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ECMC Group responds to the death of George Floyd

June 9, 2020

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We are heartbroken and frustrated over the senseless death of George Floyd in our home city of Minneapolis. Our hearts go out to Mr. Floyd's family and friends. He never should have lost his life at the hands of the very police charged with serving and protecting all citizens. It pains us to see the city we love—and so many others—in distress, yet we know that we cannot look away—that it is incumbent on all of us to speak up about systemic injustice and take action to eliminate it.

As an organization, we believe every person should have the opportunity to live and to thrive—free from prejudice and violence. We know that this moment demands we look inward and renew our commitment to helping African Americans and other underserved populations reach their full potential, and we intend to play a more active role in meeting this challenge head-on.

We also know that it is important right now to listen to those in the community with more experience in addressing all of the issues that combine to reinforce racism and systemic injustice in all its forms. Over the past several days, we have reached out to our employees and community partners and began a dialogue about how we can be a resource in this moment and deepen our engagement in the fight against racism and injustice in the neighborhoods where we live, work and serve, as well as aid in the recovery of those damaged by unrest. To this end, ECMC Foundation has dedicated an initial $1.25 million to be put to work here in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, as well as the broader communities we serve around the country.

We are heartened by the growing number of organizations and individuals making commitments to ensure this change occurs. There is strength in numbers and there is power in the widespread resolution we are seeing to transform our country into a more just nation. This work will not be easy but it is work we must do if we are going to build a better Twin Cities, a better country and a better world. It is work to which ECMC Group is committed.

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Honoring mental health month by supporting students in need

Featured on Medium and eCampus News

May 29, 2020

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As the coronavirus (COVID-19) quickly spread across the United States, millions of college students received an urgent, startling request: pack up and leave campus indefinitely.

Even as they recognized the public health imperative, many were left worried about paying for transportation home, completing online courses without reliable internet access, and staying focused on classes in such an anxious, tumultuous time.

As the pandemic prompts new reckoning about how schools can deliver quality, virtual education, we must also understand that unequal access to students' basic needs — food, housing, transportation, financial assistance and counseling — can have severe consequences on academic performance, especially for students from traditionally marginalized communities.

Mental and emotional health, in particular, have a strong relationship with academic outcomes: the American Council on Education's Healthy Minds Survey found that across all types of college and university campuses, students struggling with mental health were twice as likely to leave without graduating.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, 51 percent of students are experiencing mental health distress. Nine in 10 college and university presidents list the mental health of their students as their top concern, but fewer than two in 10 have invested in more mental or physical health resources. Of the large majority who have yet to invest, less than half say they expect to do so down the road.

Even in normal times, two- and four-year institutions have struggled to appropriately fund counseling centers, despite growing concern from chief student affairs officers. In an analysis of 39 large universities, The Associated Press found the number of students receiving mental health treatment grew by 35 percent between 2014 and 2019, but the number of licensed counselors had yet to catch up. On some campuses, there was only one counselor for every 4,000 students.

Experts predict the pandemic will have long-term consequences for higher education budgets. When colleges have to make hard decisions, services like mental health and well-being programming are typically the first thing on the chopping block.

Given that in-person classes may not fully resume by the fall semester, institutions should embrace virtual mental health tools and resources as one accessible and affordable option to keep supporting students from a distance. These supports have shown to be effective at improving students' mental and emotional health, with some schools introducing their own virtual resources and text hotlines for students in crisis.

All campus staff — not just college counselors — should communicate regularly and compassionately about the mental health resources available. Students should also be encouraged to share these with friends, given that 67 percent of college students will first tell a friend if they are feeling suicidal.

To help alleviate some of the academic stress, Active Minds — a nonprofit organization focused on student mental health — also recommends institutions provide alternative, personalized grading options during the pandemic, such as allowing students to select a pass / fail grade in lieu of letter grades.

Outside organizations can also fill gaps where university funding and capacity fall short. Even before launching the Basic Needs Initiative to support institutions researching how best to holistically support students and develop scalable programs, the ECMC Foundation awarded a grant to Active Minds. That funding provided dedicated support to 15 Minority Serving- and Hispanic Serving Institutions, which have continued to provide individual counseling and crisis consultation via phone or video chat and expanded website resource listings since the outbreak.

