat cooks properly. The same is true for college costs. Keeping an eye on college costs through Net Price Calculators or other online tools can give families an idea of how much to save. Even families with younger students will benefit from reviewing current college costs as it will help start the conversation around college affordability. Iowa College Aid’s website offers profiles of all Iowa colleges and universities, including current tuition fees, books and other costs of living and also links to net price calculators for each school. Check it out here.
  • The best BBQs offer a variety of sides to compliment the main course. When it comes to saving for college, diversification is just as important to successful planning. Focusing on individual portfolios instead of an age-based option may not factor in targets such as high school graduation and starting college. Think of it as making sure there’s enough potato salad alongside the coleslaw. Summer is a great time to revisit plans and determine any asset reallocation needed.
  • Good BBQ should be bragged about. While no one’s saying that families should brag about their savings plans, making it a part of the conversation can create positive habits. Even at an early age, students who know about the cost of college will take their future education more seriously. Rather than make money a taboo topic, talking about the benefits of a 529 plan with friends and family is also a great way  to encourage savings. Encourage them to open a 529 account for their own children or to give holiday and birthday gifts in the form of a 529 plan or even a contribution.

When it comes time to fire up the grill this summer, think about  savings. Planning for your student’s future with a smart approach to savings is one of the easiest ways to make sure their college possibilities don’t go up in smoke.

Four Easy Ways to Prepare for College This Summer

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While summer might seem like the time to get away from school, vacation is a great time to not only build the skills that look great on a college resume, but also a perfect opportunity to take part in activities that will help students get a better idea of what kinds of careers interest them as they look toward their future.

Sure, it might be hard to put down the Xbox or skip a day at the pool, but by using their time to take advantage of these opportunities, students will have a head start on college, grow as a person by dedicating time and energy to those things that interest them and even have some fun doing it.


Test drive a career with internships
While some teens might take a summer job to help pay for gas and pocket money during their vacation, a summer internship helps students get involved in a field that may lead to a future career in a way that looks good on their college resume. Internships demonstrate commitment and passion for a field that a student could continue to study in college while also exposing them to the day-to-day reality of that career. Summer internships can strengthen a student’s determination to pursue a particular path in their future or it might save them the cost of switching majors later if their internship helps them realize a particular career isn’t all that they had imagined.

Get involved
Too often parents complain that their student won’t get off the couch during summer break. Encouraging students to get involved with causes about which they are passionate is a great antidote to couch potatoes. Even better, it helps your students as they prepare for college. Students can volunteer with community organizations in a variety of areas, often with other students their own age. Students looking to develop leadership skills can also start their own organizations if no local group is addressing the concerns they hope to tackle. Being proactive or taking leadership roles in organizations appeals to college admissions officers who look for students with demonstrated leadership experience.

Explore college courses
Sure, summer is normally the time to put away the books. But high school students looking to get a jump on college and save money on their future education can take advantage of summer sessions at local colleges. These classes offer the chance to earn college credit ahead of time and give students the chance to experience a college classroom environment so that they know what to expect. Taking courses in subjects that might be a potential major also gives students a chance to test drive a major before college to help them decide if that is the right path for them.

Turn travel into experience
Getting out of a comfort zone can often bring great benefits to students when it comes time for college applications. Travelling to new places, especially international destinations, can help provide a perspective for students who gain a broader sense of the world and the place they can take in it with the help of their education.


The Truth Behind 4 Common Student Loan Myths

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For students graduating from colleges all over the country this month, the thrill of earning a diploma is often being offset by fears of dealing with student loan repayment. While loan repayment is inevitable, many new grads will start on the wrong foot because of assumptions about their student loan responsibilities and ways to pay back their debt.

Here are four common myths that can be easily avoided to prevent students starting down the wrong path. It’s good advice for not just recent grads, but current students and those considering the impact of student loan debt on their educational plans:


If I need help understanding or dealing with student loans, my former college or university won’t help me. Even though a student may have graduated from a school, their financial aid office is still a great resource to help explain loan repayment options and connect students with loan servicers. Financial aid offices have a vested interest in helping students understand and stay on track with their loan repayment, as high default rates can negatively impact a school. So if a student starts to get confused by paperwork, the financial aid department is a great place to start..

