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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.

Being Smart About Money Helps Get More Out of Financial Aid

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Since November is Financial Aid Awareness Month, we’re providing students and families with tips and information for helping pay for college at all ages: high school senior, current college student, adult learner and more. While finding ways to get financial help with your college education is important, making sure students use that money wisely is possibly even more important.

Getting the most of your money in school is vital to keeping your finances under control. Scholarships and grants might only be allowed for specific school costs, while student loans will have to be paid back (with interest) after graduation. So having a good game plan when it comes to finances in college can pay off not only in school, but for years after graduation.

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  1. Make a budget. Commit to creating a monthly budget AND live within your budget each month.
  2. Utilize a calendar. A calendar is not just for plotting your class schedule, campus organizational meetings, and social events. A calendar can be an effective tool for managing the due dates for your monthly bills—rent, cell phone bill, car payment, utility bill, etc. Making note of due dates helps to ensure that you will not miss a payment and potentially harm your credit history.
  3. Shop around for text books. Many bookstores, as well as online retailers, offer used textbooks for much cheaper than buying a “new” textbook. If you won’t want to keep your textbook for future reference after a class has concluded, consider renting a textbook for the semester.
  4. File the FAFSA on-time, every year. If you plan on attending college in the upcoming school year, be sure to file your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) prior to your college’s priority deadline. Doing so will ensure you are considered for all financial aid opportunities the school has to offer.
  5. Get a part-time job. A part-time job can allow you to meet your basic needs, as well as reducing the amount of student loans you need to borrow. Working 15 hours per week at a part-time job can dramatically reduce your need for student loans to cover living expenses. Additionally, most colleges have numerous on-campus employment opportunities for students.
  6. Plan early for a summer internship. During the first week of the spring semester, visit your college’s career placement office and discuss your desire for an internship during the upcoming summer with a career advisor. Career advisors can provide information about companies looking for interns, as well as information regarding career fairs on campus. Many internships  pay a stipend or salary which can help pay for expenses while you’re in college and can lead to a job after graduation.
  7. Know your financial aid options. Visit the Financial Aid office on your campus during the first three weeks of the spring semester to discuss your current year’s financial aid and to check into scholarships and grants available for next year.
  8. Be a savvy shopper. At the grocery store, opt for the store-brand product. It is often significantly cheaper than its name-brand counterpart, and the money you save can be used to pay interest on your student loans or keep you from having to borrow more loans next year.
  9. Protect your Personal Information. If you aren’t already, start safeguarding your Social Security Number, credit card and bank account numbers, along with any other non-public personal information. Shredding sensitive information will ensure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and can help protect you from identity theft.
  10. Separate Needs from Wants. Although it may seem like you need that morning latte from the local coffee house to start your day; at $3.50 per day, that adds up to $1,277.50 per year! Make your financial choices based on what is necessary to meet your basic needs, and avoid wasting money and borrowing more to satisfy your wants.

Even implementing some of these tips into your regular routine will turn you into a smarter consumer when it comes to money and help set you up for a bright financial future.

Enjoy The Holidays Without The Financial Stress With These Tips for College Students

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Black Friday has come and gone, leaving us in the middle of the prime holiday shopping season. Studies show that consumers will spend an average of $749.51 on gifts, decorations and other holiday items this year¹. Are you prepared? The following pre-holiday shopping tips can help to keep you out of debt, reduce stress, and ensure a merrier holiday season.

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Create a budget.

If you already have a monthly budget, then you have an idea of what you can afford to spend. If not, you can easily create a budget by subtracting your monthly bills such as rent or mortgage payments, car payments, utilities, etc. from your monthly income. The remainder of your income gives you an idea of your holiday budget, plus any money that you had stored away throughout the year. Why stop there! This is a great opportunity to initiate a budget for next year, setting aside money each month for holiday spending. Another idea for budgeting money: if you are paid every other week, create a monthly budget based on two paychecks. This will leave two months out of the year with three paychecks! Put these “extra” paychecks away for savings or retirement, or save them for special events such as the holidays or family trips and large purchases.

Make a list and check it twice.

This statement is relevant for the holidays in more ways than one! Make a list of all the people you need or want to give a gift to, including family, friends, co workers, etc. Write down an estimate of what you plan to spend on each person, also including money that you plan to spend on holiday wrappings, decorations and holiday food and parties, and then add it up. How does this compare to your budgeted amount? Rework your list, spending less on things that you don’t really need, until your list number matches your budget number. Now stick to the list!

Look for holiday deals and be creative.

