Tips To Keep Students of All Ages Busy and On Track This Summer

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GEAR UP Iowa Facilitator Tiffany Berkenes offers some advice for students and families looking to stay on track and not lose classroom momentum before the next school year.

When we think of summer, we think of sunshine (enjoying relief from harsh Midwest winters!), spending time outside with friends, trying the newest fried treat at the Iowa State Fair, taking family vacations, and for many kids – a break from school. Although summer is meant to be and should be a time for “kids to be kids,” this is also a period in which our youth experience a significant amount of learning loss, particularly those from lower-income families.

When the doors of the schools close and the routine of daily instruction and educational engagement end for three months, students are suddenly faced with nearly three months of freedom in which they potentially lose two months’ worth of academic knowledge. There’s good news! Kids can still learn; still engage their brain while having fun – sometimes without even knowing it!

For many families, they support and want their children to participate in summer learning; however, accessibility, awareness of options, and affordability present barriers. For that reason, below are a variety of opportunities for all ages that will keep that young mind active and better prepared for entering the next grade-level. Bonus: Many of these experiences are great for networking and to include on college and scholarship applications!

  • Check out your local Boys & Girls Club to see if they offer the Summer Brain Gain, which is available for elementary, middle, and high school students
  • Start a book club with friends or neighbors – now’s the time YOU can choose what you read! Take it outside to your favorite park, and then discuss the books over a picnic
  • High School Students: Apply for the free TRIO Upward Bound college prep program, which offers a 6-week summer experience on college campuses. UB programs in Iowa are hosted by the following: Central College, Simpson College, DMACC-Urban, Iowa State University, University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa, Western Iowa Tech Community College, and Southeastern Community College.
  • Participate in a summer camp – there are several offered at various places like the YMCA, local museums, sports organizations, churches, dance/gymnastic studios, etc.
  • Ask your school district and public libraries about summer programming – usually it’s free!
  • Visit college campuses! For example, Iowa Private College Week is August 3-7.
  • Volunteer for a place that fits your interests such as the Animal Rescue League, the zoo, library, the hospital, daycare, etc. Find a volunteer opportunity at Volunteer Iowa.
  • Explore free digital learning apps, which you can take outside with you. Khan Academy is one example, and there are more listed here.
  • Break out the old school board games – again, something you can do outside!
  • Sign up for the free Ten Marks Summer Math Program
  • Have a dream job in mind? Ask to job shadow someone!
  • PBS Kids free resources
  • Blog or journal about your summer adventures

Four Tips To Help Students Deal With Credit This Summer… And Beyond

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Summertime means freedom for students as they move into their final years of high school, prepare for college or embark for life after school. While the future stands open before them, these first steps can also be vital in establishing long-term financial health. Establishing a credit history provides benefits for future investments (house or car purchases). For that reason it’s important to use credit wisely so that students avoid creating negative credit histories that can make financial life even more difficult down the road.

New regulations have placed restrictions on access to credit cards by those younger than 21 and also put some limits on credit card marketing on campus. Nonetheless, students are still signing up for credit cards and using them. Often college freshmen are enticed into signing up for a card as they make the adjustment to social, and financial, life on campus. Here are some tips to bear in mind for high school or college students using credit cards.

Credit cards shouldn’t replace budgeting

There’s a reason so many people say “With freedom comes responsibility.” The first years out of high school offer many opportunities to make independent choices, often where money is concerned. But poor spending habits can cause long-term problems. It is all too common for students to exhaust all the funds allocated to them for the semester way before the semester ends because they fail to budget properly. Others have a reckless disregard for managing their money and spend like money grows on trees. By establishing a budget and looking for ways to save on everything from textbooks to groceries, students will learn how to stretch their dollars and not have to fall back on credit cards to make up for the difference.

Don’t fall in the minimum-payment trap

Those students who do use their credit card will often make minimum payments while continuing to spend with their credit card. Paying the minimum amount due might keep the amount from being past due, but students will end spending far because of interest applied to the balance each month, sometimes meaning that a credit card bill could take years to pay off. Read the information on monthly credit card statements to find out how long it would take to pay off the balance only paying the minimum amount due. It might shock students enough to adjust their approach to repayment.

