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February is Financial Aid Awareness Month

Feb 4, 2016

by Susan Dutca

What makes February so lovely? It is Financial Aid Awareness Month, and since filling out the FAFSA is stressful - much like taxes - several higher education institutions and financial aid organizations have jumped on board to provide informational sessions for families and students as they navigate through, and apply for financial aid through the 2016-2017 FAFSA. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of students applying for, and receiving financial aid for their college education at a four-year-degree-granting institution has increased from 80% to 85% from 2007-08 to 2012-2013. Because of this, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) will be hosting a new topic weekly through a social media campaign that allows parents and students to ask questions about the FAFSA. To participate, NASFAA asks families to send their questions via Twitter using the hashtag #FinAidFeb to receive tips and advice, as well as the common mistakes to avoid. The social media campaign will take place on Wednesday, February 3rd from 7-8 pm ET and Friday, February 5th from 1-2 pm ET. Those interested can simply follow @NASFAA on Twitter or visit them at their website for full schedule and details.

According to the Salisbury Post, help is on the way on "FAFSA Day" at Catawba's College Library, where financial aid officers and specialists are working with seniors and their families to complete the FAFSA. Between February 22 and February 26, local North Carolina State Employee Credit Union branches will also help students complete their FAFSA. Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, IL is holding a similar series of events throughout February. In light of "FAFSA Frenzy", the Missouri Department of Higher Education is calling for an effort to educate and assist prospective college students, and Webster University is offering sessions on February 28 on its home campus, as well as at its St. Louis region on February 6 and 20. According to the school's statistics, more than 80% of its student population receives financial aid. The college is providing incentive for attending the event by offering attendees the chance to win a scholarship.

When attending any FAFSA informational session, bring your 2015 W-2 forms, and copies of your 2015 tax forms, if they're ready. If you haven't filed your 2015 returns yet, bring any statements of interest earned in 2015, any 1099 forms and other forms necessary to complete your taxes. Later on you may need to go back to your FAFSA and make corrections once the tax returns are filed. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool will help you make accurate corrections within a few weeks of your tax file date.

Tro Onink, CEO of Stratagee and an expert in financial planning, cautions parents about IRA contributions for 2015.Though it may lower tax bills for 2015, it affects the children's financial aid eligibility for the 2016-2017 year. As explained by Onink, individual retirement account (IRA) contributions is factored back to the adjusted gross income (AGI) when financial formulas are used to determine student's financial aid eligibility. When the expected family contribution is calculated, IRA contributions are factored into the adjusted gross income, plus HAS, 401k, 402b and other retirement contributions. He cautions that these formulas would "presume that they [parents] have used that money they're setting aside for retirement to pay for college instead." On the upside, you do not have to record the value of the IRAs as an asset. So what's Onink's main advice? If for example, you invest $10,000 into retirement plans in 2015, your children's financial aid amount could decrease by $2,500 in 2016-2017. Essentially, when you make an IRA contribution, you will be paying more than half the amount you save in taxes when it comes to college expenses. He advocates to save for retirement but be cautions that "just because your adjusted gross income is lower, your income for financial aid purposes will be inflated."

Read more on Financial Aid Information and Financial Aid tips this season as you fill out your FAFSA and don't forget to see how you can supplement federal aid with free money in scholarships.

Credit is attributed to Troy Onink, who has been featured by Forbes, InvestmentNews, myStockOption

Going to college doesn't have to break the bank or saddle you with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Check out the Scholarships.com free college scholarship search where you’ll discover you qualify for hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships in just a few minutes, then apply and win! It’s that easy!

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Pell Grants for Prisoners? Obama Says Yes

Jan 28, 2016

by Susan Dutca

According to President Obama, the Pell Grant Program should be extended to include convicted felons currently in our prison systems so that they may continue their education from behind bars. The US is a "nation of second chances," according to Arne Duncan, the current Secretary of Education, and should offer the incarcerated the option of an at least partially funded post-secondary education. Additionally, the Obama Administration hopes to extend the program through the summer so that students can graduate more quickly, while also providing incentive for students who take a minimum of 15 credits per semester/trimester.

