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.
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.
The snow coats are finally put away in place of the short-sleeve shirts. Spring is here, with summer right behind. For high school seniors, the end of years of hard work are within your grasp with the goal of a college education just beyond it. But rather than coasting to the finish line, students looking to save money and hit the ground running once they get to college will find the next few months important.
“Summer melt” is the term used in higher education to describe students that intend to go to college after high school graduation, but never make it to college in the fall. Their college plans have dripped away like an ice cream cone in the July heat. Here are some tips to stay on track and keep those college plans firm this summer, and even saving a few dollars once you get there:
- Don’t fall victim to “senioritis.” The end of high school is certainly in reach, but that doesn’t mean students should take their foot off the pedal when it comes to school. Completing AP or dual enrollment courses in high school can reduce the number of credits that need to be taken in college. Think of it as getting free classes that would otherwise be part of tuition costs.
- Plan ahead to avoid changing majors. It’s not out of the ordinary for students to get to college not knowing exactly what they want to do. But changing majors, even once, can add a year or more to a student’s time in college. Use this summer to explore areas of career interest as a volunteer or intern to get a taste of what the day-to-day life in a particular job will be like. It might lead to reconsidering a college major before too much time and money is committed.
- Consider summer courses. Just like taking the AP, any courses that can be taken before college will help later. General education, or underclass, units can be taken at local community colleges, often with smaller class sizes and for less money than when a student gets to a college or university. Math is math, no matter where you take it. Why not get a head start now?
- Take a part-time job. Working during college can help reduce the amount of money that needs to be borrowed, in addition to providing valuable job experience. Use the summer to help build a nest egg for college expenses.
- Research textbook and supply rentals. Course books can be one of the biggest expenses for students once they get to college. While many colleges allow students to rent textbooks instead of buying them, online sites such as chegg.com, eFollett.com, textbooks.com and others can provide other options and the opportunity to compare prices. Getting to know the options ahead of time in school can lead to saving hundreds of dollars come fall.
There’s no way around it: getting the degree or certificate that will connect you with your future costs money. No matter the type of education students pursue after high school, cost will often play a factor in not only determining where students go to school, but, in many cases, impact whether or not they complete their degree and find the career they’ve long sought.
Many students and families rely on private student loans which come with interest rates that can feel daunting not only during school but in the years after. However, thanks to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), students are discovering many roads to free money that can help reduce their student debt and help them succeed.
Completing the FAFSA arms students with a tool, a baseline of financial information and need for aid that can be used for a variety of state and federal grants, as well as private scholarships. There are many ways for students to find free money that require nothing more than the time to research and apply in order to receive some financial help for their education. Here are few places to start:
State Grants and Scholarships
The state of Iowa provides funding for grant programs to help with higher education costs. Students who receive Iowa-funded grants and scholarships must be Iowa residents, attend an eligible Iowa college or university and meet other criteria specific to each program. Scholarships and grants do not have to be repaid and can significantly reduce college expenses. The chart below provides an overview of the application requirements for each scholarship and grant administered by Iowa College Aid. For specific criteria, go to IowaCollegeAid.gov.
Every year, MILLIONS of dollars in private scholarships go unclaimed; not because no qualified candidates applied, but because no candidates applied at all.
Scholarships are available from private sources including businesses, foundations, religious organizations, community groups and fraternal organizations. High school counselors are excellent resources for scholarship information, as are libraries and college financial aid administrators.
Web searches also allow students and families to explore scholarship possibilities. Reputable organizations will NOT charge fees for scholarship searches.
Think of finding scholarships like a part-time job. If you spend 5 hours researching and applying for scholarships that lead to a $1,000 scholarship, you’ve just made $200 per hour. That’s pretty good money for working part-time! Here are some ways to track down private scholarship opportunities:
- Work: Have your parents ask whether their employers offer college scholarships to children of employees.
- School networks: Many high schools offer scholarships for graduating students. Also check with the area alumni association of your college.
- Community organizations: Many community organizations sponsor local scholarships. Check your city’s website or call your local community center for lists of organizations in your area.
- Religious organizations: Find out if your place of worship offers scholarships. If not, it might partner with other organizations.
- Field of study: Your college might offer scholarships specific to your major. Contact your program department.
College and University Scholarships
Your college or university might provide scholarships or financial awards from its institutional funds. Often, institutional scholarships go to recipients who meet specific requirements related to particular areas of study, academic achievements, outstanding talent, leadership, athletic ability or other criteria. Contact the financial aid office and ask about institutional programs available through the college or through on-campus organizations.
Federal grants are awarded to both Iowa resident and non-resident students. Eligible students can receive these federal grants for attendance at any postsecondary education institution participating in the program. Federal grants include:
- Pell Grants
Pell Grants are funded by the federal government to assist the neediest undergraduate students. The maximum award is $5,920 for the 2017-18 award year.
- Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants
Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) are based on financial need. Eligible recipients receive between $100 and $4,000 per year. Not all colleges participate.
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grants (TEACH Grants)
The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program helps students in teaching preparation programs. In exchange for a TEACH Grant, recipients agree to serve as full-time teachers in high-need fields in public or private non-profit elementary or secondary schools that serve low-income students. These grants are available to eligible undergraduate, post-baccalaureate and graduate students for a maximum amount of $4,000 per year. Students must meet academic standards.