I’ll never pay off my loans. Those first payments after graduation may feel a bit overwhelming, and will likely be a large part of any budget as a student gets started in their career. Salary increases, paying extra when budget allows and plain old perseverance will lead to progress. Income-based plans and automatic payments are just two options to “set and forget” loan repayment as a part of monthly budgeting.

Consolidating my student loans into one loan is a good idea. Loan consolidation may offer convenience, but often students will find themselves in situations which either are not eligible for consolidation or can actually negatively impact their repayment. Loan servicers will already use a combined billing for students with Federal loans so that the students have one payment to make and federal loans can’t be combined with private loans in a federal direct consolidation loan. In some cases, consolidating Perkins Loans can lead to students losing repayment benefits that the loan provides.

Filing for bankruptcy means not having to repay student loans. While Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy does help protect against some loans, most borrowers will not be able to discharge their student loans unless it can be proven that the loan repayment will cause an undue financial hardship. Rather than negatively impact a credit record with a bankruptcy, students should consider finding more flexible payment plans that best meet their needs during repayment.


Cedar Rapids Teacher Works To Impact Students for Generations

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Iowa College Aid and programs such as GEAR UP Iowa work to help students prepare for an educational future after high school through college or other forms of study. For teachers such as Tara Brokovich, the impact of education can, and should, last for generations.

Serving as GEAR UP Iowa Coach and Special Education Teacher at Wilson Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Brokovich has organized meetings to help students prepare for the transition to high school, as well as overseen college campus visits to encourage students to have a college-going midset. The work serves her belief that teachers should help students engage beyond the classroom, teaching them more than just what they need to succeed in school and in life, but in the lives of all those they touch.

Brokovich’s words of wisdom serve as an apt conclusion to Teacher Appreciation Week, encompassing the holistic approach to teaching students to be part of the world, not just students:


“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

The terms “leader” and “people” can easily be replaced with “teacher” and “students.” This quote fuels my passion to give students an education in and outside of the classroom that will pass down through generations. For example, I take my students on field trips which demonstrate the impact of what they are currently learning and how that transfers to the professional world.  This year, I took my writing classes to our local TV station to see the importance of writing in media. Through GEAR UP Iowa, I arranged for recipients to experience college life through visits.  As the sponsor of Service Club, my students are able to practice volunteerism and realize the significance in the community and for themselves.  Finally, as a coach, I am able to teach my student athletes life lessons they will carry forever.

Davenport Teacher Stresses Family Engagement to Achieve College Goals

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While Iowa College Aid’s GEAR UP Iowa program teams with schools aiming to increase college attainment by building a college-going culture at schools starting in 7th grade, none of GEAR UP Iowa’s efforts can succeed without the engagement of teachers and administration. For many teachers, the goal of increasing the number of students going to college isn’t a new one. Instead, working with GEAR UP Iowa gives them an additional support and resources to make that goal more achievable.

Teacher Appreciation Week offers the chance to recognize the work that teachers year-round and, in many cases, over a number of years. Mary Bissinger has long been a advocate for higher education and, as her GEAR UP Iowa facilitator Nathan Svare points out, has been “vital” in the GEAR UP Iowa efforts at Wood Intermediate School in Davenport.

“Over her teaching career, Mary has always been very passionate about ensuring that students know their options when it comes to college,” says Svare of Bissinger. Svare adds that while Bissinger has coordinated many college visits for students, the Family Consumer Science teacher has a knack for connecting with families, often drawing over 100 family members to events that cover such topics as 529 college savings plans, transitioning from middle school to high school and how middle school families can prepare for college.


Bissinger’s success with family engagement garnered her an invitation to share her experiences with other GEAR UP Iowa schools as a presenter at this spring’s GEAR UP Iowa Conference in Des Moines.

