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How to prepare for the FAFSA

The following article is from FOX 6 Milwaukee

December 8, 2020

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Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a prerequisite for receiving financial aid for college. The Department of Education receives approximately 20 million FAFSA submissions each year, providing aid to an estimated 13 million students.

The information you provide on your FAFSA determines whether you qualify for federal student loans, grants, work-study, and other aid. Colleges and universities also use it when awarding school-based aid.

How to prepare for the FAFSA
If you plan to complete the FAFSA this year, keep these tips in mind.

  1. Create a Federal Student Aid ID before enrollment begins
  2. Have the necessary documents readily available
  3. Avoid mistakes, such as missing deadlines
  4. Submit your FAFSA as early as possible
  5. Get free help if you need it

1. Create a Federal Student Aid ID before enrollment begins The Department of Education begins accepting FAFSA submissions in October of each year. One thing you'll need to complete the application is a Federal Student Aid ID.

This username and password allow you to access the Federal Student Aid system online and electronically sign your FAFSA. Students and parents should make their own FSA ID, said Holly Franquet, the student success director at Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC). Remember to make note of your respective IDs, since you'll need them to renew your FAFSA each academic year.

If you've hit your limit as a federal student loan borrower, visit Credible to explore private student loan options.

2. Have the necessary documents readily available
Completing the FAFSA means providing some basic information, including:

  • Your name and social security number
  • Driver's license number
  • Physical and mailing address
  • Name of the university or college you're interested in attending
  • Which type of degree you're working toward (i.e. associate's degree, bachelor's degree, higher degree, etc.)

You'll also need to share details about household income, assets, and taxes. The documents you'll need for that include your parents' most recent tax returns and W-2s and your own, if applicable. Bank statements, non-retirement investment account statements, and any documentation showing child support or alimony income would also be necessary to finalize your FAFSA.

If your family's income was impacted in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, you should still submit your 2019 tax return, said Franquet. But after completing your FAFSA, you should reach out to the financial aid office at the university or college you plan to attend to explain your current financial situation.

3. Avoid mistakes, such as missing deadlines
The deadline for submitting your FAFSA is June 30 so it's important to mark your calendar to make sure you get yours in on time.

Aside from that, Franquet said there are some other common mistakes to avoid, including:

  • Being confused over where to enter student information vs. parent information
  • Entering information that doesn't match Social Security records
  • Entering information related to taxes incorrectly
  • Not understanding whether to file as a dependent or independent student

It's also important to make sure you're not leaving spaces blank and that all the information you've included is accurate. Double-checking each page of your FAFSA before hitting submit can help you spot any errors and correct them.

4. Submit your FAFSA as early as possible
Technically, you have a fairly wide window of time to submit your FAFSA. But waiting could be a mistake if your school doles out financial aid on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Some colleges and universities may set the deadline for receiving the FAFSA earlier than the end of June. Additionally, your state can impose a different FAFSA deadline. But don't panic if it takes you a little longer to get your form in.

"Even if you submit the FAFSA late, you're eligible for a Federal Direct Loan of up to $5,500 for the first year of college," Franquet said. "After that, parents can apply for a Federal PLUS Loan that can cover up to the entire cost of attendance."

5. Get free help if you need it
If you have questions about filling out the FAFSA, the Department of Education offers free help. The Federal Student Aid Information Center is an online resource that's designed to make completing the FAFSA easier. If you need additional assistance, you can ask questions via email, phone, or live chat.

Planning early can pay off
Remember, completing the FAFSA doesn't guarantee that you'll receive all the financial aid you need to pay for school. If your aid package isn't enough, you can try writing a financial aid appeal letter asking your school for more money.

Private student loans are another option to pay for school if you've exhausted other student aid options. When searching for private loans, it's important to compare interest rates and repayment terms to find a borrowing option that best fits your needs and budget.

Using an online tool like Credible makes it easy to view fixed and variable interest rates for private student loans from multiple lenders in one place.