Currently, those incarcerated at a federal or state penal institution are not permitted to receive a Pell grant - Obama's "Second Chance Pell Pilot Program for Incarcerated Individuals" would change that. Additionally, the Department of Education announced two more proposals to the current Pell Grant program which would increase the $29 billion program by $2 billion in the upcoming fiscal year. The proposal will be part of President Obama's budget proposal next month. The "Pell for Accelerated Completion" program allows students with financial need to take summer courses using Pell grant money, unlike the current program, which only covers two academic semesters.

The second proposal, the "On Track Pell Bonus," rewards students who take minimum of 15 credits per semester with $300. Roughly 2.3 million students would benefit from the bonus program. The goal of these two proposals is two-fold: to help students graduate earlier and to provide them with more financial assistance through the Pell Grant. Almost 8.3 million students were awarded the Pell Grant in the 2015 fiscal year, with approximately $28.7 billion in financial aid. According to the Department of Education's budget report, the maximum Pell grant for 2015-2016 was $5,775 but will be reduced to $4,860 next year.

According to the Department of Education, these changes would benefit almost 700,000 students with an additional $1,900 per student (currently, the average amount received by qualifying students is $3,600). Research also shows that 1.5 million high school graduates did not complete a FAFSA in 2014, despite their eligibility, resulting in just under $3B in unclaimed funds. Since today marks National Student Debt day, a group of young activists named the Young Invisibles will convene at the University of the District of Colombia Community College to learn more about the current student debt crisis and find out how they can influence higher education policy. Members of Congress will be present, including keynote speaker, Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Do you think Pell grants should be offered to incarcerated individuals? Would you take more summer courses if the Pell were to be extended? Start a discussion below.

Credit attributed to Jennifer C. Kerr, Associated Press reporter covering education from Washington, D.C.

And don't forget, you should pay for your college education with as much free money as possible! Find as many scholarships and grants as you can before turning to student loans. Visit the Scholarships.com free college scholarship search today where you'll get matched with countless scholarships and grants for which you qualify, then apply and win! It’s that easy!

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Pay Attention to Big Changes in FAFSA, 529s, Financial Aid

Dec 28, 2015

by Susan Dutca

Understanding the financial aid process, much less filing a FAFSA, can be tedious and daunting. With over 130 questions and requiring more than 30 minutes to complete, students may procrastinate, or completely avoid completing a FAFSA. With pending changes for the upcoming years - such as an earlier deadline - some experts claim the process won't necessarily get easier or more affordable, if not done correctly. Terry Savage, an expert writer for the Chicago Tribune, claims the new FAFSA will be more "intrusive than federal tax forms because it not only asks about income but also the assets of parents and students." Savage outlines some tips and general information on how to prepare for the changes, including early application and knowing the logistics of 529s, financial aid, and FAFSA:

  • Earlier application dates: Many people can recall the last-minute rush to apply for FAFSA and the anxiety that accompanies it. A big change in the FAFSA for 2017-2018 academic year is the earlier application. Students will be able to file as early as October 1, 2016, as opposed to January 1, 2017. Additionally, you will be able to use a FAFSA retrieval tool to directly and electronically access tax information from the IRS, after filing a 2015 tax return. The income you will report on your 2015 return will, in turn, affect your financial aid for the 2017-2018 academic year.
  • 529 Plans: 529 plans are college savings accounts that are exempt from federal taxes and were designed to help taxpayers set aside funds for a designated beneficiary. While any U.S. citizen or resident alien of at least 18 years old may open a 529 account, beneficiaries are typically children, grandchildren or younger relatives. Assets in a 529 plan owned by either the student or their parents count as need-based aid but plans owned by grandparents or other people do not count as assets. If money is withdrawn from the accounts of grandparents or other relatives, there is a penalty in the following year's financial aid package. Savage recommends you do not withdraw from your 529 account until your junior year in college, after filing the FAFSA for that year. Withdrawing from the 529 is not penalized so long as you are paying for "qualified expenses," including tuition, room and board, books, and other miscellaneous fees. Withdrawing from a grandparent-owned 529 plan is considered direct income to the beneficiary. There is a 10 percent penalty and taxes for withdrawing money to cover any other costs, unless the student receives a scholarship, dies, or is disabled.
  • Family assets preferred over child assets in financial aid scheme: UTMA custodial accounts are considered student assets - such as property, real estate, fine art, or future inheritances - which could have a large impact on financial aid eligibility. However a custodial 529 plan of a dependent student is treated as a parent's asset on the FAFSA - meaning less impact on the dependent students' financial aid eligibility. It is recommended that custodial accounts be spent for the child's benefit prior to the FAFSA filing year or transferred into the custodial 529 account.
  • Income-driven assets: In addition to providing all income information on the FAFSA through parents' tax returns, assets such as capital gains also count as income. Savage notes that "selling stocks and taking gains" the year before filing can impact what the student will receive in financial aid. For example, taking $3,000 in capital losses can reduce parental income, Savage states. The result of student income will reduce financial aid on a "dollar-for-dollar basis" which consequentially may become a disincentive for students to work and support their education.
  • Take the time this winter break to review the FAFSA changes so as to be better prepared and gain the most in financial aid for your college education.

    Credit is attributed to Terry Savage and the experts at the Federal Student Aid website. Savage is one of the country's most prominent advisers and a best-selling author on personal finance, corporate boardrooms, academia, the markets, and the economy. Federal Student Aid (studentaid.ed.gov) is a free website and source of information provided by the office of the U.S. Department of Education.

    And remember, there’s no need to rely on expensive student loan options to pay for your college education. For more information on finding free scholarship money for college, conduct a Scholarships.com free college scholarship search today, then apply and win! It’s that easy!

Comments (16)

Fixing FAFSA: Acquiring Financial Aid to be Easier, Quicker

Sep 25, 2015

by Susan Dutca

If you've ever had to fill out a FAFSA for college, you may have felt as though you need an accounting degree to understand it, much less complete it. With over 130 questions and averaging 30 minutes to complete, the complexity and tedium of filing for financial aid has been a barrier for students in attending college or receiving the financial aid for which they qualify. The Department of Education announced an initiative Monday to simplify the process and beginning in October 2016, students and their families will be able to complete a simpler FAFSA application.

Currently, students must wait until after most college application deadlines to apply for federal aid - the new FAFSA amendments will enable application as early as October 1 and better align students with college deadlines. The current January 1 application opens after many college application periods have closed and students may not know their entire financial aid package before committing to a college. With the new amendments, students will have a better understanding of the actual cost of their college education. Federal Student Aid awards $150 billion in grants, loans and other types of financial assistance annually. Sadly, about 2 million students enrolled in college who would qualify for a Federal Pell Grant never applied for aid. With the new initiative, the plan to improve the process of applying for federal aid will include:

  • Earlier application - Information for the FAFSA will be readily available around the same time high school students are searching for, and applying to college, meaning less pressure and stress. The current FAFSA application opens January 1 and cannot be completed until after April 15, when tax forms are due.
  • Simpler application - A new data retrieval tool will allow applicants to electronically access tax information directly from the IRS, after filing their 2015 tax returns. This means less income estimates and errors and more accuracy.
  • More students assisted - It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of students, especially first-generation and minority students, will apply for and enroll in college as a result of a simpler FAFSA. In 2013, roughly $45 million was left on the table in Pell Grants due to the complexity of the application.
  • More colleges assisted - As many as 3 million hours are spent annually by colleges and universities verifying FAFSA Information. With the new data retrieval tool from the IRS, colleges and universities will have less trouble verifying tax return information.
  • Do you think the new amendments to the current FAFSA will benefit students as they apply for financial aid earlier and with a simpler application? If you are interested in learning more about FAFSA, federal aid, grants and scholarships, read some of our tips on funding your college education.