And with financial insecurity a significant factor for students' mental health, ECMC's College Access Centers are helping families make proactive and informed decisions about planning and paying for college, working with them to build tailored plans that will minimize financial anxieties down the road.

State and federal lawmakers have already taken steps in ensuring students have access to essential resources during the pandemic. Under the CARES Act, the Department of Education distributed $6 billion to colleges and universities to help students affected by the outbreak with expenses related to health care, housing, food and child care. However, the assistance formula excluded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students, international students and students enrolled solely in online courses prior to the pandemic.

As they put additional funding behind their response, lawmakers must ensure that all educational institutions have the resources needed to not just maintain but expand their basic needs offerings, especially counseling for their most vulnerable students.

From health care to supply chains to higher education, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed cracks in our social framework that leave millions of Americans vulnerable. Two months after campuses started going virtual, one such crack that has become even more apparent is the patchwork of mental and emotional health and other basic needs resources available to college students struggling to focus on their education.

In the weeks and months ahead, schools, lawmakers and nonprofits have a shared responsibility to make access to education and basic needs support more equitable — not just during the pandemic, but for the generations to come.

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Late-deadline scholarships still open to applicants

The following article is from U.S. News & World Report

May 18, 2020

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In addition to late-deadline scholarships still available to prospective and current college students, many organizations have extended their typical spring deadlines to the early summer months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Financial aid experts encourage students to start the scholarship search as early as possible. But for those who got a late start or whose financial situation has changed in recent months, there are some scholarships that are still open.

"Scholarships are always available, though there are fewer deadlines in the summer," Thomas Jaworski, independent educational consultant and founder of Quest College Consulting, wrote in an email. "But some traditional deadlines are not until May 31, or even end of June."

National scholarships with summer deadlines come from a wide range of sources, including the Jared Jeffery Davis Scholarship, a $1,000 scholarship created by an investor that is accepting applications until Aug. 1.

Another example is the David Hudak Memorial Essay Contest for Freethinking Students of Color, which requires an essay of 400 to 600 words on "why you are not religious and its benefits," awards up to $3,500 to the first-place winner. The deadline for this scholarship is July 15, and students may be part of any racial group that is not white.

Many scholarships with late deadlines are designated for students pursuing careers in specific fields, such as the Delaware Nursing Incentive Program, which provides $5,000 per academic year and has a July 15 deadline. Undergraduates and high school seniors applying to this program must have a cumulative unweighted GPA of 2.5 and be enrolled or enrolling in an accredited program leading to certification as a registered nurse or licensed practical nurse, or current RNs who have completed five or more years of state service and are enrolling in a BSN program.

Other field-specific scholarships with summer deadlines include those for aspiring veterinarians, writers and public policy scholars. One resource for finding these scholarships is scholarships.com, which lists scholarships by deadline month.

There are also late-deadline scholarships available to undocumented students, such as the Boundless American Dream Scholarship, which has a June 30 deadline and provides $1,500 each to four students with a vision for how technology can solve real-world problems.

To be eligible for this national scholarship, students must fulfill the requirements for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status or temporary protected status and submit responses to three questions, including "What does the American dream mean to you?"

Undocumented students, including students with DACA status, can also refer to a list of 2020 scholarships organized by deadline that was created by Immigrants Rising, a nonprofit that aims to support undocumented students. They are for prospective and current undergraduates and don't require proof of U.S. citizenship.

Here are a few additional examples of late-deadline national scholarships:

  • DoSomething.org scholarships, amounts vary (May 15-31)
  • Barry J. Nace Pursuit of Justice Scholarship, $3,000 (June 1)
  • Claes Nobel Academic Excellence Scholarship, $5,000 (June 1)
  • Abbott & Fenner Scholarship, $1,000 (June 12)
  • Korean American Scholarship Foundation, $500 to $5,000 (June 30)
  • Good Lawyers / Good People Scholarship, $1,000 (July 1)
  • Villarreal Law Scholarship, $1,000 (July 1)

Scholarships With Extended 2020 Deadlines

This year is far from the typical scholarship season, says James W. Lewis, president of the National Society of High School Scholars. In a normal year, students are usually finalizing most of their scholarship applications by March. Instead, Lewis says there's a sort of "reset" on the entire higher education system this year because of the coronavirus pandemic's disruption to classes – which could present an opportunity for scholarship seekers.