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How to get FAFSA completion help during COVID-19

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

November 19, 2020

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After months of record-breaking unemployment numbers and economic turmoil, fewer students in the high school class of 2021 are applying for federal financial aid.

This trend may be head-scratching for some, but experts worry high school students learning virtually aren't getting the support they need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. They are concerned that stressors related to the coronavirus pandemic are taking the focus off of time-sensitive financial aid deadlines, or that prospective students have chosen not to attend college altogether.

The number of completed FAFSAs is down about 16% nationally, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Education and analysis by the nonprofit National College Attainment Network through the week of Nov. 6. The rate of completion is down even more significantly at high-minority high schools – those with at least 40% Black and Hispanic student enrollment – with about 21% fewer FAFSAs completed compared to this time last year.

Katherine Pastor, a school counselor at Flagstaff High School in Arizona, says the college and financial aid support systems in place for high school seniors have been eliminated or made more challenging by the transition to online learning.

"Before, I could just pop into your class and have a quick conversation," Pastor says. "Now, I'm trying to find where you're at, get a Zoom link, ask the teacher to create a breakout room for us, and hope that the student knows how to share their screen with me so I can help them with where they're at in the application."

Counselors note barriers to providing financial aid counseling such as students' limited access to the internet and computers; technological frustrations; limitations of a video call to assist with tasks like locating the correct tax form in a pile of paperwork; and now widely understood feelings of Zoom fatigue for counselors, parents and students alike.

Beyond the logistical problems, Pastor says both college and financial aid can become "out of sight, out of mind" as families are so far removed from their high school and its support staff at schools that have transitioned to virtual or hybrid learning.

Jennifer Satalino, student success director at ECMC, a nonprofit that assists student loan borrowers, says the decline in FAFSA completions may also be caused by students feeling unmotivated or believing that the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have rendered college out of reach. Already in fall 2020 thus far, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports undergraduate enrollment is about 4% below last year's level – a trend some experts worry may continue.

"They are grieving," Satalino says. "They haven't had the typical senior year; they're probably not going to. They are concerned that next year they might be in college, but still learning in their bedroom."

Overcoming New Obstacles to Get Free Financial Aid Help
In spite of these challenges, as high schools and colleges continue to embrace virtual learning during the pandemic, counselors and financial aid officers have also adapted and created new supports for students.

Flagstaff High School, for example, now offers advising sessions that don't require an appointment before school, after school and at lunch through Zoom, during which a counselor is available to answer student and parent questions about filling out the FAFSA.

Additionally, many states are continuing to offer FAFSA nights in a virtual format through their departments of higher education. The Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority, for example, offers virtual FAFSA nights through a Zoom call that allows students and families to work on the form from their personal device with live support from financial aid professionals and volunteers.

Students can also take advantage of College Goal Sunday, also called FAFSA Day, an opportunity for free help applying for financial aid held in an online format on Sundays in the fall and spring. The date or dates of College Goal Sunday vary by state.

Students can also use the Department of Education's Federal Student Aid Help Center online or call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-433-3243.

Current and prospective students should take advantage of emails, webinars, YouTube videos that walk students through the form step by step, and other virtual events and resources that colleges share, says KC Woods, associate director of financial aid and scholarship programs at Syracuse University in New York.

And while students may be limited in their ability to walk into the financial aid office and ask for help, their university, like Syracuse, may have a "virtual lobby" via Zoom to get the equivalent of walk-in support.

Some high schools are also continuing to offer in-person FAFSA resources that students and their families can access.

Teresa Peterson, head counselor at Pine View High School in Utah, says the school has already held one in-person FAFSA night this fall with social distancing and other COVID-19 safety measures, on top of a virtual FAFSA night, virtual college application night, and other online events and resources available.

"Because of the weirdness and the angst people have, it's almost harder for them to get their ducks in a row," Peterson says. "But a lot of our kids are at least reaching out about this. Now if they're actually following through, I don't know."

