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A Good Plan for College Helps Keep Loan Debt Low

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While the national conversation around the importance of continuing education past high school gains much attention, so to does the issues surrounding paying for it. Regardless of politics, the fact remains that paying for college stands as one of the biggest challenges for students and their families.

Getting a head-start on putting together a financial plan is always a good idea for any prospective student. Here are some tips for families to consider now to ensure that they limit the amount of student loan debt accrued while still in school:

Borrow only the amount you need

Many borrowers make the mistake of taking out more loans than necessary. To avoid doing this, create a budget to determine how much loan money will be needed and avoid using loan money to pay for unnecessary expenses, such as trips to the movie theater or expensive dinners.

Consider a part-time job

If a student’s academic schedule allows, they should consider finding a part-time job on campus to help supplement the cost of unexpected expenses. Be sure to check with the financial aid office to see if students qualify for work study, which gives the opportunity to work on campus.

Compare award letters

Once a student receives their financial aid award letter, compare loan offers by reading the fine print. If federal loans are not enough to cover the cost of education and a student is considering private loan offers, be sure to shop around for the best interest rates and repayment options.

Take college credit while in high school

Taking AP, dual credit or college credit courses while in high school can give students a head start on achieving your intended major. Find out the general education requirements at the college a student plans to attend and take courses that will fulfill those requirements. Doing this can help students graduate from college early, which means borrowing less in student loans.

Consider paying loan interest while still in school

Students who start making interest payments on their student loans while still in college will reduce the total amount they have to repay after graduation. Interest payments are usually manageable. By paying off interest as they go, students can  keep outstanding interest from capitalizing on any balances. Allowing interest to capitalize increases loan balances essentially requiring students to pay interest on the interest that has been accrued!

Apply for scholarships

Scholarships can pay for portions or all of a student’s education during an academic year. But students can’t earn scholarships if they don’t apply! Find scholarships specific to a school or department by talking to a representative from the school’s financial aid office or department chair. In addition, the following sites are just a few places to check for scholarships:

Choose a school that fits into the family budget

Review the financial aid packages from the colleges where students applied and consider how much needs to be borrowed in order to attend each. Keep the goal in mind and select a college where loan debt can be kept at a reasonable level against future income potential.

Get more tips in Iowa College Aid’s “Path to College.”

Understand The True Cost of College Attendance by Decoding Award Letters

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They’ve waited. They’ve watched the mail for weeks. Finally, the letter arrived: Students are getting notice that they’ve been accepted to the school of their dreams! But after the moment of excitement and congratulations wears off , the realization sets in: it’s going to cost money to go to school.

Even if a family has prepared for years, saving money, investing in 529 plans and being on top of completing their student’s FAFSA, now is a crucial time to pay attention to information from schools and have a clear understanding of the financial aid award letter.

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Financial aid award letters are sent to students in the weeks after receiving their acceptance letter to a school and reflects the cost of attendance as well as the financial options available to families to help pay for their student’s education. As the letters state, a student’s place in the schools incoming class cannot be reserved until a deposit is received based on the financial award letter. But families should take the time to understand their award letter before submitting any form of deposit, as these deposits are not refundable if a student decides not to attend a particular school.

Currently, there is no standard format for schools to report the financial aid being offered to a student. So families should use these tips to better understand what is being offered and make a smart comparison between what different schools will cost. The school with the lowest tuition fees might not always be the best financial choice thanks to financial aid awards. Knowing how to read the financial aid award letter can make all the difference.

  1. Find “free money”
    Many schools offer students institutional scholarships or grants. These types of funding can be seen as “free money” because students and families don’t have to repay this money after graduation. Make sure to look for words such as “scholarship” or “grant” in the name of the financial award. These awards are often given to students based on the information in the Student Aid Report created when completing the FAFSA, based on income or family responsibility. Families may miss these awards because they do not technically apply for them separately.
  1. Consider loans and work study options separately
    To help show families how they can meet the cost of attendance at their school, award letters will also include options that require repayable loans or other options that require further action by the student, such as work study programs. Since there is no standard format for separating these options from other “free money,” families need to recognize that any loans taken out, be they private or federal Stafford loans, will require repayment by either the student or parent (depending on the loan) after graduation. This is not funds being offered by the school, but money that will require repayment.
  1. Know the difference between “direct” and “indirect” costs.
    Attending college features a variety of costs, but not all of them will necessarily be covered the financial aid offered in the award letter. The “cost of attendance” on a financial aid award letter applies to direct school costs, such as tuition, room and board. Indirect costs, such as books for classes or travel to and from school are not considered in an award letter. These costs are those that the student and family will have to bear personally.
  1. Determine if awards are for one year or more.
    Many families fall into the trap of thinking that the financial award letter reflects the costs and awards for all four years of school when, in reality, the letter reflects the cost for one year of school. While many of the loans listed on an award letter will be available to students each year, many of the grants or scholarships listed may require a new application each year or, in some cases, are only available for one year. Determining which of these awards are renewable, or the length of the award, can help families avoid an unpleasant surprise.
  1. Make sure the award letter is final.
    In some cases, an award letter might not reflect the final amount of aid being offered to a student. If any section of the letter uses words such as “estimated,” “tentative” or “pending,” the school may not have all the information from a student’s FAFSA or other document needed to make a final determination of aid. Once this information is provided, it may have an impact on the amount of aid that the student is finally offered.