    Going to college doesn't have to break the bank or saddle you with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Check out the Scholarships.com free college scholarship search where you’ll discover you qualify for hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships in just a few minutes, then apply and win! It’s that easy!

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    Why Students Should Use Scholarship Websites

    Jul 15, 2015

    by Genevieve Grant

    Why should you use scholarship websites? How should you use them? And what are the chances of you actually getting scholarships off of these sites? I had the opportunity to interview Scholarships.com VP Kevin Ladd and here's what I found.

    Scholarships.com is a space for scholarship providers to manage their own submissions, so what you see is what you get. The scholarships offered on this site are then more up to date than some of the other sites out there. Some tips for using this site included using it frequently, constantly looking for new postings and maintaining your profile so your information is current. Also a pro tip from Kevin: "If you can use a single essay for more than one scholarship application, DO IT. Just make sure that you are still following the instructions and not cutting corners."

    Timing and organization are also important. Sort your scholarship results based on the time of year with larger dollar amounts at the top of the list in the fall and by deadline date in the spring so you don't miss applying for anything. Though this is not to say that there is any one "good" time to apply for scholarships; rather, you should continuously apply for as many as you can throughout the year, regardless if you're in your junior year of high school or your senior year of college.

    I also asked about the kinks. What are people put off by when using the site? The two biggest drawbacks are users having too many results and not knowing where to start, and also the profile to some, is asking for too much detail. In response to that, Kevin stated that users "will get even better results by spending a bit more time and providing a bit more information." That being said, it's okay to brag about what you do! Give them the entire list of all the activities, sports and clubs you participate in, all the details about awards you've received, internships, research you've done, even where you've worked. It'll pay off!

    If it isn't easy enough, I'll make it easier. You're already at the leading site for scholarships so just click Scholarhips.com to fill out your free profile now. Don't waste another second and let someone take away the money you deserve.

    And remember, there’s no need to rely on expensive student loan options to pay for your college education. For more information on finding free scholarship money for college, conduct a Scholarships.com free college scholarship search today, then apply and win! It’s that easy!

    Comments (8)

    Understanding President Obama’s Student Aid Bill of Rights Initiative

    Mar 13, 2015

    by Suada Kolovic

    The financial aid process can be a daunting one but if you're planning on attending college any time soon, you should know that there are tons of federal student aid options available. From Pell Grants to Perkins Loans to the FAFSA, the funding is out there but your eligibility to receive aid depends on your level of need and, subsequently, how much aid you are eligible to receive. Translation: For the majority of students, loans are inevitable. But don't fret just yet because President Obama announced the Student Aid Bill of Rights initiative to help student borrowers with the challenging student loan process.

    What it does:

    • Helps borrowers keep track of their student loans. For years, consumer groups and colleges have been warning that borrowers with more than one servicer are losing track of their loans — and winding up in default as a result. The Education Department acknowledged those concerns last fall, when it adjusted some institutions' "cohort default rates," or the share of borrowers who default on their loans within a certain time frame.
    • Make it easier for borrowers to file complaints involving their student aid. Right now, borrowers can file complaints with a variety of agencies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Defense Department. But there isn't a centralized website where all borrowers can lodge their grievances against lenders, servicers, debt collectors, and colleges.

    What it doesn't do:

    • Prevents students from overborrowing in the first place. Many of the challenges that student-loan borrowers face in loan repayment are the result of unmanageable debt. After all, if borrowers could afford their loan payments, they wouldn't have to turn to income-based repayment or deal with debt collectors.
    • Overhaul student-loan debt collection. They want the government to handle debt collection itself. But the president's plan merely talks of "raising standards" for student-loan debt collectors, and it’s pretty vague about what those higher standards would look like.