Taking the time to track down free money for school now may seem like hard work, but the impact it will make in saving students from debt as they start their careers will be an even greater reward as they start their careers.
For many students going to college, private student loans will be an inevitable fact of life. Private loans should be used to fill in the gaps that college savings, grants and other scholarships don’t cover in a student’s final aid plan. As a result, many students leave college with a nagging fear of the loan repayments that await.
Rather than start on the wrong foot when it comes to loans, students can get a healthy perspective of both their responsibilities and ways to more quickly get on top of their debt with these tips that destroy the common myths about student loans:
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.
Get more tips and advice to help in your college planning with Iowa College Aid’s “The Path to College.”
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.
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:
- 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.
Financial Aid Awareness month encourages students who are getting ready to attend (or are currently attending) college to put together a game plan that helps them achieve their college dreams in the most cost effective way possible. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step and a vital one. But once that’s done, where do students go to figure out how to get the money they need for college.
Iowa College Aid not only awards and administers state grants and scholarships for Iowa students, but helps students stay on top of all the resources available to help them graduate college with as little debt as possible.
The financial expert team from Iowa College Aid ranked the ways for students to fill that gap between the money awarded to students in a school’s financial aid award package and the cost of attending the school of their dreams. Here are their top picks:
You filed your FAFSA, you submitted the State’s Financial Aid Application, you met the deadlines and you’ve done the math – your financial aid is just short of covering your tuition bill. You still need a few more dollars to pay for the semester and buy books, what else can you tap into?
Savings and 529 Plans: The first resource to explore is your own savings account or 529 account. If you (or your parents) have been saving money for college, now is the time to use it! Not only has the money been set aside for this purpose, but using savings or college investment accounts could reduce or eliminate the need to borrow additional loans.
Explore private scholarships: There are many scholarship search websites that allow you to create a profile and search for scholarships that fit your skills, abilities and interests and often scholarship essays can be tweaked and customized allowing you to use the same essay multiple times. Make sure to read directions carefully and pay attention to deadlines. And don’t rule out “fun” scholarships like those found on unigo.com – who knows, maybe your creative 250 word essay on what flavor of ice cream would you be could score you a $1,500 scholarship?
Payment plans and paychecks: Since colleges bill you for the entire semester at once, it can be overwhelming to get a bill in the mail for the whole semester. But what if the amount you owe could be divided into 4 or 5 monthly payments? If you’re working part-time, maybe it becomes more manageable to think about making monthly payments to your college when you know you have a paycheck coming.
Parent PLUS and other student loan options: If borrowing more money becomes an option, talk to your Financial Aid Office about which loans are available to you (and your parents) and which loans have the best repayment terms and interest. Your student loan options will differ depending on if you have a co-signer, or if you want to start repayment after you graduate (versus starting repayment while you’re still in school), or if you want a fixed or a variable interest rate. Your Financial Aid Office can help you sort through options and pick the loan that works best for you.
The State Fair, the Cyclones and Hawkeyes, Blue Bunny Ice Cream, the Bridges of Madison County and the Field of Dreams. Everyone has their list of favorite things that make Iowa a uniquely great place to live. For any Iowan saving for education after high school, though, three numbers make hearts thrill: 529.
While it only makes sense to celebrate the 529 Savings Plan on the date that shares its name, 529 plans benefit Iowans saving for education 365 days a year.
Named after the section of the IRS code that allows their use, Section 529 plans come in two flavors: savings accounts and prepaid tuition plans. 529 Savings plans allow for after-tax contributions to be made on behalf of a designated beneficiary, not just a child, which means a parent or family member going back to school can also benefit.
Contributions to 529 plans grow tax-deferred (think of it like a education-focused 401(K)) and can be withdrawn tax-free to pay for qualified educational expenses. Iowans get further tax advantages, as all earnings on a 529 account are fully exempt from Iowa state income tax. Iowa taxpayers can also deduct up to $3,163 in contributions per beneficiary account from their adjusted gross income.
A Section 529 savings plan is ideal for parents or grandparents who have some combination of the following factors:
- They would like to save more than $2,000 per year.
- They live in a state that offers a state income tax deduction for contributing to a Section 529 plan.
- They make enough money to be disqualified from using a Coverdell ESA.
- They have multiple children with the hope that all will attend college.
- They are starting their college planning late in their children’s lives.
- They are planning on saving large amounts towards college costs.
- They expect their children to attend expensive graduate programs.
- They want the freedom to reclaim the assets for any reason they choose.
- They would like to fund a loved one’s college, while significantly reducing the size of their estate.
And while a Iowa family’s 529 plan may be based in Iowa, money can be used for qualified expenses at any public or private institution, regardless of where you set up the account or where the beneficiary attends school. Out-of-state relatives can also invest in an Iowa plan regardless of where the parent or beneficiary lives. So if a grandparent lives in Florida, they can still fund their grandchild’s Iowa plan.
Iowa 529 Plans are great savings options for all families. Plans can be opened with a minimum of $25 and each additional contribution can be as little as $25 ($15 when contributing through an employer’s payroll deduction plan), deposited regularly or whenever convenient.
Iowans can set up an account, review a wide variety of investment choices and learn more about the details of a 529 Savings Plan at College Savings Iowa’s website, provided by the State Treasurer’s office.