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Statewide higher ed messaging campaign launches "123Go!" Steps to college video

The following article is from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia Press Release

November 19, 2020

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To mark Virginia College Application Week (Nov. 16-20), The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) launched a statewide video featuring college students encouraging high schoolers to attend some form of postsecondary education after graduation. The video is based around SCHEV’s and Educational Credit Management Corporation’s (ECMC) 1-2-3 Go! initiative, which provides a series of informational events and resources, including Virginia College Application Week, to help students make informed decisions about their education after high school.

As with previous components of the statewide messaging campaign featuring college and university presidents and mascots, the 1-2-3 Go! video offers a message of encouragement and valuable information for Virginia students and their families, including many facts and tips:

FACTS:

  • College graduates make about a million dollars more over the course of their lives than people with just a high school diploma.
  • “College” means many things; it can be going to a traditional college or community college, getting a certification or license, or training through an apprenticeship – it’s about pursuing any form of education after high school.
  • Approximately $120 billion in federal and $250 million in Virginia state aid programs is available each year to help students pay for college.

TIPS:

Research options for the best fit. Look at things like school size, location, costs, competitiveness, etc. Learn more by exploring and completing the College Opportunities Guide and Workbook and attending College Night Events across Virginia sponsored by ECMC.

Visit www.strivescan.com/virginia/ to review virtual tours, panels, and conversations with admissions offices from colleges and universities across Virginia.

Pay attention to college application deadlines. Most four-year colleges have early application deadlines in November and December, with regular deadlines in January and February. Community colleges have flexible deadlines, meaning that they accept applications as they are received.

Check for fee waivers. If a student’s family is eligible for free or reduced priced lunch, they are likely eligible for SAT, ACT and college application fee waivers.

Research and apply for scholarships. Scholarships are available through many sources, including schools, employers, banks, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and professional organizations.

Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (aka FAFSA) beginning October 1. Many institutions and private scholarships require students to submit the FAFSA before they will consider them for any financial aid. Remember that financial aid is limited and generally awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Be aware of FAFSA priority filing deadlines. Some deadlines are as early as December, but the most common is March 1. Visit www.schev.edu/financialaiddeadlines for Virginia’s deadlines.

Visit www.schev.edu/123go for information on available financial aid webinars from the Virginia Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (VASFAA).

Compare financial aid packages, talk with your family and school counselors, and commit to your future! Many students make these decisions around May 1.

“Our colleges and universities have come together to inform Virginia students about the benefits of education beyond high school," said Erin McGrath, SCHEV's assistant director of college access & PK12 outreach. "We hope this new video will ignite excitement among high school students as they make plans to further their education in the coming years."

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The complete guide to federal student loan repayment

The following article is from Centsai

September 21, 2020

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You're just months away from graduating and staring down the barrel of tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. The world's economy is struggling, and you are worried about being able to repay your loans in time. What now?

If you have federal student loans, you're in luck. Well, as much luck as you can have with student loan debt. The good news is that federal loans offer various student loan repayment options for borrowers after they graduate, so you're not just stuck with one payment plan.

Tackling Your Student Loan Debt

To start with, it is important to see how much you owe — find out via the National Student Loan Data System. This tool should provide you with your full federal loan balance. If you have private student loans, you should contact the lender directly.

After that, your next step should be to visit the Federal Student Aid website, which will continually provide updated information about student loan debt.

While you research which repayment option to use, be aware that most federal loan applicants will have a six-month grace period after graduation, during which there are no loan repayments at all.

If you don't choose a plan after you graduate and start paying back your loans, you'll automatically be enrolled in the Standard Repayment Plan.

But you have more options than that and if you just graduated or are about to, you want to know what they are. Here's a breakdown of federal student loan repayment options:

Standard Repayment Plan

As mentioned above, this is the plan you'll be enrolled in automatically, if you don't choose a plan. Through the Standard Repayment Plan, you'll have 10 years to pay off your student loans. Payments are a fixed amount of at least $50 per month, according to Federal Student Aid.