    For more on the president's Student Aid Bill of Rights, head over to The Chronicle of Higher Education. . What do you think of the president's attempt to ease the financial burden associated with student loans? Share your thoughts in the comments section. And don't forget, going to college doesn't have to break the bank! Check out our Financial Aid section for more info on federal funding and while you're there, conduct a free college scholarship search where you'll get match with countless scholarships, grants and other financial aid opportunities!

    Going to college doesn't have to break the bank or saddle you with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Check out the Scholarships.com free college scholarship search where you’ll discover you qualify for hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships in just a few minutes, then apply and win! It’s that easy!

    Comments (7)

    What Colleges Can Expect from Congress in 2015

    Jan 21, 2015

    by Suada Kolovic

    With a new year comes a new Congress under new-ish management. Republicans will control the Senate for the first time in eight years, while the House of Representative will have its largest Republican majority in since 1928. But what does any of that have to do with higher education? Here are five predictions, courtesy of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

    1. Gridlock will continue. The gridlock and partisan warfare that we've seen in recent years will continue...and is likely to worsen as the 2016 election approaches. By the fall, the prospects for compromise on major legislation – education or otherwise – will be dim.
    2. Funding will remain tight. Budgets won’t change much, especially once the latest round of across-the-board spending cuts (known as the sequester) is applied. In that context, the most colleges will be able to hope for are modest increases for research and student aid; most programs will have to fight just to keep level funding. The Perkins student loan program, which is set to expire in September, will be particularly vulnerable. If government accountants conclude that continuing the program would cost taxpayers, lawmakers may abolish it.
    3. Colleges will have to compete for attention. Republicans have laid out several priorities for 2015, including overhauling President Obama's new healthcare system and approving the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline. Renewal of the Higher Education Act – the main law governing federal student aid – is not among those priorities.
    4. Simplification will rule the day. In the Senate, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has drafted legislation to shrink the FAFSA to the size of a postcard and to reduce the number of grant and loan programs. Meanwhile, House Republicans have offered a road map for reauthorization that calls for "one grant, one loan, and one work-study program" and just two loan-repayment programs.
    5. For-profit colleges will breathe a little easier. Republicans aren’t likely to single out the sector in the way Democrats have. Rather, they will seek to apply any accountability regimes to all colleges.

    For more on their predictions, click here. Any you'd like to add? Share your thoughts in the comments section. And don't forget to create a free Scholarships.com profile for a list of scholarships that are personalized to you!

    And remember, there’s no need to rely on expensive student loan options to pay for your college education. For more information on finding free scholarship money for college, conduct a Scholarships.com free college scholarship search today, then apply and win! It’s that easy!

    Comments (0)

    The FAFSA: New Year Means New Application

    Jan 6, 2015

    by Alexis Mattera

    Though it's a day off from school and work, New Year's Day is also a day to get down to business. While you’re starting in on your New Year's resolutions, opening up a new calendar, and packing up the holiday decorations, there’s one more thing that college students and college-bound high school students should do each January. The Department of Education starts accepting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (more commonly known as "FAFSA") on January 1 each year. State application deadlines fall soon after—as early as February in some cases. So while you might not start classes until August or September, you want to start applying for financial aid as soon as the FAFSA is available each year.

    In order to complete a FAFSA, you will need the following:

    • your social security number
    • a driver’s license if you have one
    • bank statements and records of investments (if you have any)
    • records of untaxed income (again, if you have any)
    • your most recent tax return and W2s (2013 for the 2014-2015 FAFSA)
    • all of the above for your parents if you are considered a dependent
    • a PIN to sign electronically (go to pin.ed.gov to get one)

    For more information on FAFSA and other daunting financial aid acronyms, head over to our Federal Aid section. And while you’re there, don’t forget to create a free Scholarships.com profile to help you fund your college education.

