Financial Literacy

Winning application strategies

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We’re hitting deadline season for college and scholarship applications, but you don’t need to panic. Here are some quick tips:

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Apply to more than one school. Yes, you should have a “safety school,” but also try for a “stretch school.” Some students are surprised when they’re accepted at a school they thought was out of their reach. You can’t truly compare costs of different schools until you have award letters from those schools in hand. An expensive school might end up being the most affordable option if it offers a generous financial aid package.

Apply for more than one scholarship. You can improve your odds by expanding your search. Some scholarships actually have trouble giving away all their available money because they don’t get enough applicants. Talk to counselors, teachers, coaches and mentors about scholarship possibilities.

Put some effort into your essays. These are a chance to distinguish yourself, so take your time. Make sure your essay relates to the question, and back up what you say with specific examples. Don’t just list your accomplishments. Show that you’re capable of growing and learning from challenges. Proofread at least twice, then ask someone else to read behind you.

Sell your actual strengths. Don’t exaggerate or lie. Think about the things that you truly do well, and focus on those. Having trouble identifying your best areas? Ask an adult close to you, “What makes you proud of me?”

Be sure to submit. You should see a confirmation screen or receive a confirmation email when you’re done.

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Finished FAFSA? Here’s What to Expect Next

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By now, students and families with an eye toward college, or any kind of education beyond high school, should have a pretty good understanding of just how important the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is to helping them achieve their goals. If not, here’s a good place to get started with the FAFSA.

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Filing the FAFSA is crucial to getting money for school. But what happens after submitting the FAFSA? Here are some things for families to look out for, as well as some things to remember when dealing with information

Student Aid Report
After completing the FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education will process the data and compile the Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR will be sent to families and the colleges selected during the FAFSA. If an email address was provided during the application, instructions to access an online copy of the SAR will be emailed; otherwise it will arrive snail mail.

Typically, applicants can access their SAR within three to five days if the FAFSA was filed electronically (approximately three weeks if filed by paper). The SAR contains the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) as well as initial information about Pell Grant eligibility. Colleges and universities use the EFC to determine student eligibility for federal grants, loans, work-study and other financial aid programs.

How is the Expected Family Contribution Calculated?
Variables that determine a student’s EFC include income and net worth for the student and parents, family size, age of older parent, state and federal taxes and number of family members attending college. As a result, the EFC might change from year to year when the FAFSA is refiled.

Understanding Financial Need vs. College Costs
Each college or university listed on a student’s FAFSA application that accepts that student will determine financial need and present the applicant with an award letter describing the aid offered. “Financial Need” is determined by calculating the Cost of Attendance (COA) minus the EFC determined through the FAFSA.

The EFC will remain the same in a given year (unless an unusual family situation arises) regardless of which college or university the student attends. The amount of aid received cannot exceed the total cost of attendance at a college or university.

Award Letters
Each award letter will include federal, state and college-specific financial aid programs. It is likely that a student’s award letter will include one or more types of loans. These letters often don’t cleanly show which funds offered are scholarship or grant aid (free money) and which are loans (money which must be repaid). To get some tips on understanding award letters, check out our video series here and here.

These FAFSA Tips Will Help Save Time, Avoid Mistakes

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For the second year, October 1 marks the availability of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the next academic year.  The FAFSA is a standardized application used to determine eligibility for federal grants, loans and work-study funds from the federal government.  Additionally, many colleges and states, including Iowa, use FAFSA information when determining eligibility for institutional and state financial aid programs. It’s kind of a big deal!

When it comes to the FAFSA, remember these tips:

File the FAFSA no matter your financial situation.  Even if you do not think you will qualify for need-based financial aid, you should still file the FAFSA.  Many colleges require that you file the FAFSA to be considered for institutional aid.  In addition, you are required to complete a FAFSA to be eligible for federal Stafford loans and completing the FAFSA does not obligate you to accept any of the aid offered.

Never pay to file the FAFSA.  You can file the FAFSA for free at http://www.fafsa.gov.  Reputable resources, including Iowa College Aid, are available to help for free.  In addition, more than 50 College Goal Sunday events will be held throughout Iowa to provide one-on-one assistance with FAFSA filing.

Electronically access the FAFSA. The FSA ID comprises of a username and password. Users who have not already done so, will be directed to a link to register for a new FSA ID upon arriving at the http://www.fafsa.gov website. The registration process should take less than seven minutes.

Meet state and college deadlines.  Many states, including Iowa, have FAFSA filing deadlines for state-funded scholarships, grants and work-study opportunities. Keep in mind most colleges and universities have their own FAFSA filing deadlines. You should check with your college of choice to determine its priority deadline for financial aid and if additional documentation is required.

Double check information to avoid delays. Review your FAFSA information before you submit it for processing.  Make sure your Social Security number and your parent’s Social Security number are typed in the correct spaces.  Mix-ups like these will cause processing delays.