Understanding the financial award letter that students receive can lead to some difficult decisions about where a student should go to school. By making the best effort to compare award letters from all schools that have accepted a student, families can make an informed choice of which school fits best with a student’s goals while creating a financial plan that will avoid any bad surprises or unexpected debt down the road.

Don’t Let Student Loan Repayment Myths Cost You Time, Money

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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.

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As we conclude #FinancialAidAwarenessMonth, 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.

Debunking Two Common Financial Aid Myths

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Financial Aid Awareness Month is dedicated to helping families and students of all ages better understand the options available to them as they look to fund their educational goals and dreams. Iowa College Aid has dedicated a page to discussing some of the common issues facing those looking for financial aid.

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Our staff of financial aid experts have also helped out this month, with advice on how to overcome financial aid issues (see last week’s post). This week they address two of the common myths that students have about applying for grants and scholarships and how to debunk them.

Myth #1: We make too much/my parents make too much – I won’t get anything

Family income is definitely a factor when it comes to handing out financial aid.  The best kind of financial aid is always the “free” kind – the scholarships and grants that are given freely with no expectation of being paid back later.  And often it’s this “free” money that has a “financial need” component to it.  Many scholarship and grant providers want to give their awards to students who show some kind of financial need, and when a student’s/family’s income is high, usually the financial need is low.

Not all scholarships and grants are need-based, however.  If your student is motivated, they can seek out scholarship and grant opportunities that are based on skills, abilities and interests, grades, musical, athletic or dramatic talent, essay-writing, or a number of other merit-based achievements.   The key is looking for them.  You know the saying, “you can’t win if you don’t play”?  That same philosophy applies to scholarship competitions.   Investing some time online searching for “scholarships for high school juniors” or “scholarships for journalism majors” or, if writing essays isn’t a strength for your student, “no essay scholarships” might provide some avenues of funding.

Myth #2: My parents aren’t helping me pay for college so I can’t get financial aid.

Students who are financially independent from their parents can often access additional student loan funds, but a parent’s unwillingness to pay for college doesn’t make you financially independent from them. 

The primary circumstances that cause a student to be financially independent are:

  • Age
  • Orphan/ward of court/foster care/emancipated minor/legal guardianship/homeless status
  • Veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States
  • Graduate or professional student
  • Student’s marriage
  • Student provides support to dependents

Detailed information about these circumstances can be found on the federal Department of Education website https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out/dependency

 If a student has no contact with their parents, or if the student doesn’t reside with their parents because of an abusive or neglectful situation, the student can approach the financial aid office at their college for special instructions on how to complete the parent section of the FAFSA or to determine if there’s a need for a dependency override.

Families, Educators Will Get Smart About Money at July 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 16 years, Iowa Jump$tart has helped teach and support Iowans, helping them embrace financial literacy.Ben-Easter-9302-2

The group’s annual conference, taking place July 22 in Ankeny, IA, 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. Speakers at this year’s conference will highlight and motivate audiences on such subjects as financial education, personal finance and financial planning all with an eye toward making Iowa students more fluent in the financial literacy.

Keynote speaker Mitch Matthews will help audience members deal with the worry and stress that blocks creativity and focus, while breakout sessions will delve into a variety of financial literacy subjects including responsible educational borrowing, tips for first-generation families paying for college and ways to make kids more money savvy at an early age. For the first time, the Jump$tart conference will also offer attendees a chance to meet with a financial planner in a one-on-one session to talk about how to put plans into personal action.

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.

A variety of exhibitors will also be on-hand during the conference, including the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, Iowa State Extension and Outreach, TS Institute, Next Gen Personal Finance, Wells Fargo and many more.

Find out more and register for the 2016 Iowa Jump$tart Conference by visiting IowaJump$tart.org.

Be Prepared for Student Loan Repayment With These Tips

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For many college graduates, the grace period before they have to start making student loan payments is quickly coming to an end. November marks the first month many of these former students will be required to make a payment on the loans they received. The loan repayment process can be confusing and it is easy for many students to relocate without contacting their loan provider, making it even more difficult for their lender to provide them with important information and pressing deadlines.