She shares her vision of success that she hopes to make a reality through the support of GEAR UP Iowa:

GEAR UP Iowa means doors opening for our young people that might have never been opened before.  This program offers dreams and future possibilities to our students.  It helps open their eyes to “what could be” if given the proper training and direction.  Many students have visited colleges and universities for the first time as part of the program. Others saw themselves working in the trades from our visit to the Blong Center in Davenport. Still others saw themselves, possibly for the first time, achieving a college education and pursuing a vocation  among a vast array of careers.

Is this available to everyone?  No, but to those lucky few, their dreams and futures are definitely brighter and more achievable because of a wonderful program called GEAR UP Iowa.

For Ottumwa Teacher, Building College Culture Offers Chances Students Might Miss

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Teachers around the country are being recognized this week for the important work they do to help students succeed in their education and futures. The teachers who partner with GEAR UP Iowa earn constant appreciation for helping build a college-going culture at schools in 12 Iowa districts.

Victoria Swanstrom serves as GEAR UP Iowa Coach for the Ottumwa School District and will be following the district’s GEAR UP Iowa students from middle school to high school this fall. In today’s Teacher Appreciation Week spotlight, she reflects on how teaming with GEAR UP Iowa inspires her in her work with students and the impact that college education can have on a student’s future.


This was my first year as the GEAR UP Iowa Coach for the Ottumwa School District and it has been so memorable and meaningful. Being the GEAR UP Iowa coach has given me the opportunity to educate students about all of the opportunities they have available to them after high school. Thinking back about my decision when deciding where to attend college, I was very uneducated about the whole process, but I did okay because my parents and family were encouraging and helping me all along the way.  A lot of the kids that I am fortunate to get to work with do not have parents or family members with experience about the college going process. Being a part of GEAR UP Iowa and my students’ lives has given me the opportunity to make them aware of the different steps necessary to attend a post-secondary institution. My goal has been to provide exposure and opportunities for students to find a college, career or post-secondary option that they are passionate about exploring. Because of GEAR UP Iowa, students have been give numerous learning opportunities to brighten their outlook on their lives. I enjoy being part of this awesome program and getting to know these great individuals I get to call my students.

Ft. Dodge Teacher, GEAR UP Iowa Connect Students With STEM

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GEAR UP Iowa, Iowa College Aid’s program that works with schools in 12 Iowa districts to help encourage college attainment, follows a group of students from middle school all the way through the first year of college. As the current GEAR UP Iowa cohort finishes their second year of the program and prepares for the transition from middle school to high school, it’s important to remember the impact that the teachers and staff at GEAR UP Iowa schools make on students.

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, Ft. Dodge Middle School teacher John Newman reflects on the experience of working with GEAR UP Iowa students and the additional educational opportunities the program helped fund.


At Ft. Dodge, Newman used GEAR UP Iowa funds to develop a summer program focused on hands-on STEM activities for students, including constructing water rocket launchers and cardboard furniture. They also used 3-D computer modeling and experimented with electric wiring to make a bug.  Students also had the opportunity to visit the Science Center of Iowa. At the end of each day, students were given time to reflect on what they had learned and how they will apply their knowledge in the future.

Newman’s reflections on his experience reflects the passion that we celebrate this week in Iowa’s teachers, a passion for learning and engaging students.


It has been absolutely amazing working with 8th grade students and helping them realize the power of an education thanks to the GEAR UP Iowa program. Talking to middle school students about the possibility of going to college and providing them with a college experience has really helped create a “college going” culture in our school.

Whether offering tutoring sessions to help provide that extra support to help students meet the demands of the classroom or engaging students in active learning practices via the summer camp I organized, GEAR UP Iowa has certainly changed the way I engage with students. I’ve integrated what I call “college talk” into my lessons by helping students dig deeper into their thinking and helping them make connection of their learning to world outside of school.

So many of our students are told that college isn’t an option for them or they have no idea how they can get there. Working with my students and the GEAR UP Iowa program was truly rewarding for me as an educator. Hearing students at the middle school level talking to their peers about what college they want to go to just fills you up with pride and hope for the next generation.