"Don't think of the scholarship search time as being over," Lewis says. "In my mind, the scholarship search has just begun. The old norm was that scholarships are over by now, but this is a new reality, and institutions are having to rethink everything. Part of that is financial aid and scholarships."

Many scholarships with March and April deadlines were extended to mid-May or early June, experts say. Jan Smith, a financial literacy expert at ECMC, a nonprofit organization that assists student loan borrowers, suggests that students seeking extended scholarships look not just to national scholarships but also to local scholarships, which can end up having a big impact.

"Go one step further and search for "Scholarships with Extended Deadlines in (insert city), and you will find local scholarships – which means the applicant pool will be much smaller, and your chances of winning are increased," Smith wrote in an email.

Here are a few examples of national and local scholarships with extended deadlines due to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • West Virginia's Higher Education Grant (May 15)
  • The Women's College Scholarship Club in New York (June 19)
  • American Heart Challenge (June 30)

There is a chance that due to economic conditions and the disruption of high school and college classes, some scholarships may be canceled. But Jaworski says this would be determined on a case-by-case basis, so students should check with the individual organization.

"Some local scholarships are having difficulty getting the word out to students, who traditionally have found the information in the school's guidance department, so those were canceled early on during the pandemic," Jaworski says. Still, he says, "many scholarships have continued because the money was earmarked for this purpose."

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New federal student debt payments benefits in effect because of COVID-19 pandemic, here's how they work

The following article is from WAFB

May 18, 2020

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Many of us have student loans as we invested in our education years ago. But, if you haven't logged on to look at your student loan activity lately, you might want to now.

Lori Auxier is the Director of Student Success with the Educational Credit Management Corporation. And she said the CARES Act sets up some benefits for student debt repayers.

"The first one and most important one, I think, is there is a zero percent interest rate assigned to all loans owned by the U.S. Department of Education," said Auxier.

That means if you have a federally owned student loan, you are not collecting interest at this time.

"There is nothing a student has to do to claim this interest benefit. It is something that is automatically happening," she said.

This is in effect from March 13 to Sept. 30, 2020. Auxier mentioned another benefit that helps your wallet until late September.

"Students are not required to make a payment during that timeframe," she said.

So, you won't see a bill until October of this year. Again, this applies for loans under the U.S. Department of Education, which can be a direct, federal family education, federal Perkins, or an HEAL loan. If you don't know what kind of loan you have, log into studentaid.gov.

"And they can look at their loan history and determine who their loans are owned by and who they're serviced by," said Auxier.

Now, you can continue to make repayments if you want. But Auxier said that might not be the smartest option if you have an income-driven repayment plan or public service loan forgiveness program.

"Because then they won't be able to maximize their loan forgiveness at the end," she said.

You can reevaluate your payment plans at any time on studentaid.gov.

Auxier said, as we get close to September, her office will be watching the U.S. Department of Education to see if they extend the program. Otherwise, expect a call from your loan servicer around August to remind you repayment plans will resume as they did before the pandemic.

In the meantime, these new student loan repayment rules should help maximize your wallet.

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How To appeal college financial-aid decisions

The following article is from The Wall Street Journal

May 8, 2020

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Financial-aid award letters have arrived or will soon arrive for graduating high-school seniors and returning college students.

This year especially, more families may be experiencing substantially different economic circumstances than when they initially applied for aid. Families whose circumstances have changed—whether or not it is related to coronavirus—have the option to appeal their award.

Here's what those considering an appeal need to do.

Understand what circumstances might warrant an appeal. Generally, most schools won't reconsider a student's aid package unless something major has changed since the initial filing, such as parental loss of a job, a significant drop in income, unusually high out-of-pocket medical expenses or atypical one-time expenses.