This is the best option if you can afford it, because the sooner you can repay your loans, the more money you'll save on interest.

"[Standard Repayment Plans] work best for those with a competitive salary in their first job after college and for those who want to pay off their loans quickly," says Lori Auxier, director of student success at the Educational Credit Management Corporation.

This plan isn't recommended for people who don't have a job yet, have a lower salary than expected, or plan to seek Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)," Auxier adds.

With the Standard Repayment Plan, it's also important to note that you can pay more than your fixed payments and get out of debt in less than 10 years.

One mistake I made when I first graduated was looking at my student loans as a bill, and paying just what I was told to pay.

Federal student loans do not have prepayment penalties. I could have shaved a few years off of my student loan repayment by paying more than the minimum.

Graduated Repayment Plan

Through the Graduated Repayment Plan, your initial payments will start out small and gradually increase every two years. The thinking behind this is that as time goes by, your income will go up, and you can afford larger payments.

"This is a good option for those with a lower starting salary and the potential for a higher salary in a few years," says Auxier. "This plan will result in paying more over the life of the loan and is generally not a qualifying repayment plan for PSLF."

This plan offers student loan repayment periods between 10 and 30 years. This may be a good option if your income is low now, but you are expecting wage increases in the future.

Extended Repayment Plan

If you have significant debt and your monthly payments are outrageous, you may want to consider the Extended Repayment Plan, which allows you to pay back your loans within 25 years, according to Federal Student Aid. Your payments can be fixed, meaning they'll stay the same, or graduated, meaning they'll increase over time.

"This is a good option for those who need a lower monthly payment and more time to pay off their loans, or if they expect to earn a lower salary over time," adds Auxier. "This plan will result in paying more over the life of the loan and is not a qualifying repayment plan for PSLF."

To qualify for this plan, you must have more than $30,000 in outstanding loans. Under this plan, your payments will be much lower and much more spread out. The downside? That increased lifetime cost can be nearly double your initial balance because of the additional interest, according to FinAid. This plan should be entered into lightly, often as a last resort.

Income-Based Repayment (IBR)

If you're currently struggling to get by, Income-Based Repayment can be a blessing. This plan caps your monthly payments at 15 percent of your discretionary income and allows you to pay your loans over up to 25 years, according to Federal Student Aid. After 25 years, any remaining balance will be forgiven.

However, there are some things you should know. First, you need to qualify. Typically, if your student debt would be a significant portion of your annual income, you'll qualify. Your student loan payments must also be lower than what they might be under the Standard Repayment Plan.

While you may have affordable payments under IBR, you will end up paying more in interest.

And if the remaining balance on your loans is forgiven at the end of the 25-year period, that amount may be considered taxable income, according to the same source.

In other words, if $40,000 is forgiven, you could see a tax bill of several thousand dollars, as current tax law will consider that $40,000 in forgiven loans as income.

Pay As You Earn

This is another plan that can help you if you are struggling to repay your student loans. Pay As You Earn generally involves monthly payments at 10 percent of your discretionary income.

Under this plan, your student loan repayment period is 20 years.

"These plans cap payments at 10 percent of a borrower's income. [They] require annual recertification and will result in paying more over the life of the loan," says Auxier. "However, the outstanding loan balance after a certain timeframe (depending on loan type) is forgiven. These plans are qualifying repayment plans for PSLF."

As with IBR, for this plan you must qualify based on your income. However, the IBR tax trap still remains and you may see a hefty tax bill if your loans are forgiven.

Income-Contingent Repayment Plan

This plan is one of the only income-driven plans for which you don't have to qualify. Under Income-Contingent Repayment plans, your payments are calculated each year based on a number of factors: your adjusted gross income, discretionary income, family size, and the total amount of loans you have.