    And don't forget, you should pay for your college education with as much free money as possible! Find as many scholarships and grants as you can before turning to student loans. Visit the Scholarships.com free college scholarship search today where you'll get matched with countless scholarships and grants for which you qualify, then apply and win! It’s that easy!

    Comments (0)

    Five Tips for Maximizing Merit Aid

    Jul 11, 2014

    by Suada Kolovic

    Figuring out the bottom line when it comes to the cost of your college education is definitely stressful. With everything that goes into determining your financial aid package (your parents’ income, your earnings and your family’s net assets), it’s important to understand that merit aid (aid based on a student’s attributes like (academics, athletics, extracurriculars, etc.) is available to student regardless of their “need.” New federal rules are blurring the distinction between scholarships awarded on merit and grants awarded because of a student’s financial need – for instance, a growing number of colleges now award “need-based” aid to students from families earning six figures! – so we’ve compiled a few helpful tips to maximize your chances for merit aid and increase your overall financial aid package.

    1. Fill out the FAFSA. Federal rules have changed and college aid officials are now allowed to award need-based aid to students whose parents earned decent salaries last year but have recently been laid off; institutions can also make accommodations for a family’s unique circumstances, such as high medical bills.
    2. Apply to schools where you’d rank at the top. While your dream school might be an Ivy League, you should apply to at least a few colleges where your GPA would put you in the top 25 percent of the student body.
    3. Do the research. If you’re interested in a college, find out what it has to offer when it comes to merit aid. You might qualify for more awards than you think!
    4. Before making a final decision, compare net prices. Consider the cost of attendance in its entirety, including tuition and fees, room and board, books and transportation. The school that offers the most in merit aid might not be the best choice; sometimes the college offering the largest merit scholarship might have the highest net price because its tuition is higher.
    5. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Believe it or not, you have leverage when it comes to negotiating your merit aid package. If you have received admission letters from two or more universities and your first choice has a higher net price than your second choice, contact your first choice institution (which one is “that institution”...first or second choice?)! Some schools might be willing to match the merit aid offered, which would provide you the opportunity to attend your first choice school for less money!

    Can you think of any tips that we might have missed? If so, please add them to our comments section! For more information on finding money for college and how to properly fund your college education, check out Scholarships.com Financial Aid section.

    And remember, there’s no need to rely on expensive student loan options to pay for your college education. For more information on finding free scholarship money for college, conduct a Scholarships.com free college scholarship search today, then apply and win! It’s that easy!

    Comments (0)

    What’s in a Decimal Point?

    Online FAFSA Error Makes Low-Income Filers Look Like Millionaires

    Jul 7, 2014

    by Suada Kolovic

    When it comes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a decimal point could make a world of difference: An update to this year’s FAFSA has cost some low-income filers a chance at some serious federal student aid.

    For the 2014-15 FAFSA, the government expanded several income and asset fields in the online form to accommodate higher incomes. Herein lies the problem: Some lower-income filers are missing the .00 outside the box and entering cents into the text field. And when the do that, an income of $28,532.79, for example, is converted into $2,853,279. Big mistake. Huge. If the error isn't caught or corrected on individual forms, the filers could lose out on Pell Grants or other need-based student aid. According to Jeff Baker, policy liaison at the Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid, the department has already identified 165,000 individuals who've made the mistake. He's estimated that a majority of colleges have at least one affected student, while some may have hundreds. "It's a serious problem," said Baker at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ annual meeting. "We have to fix it." (For more on this story, click here.)

    With all the headaches that typically go into applying for federal aid using the FAFSA, what are your thoughts on the current roadblocks? Why not just have filers round income to the nearest whole dollar amount? For more information on the FAFSA, the importance of applying and what you'll need before you get started, check out Scholarships.com’s Federal Aid section.

    Going to college doesn't have to break the bank or saddle you with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Check out the Scholarships.com free college scholarship search where you’ll discover you qualify for hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships in just a few minutes, then apply and win! It’s that easy!

    Comments (3)

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