Credit cards aren’t emergency loans

Many people get credit cards for use in “emergencies,” but a fashion emergency might not constitute the same need as a car crash. Being able to weigh the difference between “wants” and “needs” makes a big difference in creating a monthly budget. Placing restrictions on when and how to use credit cards within that balance makes students savvy about their credit

Don’t make credit cards an ATM

It may not seem like such a bad idea to use a cash advance from a credit card if things get a little tight. But cash advances come with a standard fee of as much as $35 or 3 percent to 5 percent of the total amount. Also, they often have higher interest rates than your card, and the interest starts accruing immediately, leaving you without a grace period to pay off the balance.

In the end, financial responsibility is a valuable part of freedom for students in high school or after. Few things can impact future finances than a poor credit score and burdensome credit card debt. Take the time to think about the long-term effects of using credit cards. Then make (and stick) to a plan for using them properly.

Looking for a Growth Industry? Think “Green”

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For many students, life after high school means preparing for the job market. Whether it be a four-year or two-year college degree or certification in job training, continued education is often in service of getting as ready as possible for a career. In states, such as Iowa, a surprising growth area might encourage students planning their majors or career training plans to think outside the box. Or better yet, think about the outside.

“Green” jobs, defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as “jobs where a worker’s duties make the production process environmentally friendly or jobs which produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources,” are sprouting up all around the country as large organizations with complex infrastructures recognize the need to embrace alternative approaches to energy in everything from manufacturing to transportation.

The United States had more than 3.4 million green jobs in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with trade, education and health services being the highest employment areas within the category. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor no longer tracks green jobs specifically, due to budget cuts, other groups have picked up the slack of tracking the importance of green jobs, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which predicts millions of additional green jobs will be added by 2028.

Solar power leads the way, with 174,000 U.S. jobs in 2014 providing a 21 percent growth from 2013 and an 86 percent increase since 2010, but jobs abound around the country in areas ranging from wind and hydro power to alternative fuel cell development and biomass providing an employment boom. Iowa Workforce Development has created guidelines for green business and specifically lists jobs aimed at meeting the demands of green companies across a variety of job areas.

Many of these jobs have sprung up to help states comply with the federal requirements in the Clean Power Plan, which aims at reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels in the next 15 years. Eco-friendly companies that have risen to the challenge aren’t just looking for scientists and engineers, though, as many seek employees with marketing, accounting, and communications skills, as well as those trained in manufacturing and installation.

The growth of this sector also provides opportunities for entrepreneurially-minded graduates to create sustainable businesses, with the U.S. Small Business Administration providing guidance for green businesses, including information about certification, grants, and loans.

Late to Saving? These Three Tips Can Jump Start Your Plans

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Many parents and families plan to start saving for college education as early as a student’s birth. While those intentions would make paying for life beyond high school much easier, not everyone follows through on that goal and those who do often get their savings interrupted by emergencies or life changes.

A student may already be in high school before their family starts scrambling to find ways to save for what, by that point, seems an insurmountable challenge. The challenge might be more difficult, but saving for a student’s education can still happen even with fewer years left to plan. Here are some tips to keep in mind for those late-savers:

  1. Keep saving through college: Most parents think that the first day of college is the last day of savings. But thanks to options like 529 savings plans, families can still sock away money through the four years of college. By assuming the same hypothetical rate of return for the account, families can invest less per month and still come out on target when college is over. Disbursements from 529 accounts are tax-free (as long as they are used to cover qualified education expenses like tuition and books) and parents can withdraw funds at any time, not just the beginning of the semester.
  1. Let the student get into the savings game. While Mom, Dad and the rest of the family can fund a 529 account, getting the student a savings account can double the efforts. If a student is working through school, a Roth IRA allows either a child or parent to contribute to the child’s Roth IRA. Contributions are limited to the amount the child earned that year, or $5,500, whichever is less. Unlike a 529, there are no restrictions no use of funds disbursed from a Roth IRA. But not all disbursements from a Roth IRA are tax free. While the amount contributed skips the taxes, the earnings from interest will be subject to income tax (if the total withdrawn, plus other income, is less than the standard deduction of $6,300). Roth IRA’s also fly under the radar when it comes time for FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, since retirement accounts don’t count as a student asset that impacts financial aid elibigility.
  1. Save by shopping: As college costs increase, financial companies are offering products to make it easier for families to save money. One program that presents a less conventional approach to savings is Sallie Mae’s Upromise program, a free-to-join program that helps earn cash for college by letting members earn at least 5 percent to a college savings account when making purchases with the Upromise credit card at any of more than 850 retailers, including Best Buy and Macy’s. Members also get 8 percent back when using the card at more than 10,000 affiliated restaurants and Upromise eCoupons allow members to save when grocery shopping. The money earned can be distributed in whatever way as the member prefers, be it funding a 529 plan, a high-yield savings account or an eligible student loan payment.

8 Ways Juniors Can Get College Ready This Summer

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Finals are wrapping up and summer is calling. But for high school juniors, the steps taken in the summer before their senior year can make the last push before college that much easier (or harder). It’s not an exaggeration to say that this summer is vital for those students who want to be ready for their life after high school.

In between the sun and the fun, here are 8 things that will get students ready for their senior year:

  1. Land a job or internship: There’s a reason this is at the top of the list. College admissions staff want to see students who are involved and interested in their community. And there’s no better way to show that then by actually getting involved with a job, internship or other kind of volunteer work. Double points for working with an organization that reflects a student’s academic or personal passions. Not only will that show dedication and a good work ethic, but also reflect what makes that student unique to grab the attention of college admissions boards. The extra pocket change of a job doesn’t hurt in the summer, either.
  2. Narrow down the college list: Many students should have a list of schools or options after high school that spark their interest. Now it’s time to get a little more serious and start whittling down the list. By taking the time to narrow the focus of schools now, students can more easily create a strategy for applications.
  3. Discuss finances and plan accordingly: Part of a good college fit will be how financial aid and finances play into the future. Talking with the family, and having honest discussions about what will be needed to pay for college, will help everyone prepare for such things as completing the FAFSA, looking into scholarships and grants and speaking with the financial aid department at possible schools.
  4. Start the early drafts of application essays: Not even Shakespeare nailed it on the first draft. A student’s application essay will be their calling card on college applications. Working out those first drafts will be easier in the summer, without the pressure of schoolwork or other demands. Get a version down on paper and then work with a parent, mentor or counselor to start tweaking it into greatness.
  5. Complete the Common Application: If a student already has certain schools in mind that use the Common Application, keeping August 1 on their calendar (when the Common Application becomes available) will allow them to get a jump on the process.
  6. Make an application game plan:  With many admissions options available to students, including Early Action, Rolling Admission, Early Decision and Regular Decision, it’s important to prepare an application strategy for each school. Make a calendar and mark each deadline for schools for which students will apply, as well as transcript and recommendation deadlines.
  7. Plan college trips and schedule interviews: One of the benefits of early preparation is having the time to visit schools and interview with staff at schools in which students are interested. Families taking summer vacations might even consider working a campus trip into the itinerary. Make sure to check with those colleges on a short list if they offer interviews for prospective students, and take advantage of the ones that do. Even if just taking a campus tour, being on campus will offer a great way to learn more about the school and whether it fits a student’s plans. Plus, taking active steps to meet with college staff shows an interest, which can help when applications come around.
  8. Plan for testing and start prepping: Whether students will be taking the ACT, SAT or Subject Tests, it’s important to get test dates on a calendar and start prepping, be it in class, online or with other study materials.

Five Easily Avoidable Mistakes To Help Save On Loan Repayment

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The caps and gowns may barely be off and the graduation party might just be winding down, but for many students the idea of student loan repayment already lingers over their celebrations. But rather than stay up all night dreading the inevitable, making a game plan now will make loan repayment less painful for grads who avoid these five mistakes.