"These plans let borrowers pay 10 to 20 percent of their discretionary income," says Auxier. "[They] result in paying more over the life of the loan; however, the outstanding loan balance after a certain timeframe (depending on loan type) is forgiven. These plans are qualifying repayment plans for PSLF."

Your repayment period is 25 years and only after that can any unpaid portion be forgiven, according to Federal Student Aid. Once again, you may have to pay income tax on your forgiven loans.

Which One Should You Choose?

As you can see, there are a variety of options to choose from. But which one is right for you? Well, that depends on your income and how quickly you want to pay off your loans.

Be aware that student loan repayment has changed slightly, due to COVID-19. "For borrowers currently in their grace period on federally held student loans, interest rates are set to zero percent on those loans until December 31, 2020," says Auxier. "If possible, it's still a great idea to make payments during this time to pay down the balance more quickly."

If you can afford it, the Standard Repayment Plan is likely your best option to repay those loans. If you're struggling, consider using IBR until you can afford more.

You can make arrangements with your loan servicer to set up a federal student loan repayment plan. The key is to do your research and pick a plan that is best for your financial situation.

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ECMC offers tips to navigate the path to college in the current COVID-19 environment

September 9, 2020

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MINNEAPOLIS—Despite an uncertain back-to-school season, high school seniors still need to make plans for their postsecondary education journey. To help students and families navigate the process in the current virtual environment, Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) is offering free resources and helpful tips. ECMC is a nonprofit focused on helping students succeed.

"Preparing and planning for college is stressful under normal circumstances, but the coronavirus pandemic has further complicated the process," said Lori Auxier, director of student success at ECMC. "We at ECMC want to help students and families as they look to plot a course for their future educational plans in what has become an unpredictable environment."

ECMC offers the following tips to help students and families in the coming months and beyond:

  1. Attend online college prep sessions. Students should check with their high school or other local college planning organizations to see if they plan to host any virtual events that would provide how-tos about financial aid and finding a college that is the right fit for the student. ECMC's The College Place college access centers are actively hosting free online sessions to help families navigate this journey.
  2. Take advantage of virtual college tours. With colleges pivoting to provide incoming students with online offerings meant to mimic the in-person experience, students have the ability to "visit" prospective campuses from their computers. Many offer virtual tours and online college fairs as well as additional resources.
  3. Connect with your schools of choice. It's never too early to reach out to admissions representatives with questions or to learn more about their programs and majors. They may also be able to help with adjustments to admissions requirements due to the pandemic. In addition, these connections illustrate your interest in a particular school, which may prove beneficial during the application process.
  4. Become a social media fan. A great way to learn more about a prospective school is to follow them on social media. Schools often provides access to current students who can provide additional insight about campus life.
  5. Don't worry too much about standardized tests. More than 1,200 schools are now test optional for incoming freshman in 2021, meaning you do not need to take a standardized test for admission. If you have not taken college entrance exams, do not stress about trying to find a test location, particularly if it would put your health at risk. Campuses are aware of test limitations, and current scheduled tests may be postponed or not possible in areas considered COVID-19 hot spots. Visit fairtest.org for many schools policies and check with schools' admissions offices for more information.
  6. Apply for financial aid. Figuring out how to pay for college can be a daunting task. The first place to start is by filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is available October 1. The FAFSA is the gateway to federal financial aid as well as grants and scholarships, which will help you determine what you can afford.
  7. Consider how your field of study translates into the workforce. The pandemic has highlighted essential jobs that exist even when the economy is upended. Students and families need to contemplate the employability of their chosen field to ensure their college funds are well spent.
  8. Focus on the factors you can control. Now through January is an excellent time to write essays for college applications and apply for scholarships. With literally thousands of scholarships available in a variety of areas, students can maximize their ability to secure these funds by focusing a bit of time, effort and creativity to the process.

In addition to these tips, ECMC offers a free downloadable workbook that features a variety of worksheets and information to help students throughout the college planning process. Opportunities books are available in English and Spanish.

For more information, visit www.ecmc.org/students.

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