But even a family whose offer includes zero dollars in federal grants or institutional aid can appeal. The school might give a student more institutional aid, or it could decide a student is eligible for more federal student aid, including grants or work study, than was initially extended.

Because of the widespread economic impact of the pandemic, a family's change in circumstances could be especially relevant this year given that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, and the College Board's CSS Profile for institutional aid both rely on data from a family's 2018 tax returns. Even the CSS Profile, which asks for more recent supplemental information on a family's finances, could now be out-of-date.

Schools that offer merit aid may also be willing to sweeten a deal, for recruiting purposes, amid potential coronavirus-induced declines in enrollment, so that is also worth asking about.

Make the appeal as soon as possible. Institutional funds for aid are limited, so don't delay. Remember, this year in particular, competition could be greater, given that more than 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March.

Families who haven't filled out a FAFSA or CSS Profile for the 2020-21 academic year, thinking perhaps they wouldn't be eligible for aid, and who now would like to be considered, should call their prospective or current school to inquire about the school's process for filing these forms. Be sure to ask how to provide updated information about the family's financial circumstances.

Make the call even if a school's website says the deadline for financial-aid forms has passed, says Erin Powers, director of marketing and communications for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Families have until June 30, 2021, to fill out the Fafsa to be eligible for aid during the 2020-21 academic year. The CSS Profile for the same academic year is active until Feb. 15, 2021, according to a College Board spokeswoman, though schools generally deplete their available funding over time.

Follow the school-specific processes. Each school has its own appeals process. The school's financial-aid website should say what is required. Some schools ask that students provide signed statements explaining what changes have occurred, and any related documentation; others ask students to submit a form called a "report of special circumstances," says Ms. Powers.

It is always a good idea to follow up with a phone call to a school's financial-aid office since websites aren't always up-to-date and families need to be sure they are following the proper procedure, says Scott Gibney, an educational consultant with Gibney College Solutions LLC in Newtown, Conn.

Families should provide whatever information and use whatever forms a school requests. If a free-form letter is allowed, one page is ideal, says Mr. Gibney, who recommends that appeals be fact-based, use bullet points and stay on subject. Don't make demands, he adds, and always be respectful.

Provide relevant supporting documentation. Appealing families may be asked to provide documentation to support their request for additional aid. The type of documentation will vary depending on what has changed about the family's financial circumstances, Ms. Powers says. Supporting documents can include things like bills, signed letters from caregivers or medical providers, court documents, termination letters, proof of unemployment benefits, final pay stubs and out-of-pocket repair costs after a natural disaster, she says.

Get online help. Educate To Career, a nonprofit that assists families with college and career planning, offers an online tool, the College Tuition Negotiator, to help families negotiate more effectively. The free tool helps users compare—by state, major and institution—data such as full-price tuition, average tuition paid, lowest estimated tuition paid, percent of students receiving grants and the average institutional grant size.

The Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation recently launched SwiftStudent, a free digital tool designed to help college students seeking adjustments to their financial-aid packages. The tool offers templates that address more than a dozen types of appeals. It could be useful for schools that lack a formal appeals process; students should always be sure to follow their school's specific requirements before submitting an appeal.

Don't just wait for an answer. While waiting to hear back on the appeal, which can take weeks, families should explore other ways of paying for college. Many students don't think to apply for scholarships in the latter half of their senior year of high school, thinking these free-money options have all evaporated by spring. But some scholarships have later deadlines.

What's more, many scholarship programs have extended their deadlines to give students more time to submit their applications, says Jan Smith, a financial-literacy expert at Educational Credit Management Corp., a nonprofit provider of free training and resources focused on financial education and college preparedness.

In addition, families could investigate private loans or other borrowing options such as a home-equity line of credit. The student also might consider taking a year off to work, or even choose a lower-cost community college or state school. Since a number of institutions may not be offering in-classroom instruction this fall, choosing a school where students can live at home and save money could be financially beneficial.

Families need to do what's financially prudent for them—even if it means disappointing their student—to avoid burdensome debt.

"If you don't get the money you were hoping for, you may need to make difficult choices," Mr. Gibney says.

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