1. Not knowing (and preparing for) monthly payment amounts

Life after graduation comes with a wide array of new challenges. Preparing to do battle with adulthood gets a lot easier if new grads put “Budgeting” near the top of their To-Do lists. Keeping a good budget (and sticking to it) makes it easy to stay on top of debt. And since student loans might be a part of that monthly budget, why not know how much will be due each month, so other expenses can be budgeted accordingly. Not sure how to estimate a monthly loan payment, online calculators abound to help crunch the numbers

2. Passing on paying extra when possible

Interest on federal student loans is like an invisible financial enemy, hiding out and accruing little by little each day until it makes loan repayment unbearable. Instead of ignoring the impact of loan interest, face it head on and proactively. Using tax refunds or job bonuses to make additional loan payments or budgeting a few extra dollars each month can make an impact on both interest payments and the bottom line.

3. Being tied into the wrong repayment plan

Whether it’s an “Income Based” or “Pay As You Earn” plan, the type of loan repayment plan can have a major impact on monthly student loan payments both in amount of dollars and time spent. Make sure to review available payment plans and find the one that best suits your loan and income. Federal Student Aid offers a great online estimator. To compare these plans based on your student loan debt and income, use the repayment estimator.

4. Missing payments

Missing payments is a no-brainer way to get into trouble with loan repayment. Don’t hide from loans if they become overwhelming. Missing payments can negatively impact credit scores and make purchasing a car or home much more difficult for years to come. Instead of skipping payments, contact a loan servicer as soon as possible and talk about options to reduce or postpone loan payments to keep the loan in good standing.

5. Paying for student loan help

Unscrupulous businesses frequently prey on desperate people. And what person is more desperate than someone being stressed out by debt? Rather than click on one of the countless online ads that offer to help with debt for a fee, start with free loan help provided by the U.S. Department of Education through loan servicers.

These 4 Tips Can Help Kids Understand Budgeting

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Every parent knows that the examples they set for their children impact their futures. But while parents might work hard to teach proper manners, behavior and study habits in school, they might be doing their children a disservice by not teaching them how to approach money.

How parents prioritize their savings and deal with financial health can impress good and bad money habits on children at an early age. Schools are seeing the importance of teaching financial literacy in the classroom, and just as with other school subjects, how finances are dealt with at home will go just as far, if not further, in teaching children the real-world impact of finances.

While some parents might think that money discussions are too boring (or worse, shouldn’t be discussed with children), keeping an open conversation about money is vital to raising children who understand the value of things that will appear in their future from credit cards to student loans to 401Ks, let alone how to deal with the everyday costs of living.

Here are a few easy tips that can not only help families discuss the role finances play in daily life, but create positive money habits in families.

Make a budget and discuss it

In a world where children’s television is a cavalcade of advertising, there’s a seemingly endless supply of ways that children want to spend money. Since things like mortgages and car loans don’t get the same amount of air time as Barbie Dream Houses, most children don’t recognize the demands on family budgets. By making a budget and letting your children know what goes into a household each month, children will get a better understanding of the idea of wants vs. needs. Being able to set aside an amount of money each month for a special trip or expense will also encourage children to watch what happens as their savings grow toward a goal.

Don’t hide debt

For many families, debt is a way of life. But rather than hide credit cards and other debts, making them an active part of a family’s financial discussions will help children understand how to responsibly use credit. Debt, done for a reason (be it a car, home or college), is a powerful tool, but certainly not a limitless one. If children understand the impact that credit and debt can have at an early age, they will have a better relationship with it as they grow older.

Save for college AND retirement

There’s no question that saving for college is vital. Savings plans, such as 529 accounts, make it easy for families to set aside money for their children’s education. Saving for retirement is also an important habit to show children. By letting them know that a healthy relationship with savings lasts a lifetime, they’ll create their own savings habits early on.

Take two fast-food meals and put it toward finances

Consistency is the key to good finances. Even if a family commits $30 extra a month to either debt or savings, it makes an impact. Being able to show the change that comes with taking the money a family would otherwise spend on two nights out for fast food and putting toward their finances not only teaches children to establish finances as a priority, but does as much for a family’s physical health as their financial well-being.