To avoid future confusion and frustration with your student loans, follow these tips to make certain you are on track to pay off your debt with fewer headaches and in a shorter amount of time!

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Understand your loans and your grace period.

There are several student loan options and you may have taken out more than one type. This can make it difficult to remember what loans your borrowed and the grace period associated with each one. It is important to contact your lender or servicer to find this information as soon as possible to avoid missing a payment. You can access information about your federal loans on the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS), www.nslds.ed.gov (you will need your FSA ID), or by calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-433-3243. In addition, you can look back at your original promissory note you signed to find this information.

Don’t ignore your loans.

Failing to pay your student loans is commonly called ‘defaulting.’ Defaulting on a student loan will cause your credit score to drop rapidly, and will increase the amount you owe on the loan. Federal student loans go into default after you fail to make a payment for 270 days, but private education loans may go into default sooner. There are serious consequences to defaulting on your loans that will impact you for years. If you are struggling with your student loan payment, ignoring it is not a solution. Contact your lender or servicer immediately to discuss options for postponing or reducing your payments.

Be strategic when paying off your loans.

If possible, it is always good to pay off a loan ahead of time. If you have more than one student loan, you can save money by paying off the loan with the highest interest rate first. If you have both private and federal loans, you may want to pay extra on the private loans first as they tend to have less flexible repayment options and higher interest rates.

Choose a repayment plan that will work for you and your budget.

With federal loans, a variety of repayment options are available to help you manage student loan repayment. Plans such as Pay As You Earn and Income-Based Repayment have monthly payment amounts based on your income and family size. If you are unsure which repayment option is best for your budget, you can estimate the amount of your loan payment under different repayment plans. Repayment calculators can be accessed in the student loan section of www.IowaCollegeAid.gov. You can also discuss your options with your lender or servicer. Doing so will provide them the opportunity to ask questions and determine which options may be best for your situation.

Apply for loan forgiveness programs.

Depending on the field in which you work, loan forgiveness programs may be available. Federal programs such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and other similar options enable borrowers working in designated public service professions to have a portion or all of their federal student loan debt forgiven. In addition, Iowa has state-based loan forgiveness programs for eligible teachers and healthcare professionals. Check out the Iowa College Aid website to learn more about federal and state loan forgiveness programs available.

Know your lender.

Many borrowers lose contact with their lender or servicer when they move from one place to the next. If you plan to make a move, contact your lender or servicer and provide your current contact information and mailing address. This way, you will ensure you receive information about your loan and won’t end up late on your payment.

Whenever possible, lower your principal amount.

The principal amount on a loan is the actual dollar amount of the loan, it does not include interest or late fees. Each minimum payment is first applied toward any late fees and outstanding interest before reducing the principal balance. By paying more than the minimum payment each month, you can decrease the principle amount of your loan, therefore reducing the amount of interest that will accrue for the next payment. Paying as little as a few additional dollars each month can end up saving you hundreds or even thousands of dollars over the life of the loan depending on your balance.

 

Consolidating Student Loans? These Tips Help Make Sure You Aren’t Being Scammed

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Many companie2014-04-29 15.08.28s that seek to prey on Iowa students and their families as they plan how to pay for college, offer loan “rescue” or “consolidation” plans that , the companies claim, can lower student loan borrowers’ monthly payments, reduce interest rates or resolve other repayment issues.

However, many of the services these companies charge a fee for can be done for free by borrowers if they contact their student loan service provider directly. To find your loan servicer for federal student loans, visit the National Student Loan Data System. Other companies offer these services in an attempt to steal consumer identities and money. The biggest red flag is if the company is making a promise that sounds too good to be true.

Some of the scams highlighted in the advisory include:

  • Law offices or attorneys that charge fees ($300-$600) to file paperwork for borrowers that could be filed for free by the borrower if they contact the loan service provider directly.
  • Companies that require access to the borrower’s bank account under the false pretense of using it to automatically deduct payments and steal money from the account. Also, any personal identification information, such as Social Security Numbers are used to steal the borrower’s identity or sold off to other scammers.
  • Long-term scams in which the company charges consumers a service fee, down payments and collects a couple of monthly payments they claim are
    going towards the borrower’s loan. The money is never applied towards the student loan and the borrowers face late fees and penalties from payments they didn’t know they were missing.

Do not fall prey to these scams. Some of these student loan companies will have professional looking websites and may claim to be associated with a government agency or that they are working for the U.S. Department of Education. If you feel you may have already fallen victim to one of these scams, file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.