Holiday sales are everywhere. Do your research and shop around for that perfect gift at the best price. Also, remember that the perfect gift is not always sold in stores; putting together a gift basket of goodies or making something by hand demonstrates that it truly is the thought that matters! Pinterest.com is a great place to find creative holiday gift and goodie ideas.

Track your spending.

Most experts advise to pay with cash to help prevent you from over spending. Whether you use cash or plastic, keep your receipts and track what you spend. If you do use a credit card for holiday purchases, sticking to your list will ensure that you have the cash to pay the credit card bill entirely, avoiding high interest rates while possibly earning cash back points on certain types of cards.

¹Survey conducted by BIGinsight, for the National Retail Foundation. www.reuters.com

College Applications In? Now It’s Time For a Financial Game Plan!

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As we come to the conclusion of College Application Month, many students are putting the final touches on applications that will lead them to the next step in their educational journey. 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 Tools, Advice for Fin Lit Teaching at July’s Iowa 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 15 years, Iowa Jump$tart has helped teach and support Iowans, helping them embrace financial literacy.

The group’s annual conference, taking place July 16 in Ankeny, 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. Following on the success of last year’s conference which featured speakers from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and TS Bank, just to name a few, the 2015 conference will feature an array of vital and current topics.

Creating new financial habits, and challenging negative habits, will be at the core of the keynote speech, featuring Mike Finley (aka “The Crazy Man In The Pink Wig”) , who focuses on taking the mental concepts of financial education and translating their lessons to an emotional connection. Attendees will also hear the latest about FDIC’s Money Smart Program, Wells Fargo’s Hands on Banking ® Financial Education Program, Junior Achievement Programs, TS Institutes’ K-12 financial literacy resources, college savings and more. A list of exhibitors and full schedule of panels is currently being finalized.

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.

Find out more and register for the 2015 Iowa Jump$tart Conference by visiting IowaJump$tart.org.

Make Sure That “Dream School” Isn’t a Financial Nightmare With These Tips

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College acceptance letters are starting to arrive for students all over the country. While the reward of being chosen to attend the school students have been eyeing shows that all that preparation can really pay off, a new question quickly arises: How to pay for it.

Nothing can feel better than getting an acceptance from that dream school that a student has been eying for years. Nothing can feel worse than deciding that dream school is too expensive. But rather than set that that dream aside, consider some factors that can either help or hinder choosing the right school at the right price.

Know the scholarship and financial aid options

If students have completed the Federal Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA), they’ll have a better sense of what financial aid is available from the school, as well as federal and state options. More often than not, that dream school will offer a generous financial aid package. In many cases, schools at the top of a “dream school” list will offer financial aid packages to lower-income students that may ultimately be comparable to a back-up school that seems more affordable at first glance.

Don’t be afraid to look into scholarships from both the target school and around the local community. That good GPA and student resume that attracted a school to a student, will undoubtedly be equally attractive to scholarship committees.

Try to get a sense of the employment outlook

Landing a great job can be one of the draws of a “dream school,” as career placement or alumni networks can often help recent grads turn their degree into a well-paying first job. The career a student might look toward entering after graduation can have a large impact on the school they attend, as well. Take time to review outlook reports from the U.S. Department of Labor and see if those careers look to be growing, both in numbers of new employees and starting salaries.

Consider loans, but examine details closely

Filling the gap between scholarships, financial aid and the cost of attending school can mean taking out loans. Loans may seem the perfect way to meet the needs of attending that perfect school, but bear in mind they must be repaid after graduation. Paying close attention to details both in the contract and the payment schedule before signing a loan agreement may make the difference between choosing a loan or settling for a more affordable back-up school. Consider the loan’s interest rate, but also pay attention to whether the loan is subsidized or unsubsidized. With subsidized loans, you do not pay the interest that accrues during your college years, while unsubsidized loans will accrue interest before graduation. The more taken out in loans, the more a student will be paying per month after graduation.

Think about future degrees

Many occupations require post-graduate degrees, such as a master’s or doctorate degree, while other careers only need a bachelor’s degree to get started. Needing more degrees beyond a bachelor’s degree means more expense, but also allows for a chance to make some cost saving decisions as an undergrad.

If a dream school offers strong graduate programs as well as undergrad programs, consider choosing a more cost-effective school for the bachelor’s degree. Not only will it allow students to save money, but also give wiggle room in case their academic and career goals change during their undergraduate years. Those students who remain focused on their goals will be further motivated to succeed in college in order to reach their dream school when it comes time for a graduate degree.

Though it may feel like a difficult, even heartbreaking, decision at the time, taking a step back to look at where their dream school fits in the bigger picture of their life will help students in the long-term, as well as help address the immediate financial concerns of going to college.