It’s easier than ever with the data retrieval tool. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool allows students and parents to access their IRS federal tax return information from the IRS website and securely transfer the necessary data directly into their FAFSA. It is highly recommended that you use the data retrieval tool if you are eligible as it is the best way to ensure that your FAFSA has accurate tax information.  An added bonus is that IRS transferred information means that you won’t need to provide a copy of your or your parent’s tax return to your college. The tax data should be available within 1-2 weeks of electronically filing taxes and then the IRS Data Retrieval Tool can be used to make a FASFA correction, streamlining the completion of the FAFSA.

Iowa Residents: Don’t forget to complete the Iowa Financial Aid Application! Upon completion of the FAFSA, all Iowa resident applicants have the option to link to the Iowa Financial Aid Application directly from their FAFSA confirmation page. If eligible, you will have the ability to pre-populate most of your demographic data to the Iowa application in the process.  This not only streamlines the federal and state financial aid application process but also solidifies access to the Iowa application if you had not been informed of its availability.

FAFSA: The Most Important Tool for Financial Aid

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a key part of college financial aid. While many families might think that the FAFSA is only for lower-income households, the truth is that the application helps make federal, state and school funds available for all students, regardless of their family’s income.

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Here are some reasons to complete the FAFSA:

  1. To qualify for a variety scholarships and grants. Many federal and state scholarships (including those in Iowa) require a completed FAFSA for consideration, even when those scholarships and grants do not consider family income. FAFSA information can also impact the financial aid offered by schools in terms of grants or other awards.
  2. Some financial aid opportunities are available on a limited basis. Completing the FAFSA as soon as possible gives students the best chance for receiving those aid amounts.
  3. Completing the FAFSA earlier gives students the time to focus on other parts of college preparation, such as completing college applications, focusing on coursework and applying for scholarships.
  4. When students have completed their FAFSA, schools can more easily provide estimated financial aid offers sooner. This makes comparing colleges much easier, as students will have a better idea of what their education will actually cost them at each school to which they are accepted.

Your Course to College: Finding Funds for School

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For families and high school students, having a good gameplan for getting to, paying for and succeeding in college is valuable. That’s why we’re here to help.

Iowa College Aid’s annual “Your Course to College” guide will ship to schools and families later this month, but we’re taking the opportunity to preview some highlights and some of our favorite tips found in the guide. This week, tips to finding the best sources of funding for your college education. To find more previews and sign up to receive your copy of “Your Course to College” in print or download, visit our “Your Course to College” page at IowaCollegeAid.gov.

There are many ways to pay for a college education, and the financial aid process is not as complicated as most people think. Most students attending Iowa colleges and universities receive some form of financial assistance.

Coins in jar with college fund label

After you submit your college applications, complete these four steps:

1. Submit the FAFSA

To qualify for most financial aid, you must complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The fastest and most accurate way to apply is online at fafsa.gov. The FAFSA will gather information about your finances, your family’s finances and your college plans. You can complete the FAFSA for 2018-19 beginning October 1, 2017, using 2016 tax information.

2. Submit the Iowa Financial Aid Application

The Iowa Financial Aid Application allows you to apply for multiple state-administered aid programs with one application. Click the Iowa Financial Aid Application button at IowaCollegeAid.gov.

3. Decide on a College and Accept Aid

All colleges that you list on your FAFSA will send you a financial aid award letter if you are offered admission. Award letters will describe the financial aid package each college can offer. When comparing aid packages, consider how much assistance is from scholarships and grants (which do not have to be repaid) and how much is from loans (which must be repaid).

To accept the financial aid package offered by a college or university, follow all instructions. This might involve entering aid amounts you intend to accept in an online form or signing and returning a paper award letter by a specified deadline. Talk to the financial aid office at the college or university if an unusual circumstance delays your response.

To officially accept a college admissions offer and reserve your place, submit your deposit by the college’s reply date. May 1 is the date for most colleges.

4. Apply for Scholarships

Continue seeking and applying for outside scholarships. Think of it as a part-time job. If you spend 20 hours on scholarship applications and receive one worth $1,000, you just made $50 an hour for your efforts!

Reputable education organizations will NOT charge for scholarship searches.

Researching Companies, Services Can Save Money During Loan Consolidation

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Planning how to pay college debt can be difficult. It can be even worse when companies that might otherwise seem helpful are actually preying on those in need. Loan “rescue” or “consolidation” plans are one such instance where researching a company can make the difference between getting a helping hand or being placed in a worse situation.

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While loan consolidation can lower student loan borrowers’ monthly payments, reduce interest rates or resolve other repayment issues, 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.

Being Smart About Credit This Summer Will Save Money, Make Habits In College

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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.

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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.