May 30, 2010

Universities Step Up Participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program

The initial list of schools participating the Yellow Ribbon program has been posted by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for the 2010-2011 school year. The good news is that both Georgetown and George Washington Universities have stepped up participation and increased the level of benefits available for qualified veterans.

George Washington University will expand its commitment by providing a 35 percent increase in tuition benefits for graduate student veterans. The University will now pay $5,120 per graduate student per year, which together with a match from the VA brings the total award to $10,240.

Also for the 2010-11 academic year, eligible undergrads may receive $18,300 per year per student from GW, not to exceed the cost of the tuition. Up to 360 qualified veterans may receive benefits from GW, which will cover all who are enrolled in the Foggy Bottom, Arlington, Alexandria, Southern Maryland programs as well as those in Ashburn and Hampton Roads, Virginia. Of the 161 GW students currently participating in the Yellow Ribbon Program, 102 are graduate students.

Across town, Georgetown has also increased benefits for qualified veterans. In 2009-10, the first year of the Yellow Ribbon program, eligible Georgetown undergrads received $1,000 in addition to their need-based financial aid. Starting this fall, that benefit will go to $5,000. With the VA match, the total benefit goes from $2,000 to $10,000 in 2010-11.

In addition, Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business will offer a new $7,500 benefit for up to 15 eligible veterans who enroll in their graduate programs. The School of Continuing Studies has also set aside a $12,675 benefit for up to 85 veterans enrolling in undergrad programs and $10,140 for up to 60 eligible veterans enrolling in the school’s master’s degree programs on Main Campus. A $9,100 benefit is available for up to 45 veterans enrolling in master’s degree programs on the Clarendon campus, which has a separate agreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs because of its location in Virginia.

Under its agreement with the VA, Georgetown will make more than $2 million in tuition and fee benefits available to qualified veterans accepted to and enrolled at the university.

The Yellow Ribbon program is intended to make participating private institutions more accessible to veterans pursuing postsecondary degrees. According to Robert Chernak, GW senior vice president for student and academic support services, increasing benefits will “ease the financial burden of American heroes who have served their country and who are motivated to retool themselves and prepare for the next stages of their lives.”

More information and a complete list of colleges and universities participating in the 2010-11 Yellow Ribbon program is provided on the VA website. Note that the list is not final and will be updated periodically as additional information is received.

Here’s to a safe and meaningful Memorial Day weekend!

May 27, 2010

Want Your Kids to Finish College?

Then buy books—lots of books. About 500 books should do the trick.

According to a study published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, there exists a strong correlation between a child’s academic achievement and the number of books his or her parents own. It’s even more important than a parent’s IQ or if parents went to college or hold professional jobs.

The study, conducted in conjunction with the University of Nevada Sociology Department, took place over 20 years, in 27 countries, and surveyed over 70,000 people. It turns out that children growing up in homes with more than 500 books spent 3.2 years longer in school, and they are nearly 20 percent more likely to finish college.

Even a relatively small number of books in the home can make a difference. A child whose family has 25 books will average two more years of school than a child whose family is without books.

Researchers found that, “Regardless of how many books the family already has, each addition to a home library helps the children get a little farther in school.” Books promote a scholarly culture described as a “way of life in homes where books are numerous, esteemed, read, and enjoyed.”

A Fairfax mom with college-bound children estimates that she has close to 500 books tucked away on shelves throughout her house. “I guess I always thought it was important to have books at home, if you can afford them,” she commented. “It sets a tone, I think, especially if the kids see you read and refer to them often.”

So the moral of this story is that to increase the likelihood your child will attend and finish college, go out and buy more books. Actually reading them might help too.

May 26, 2010

Is There any Truth to Test-Prep Claims?

How much will your SAT scores go up after spending big $$ on test-prep?

(A) 15 to 30 points combined Critical Reading and Math
(B) 255 points if you use Princeton Review’s “Ultimate Classroom” course
(C) 100-150 points
(D) 0 points because it’s just not possible
(E) The sky's the limit

If you answered (A), you’re probably right according to the Arlington-based National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Based on a study conducted by NACAC, test-prep courses have a minimal impact on improving SAT scores—about 10 to 20 points on average in Math and 5 to 10 points in Critical Reading.

Of course that’s not what the test-prep industry wants you to believe. One Fairfax-based company prominently displays a website guarantee that “you will improve at least 100 points on actual tests” and directs readers to testimonials on supporting web pages promoting improvements of between 290 and 300 points.

Another company offering classes in Fairfax and across the river in Rockville posts a 300 point score increase guarantee—provided you pay for the “full-length” SAT course. A slightly less expensive class only guarantees a 200 point increase.

How are these guarantees achieved? Sometimes the service will use PSAT scores as a starting point and basis of comparison—even if the student has taken the SAT once and already has higher scores. Other companies administer unrealistically difficult “diagnostic” tests, and the scores from these tests will be used to determine how much improvement has been achieved.

Luckily the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus has stepped in to police test-prep ads and recently announced that the Princeton Review would “voluntarily discontinue certain advertising claims.” This came following a charge by Kaplan, Inc., a competing player in the test-prep industry, that the methodology used to calculate score improvements for the Princeton Review’s “Ultimate Classroom” course was invalid.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing thinks most test-prep companies “grossly exaggerate the claims on how much test scores rise on average.” Although he welcomes the announcement from the Council of Better Business Bureaus, he’s still concerned that “everyone else in the coaching business remains free to fabricate score gain claims and promote them to the hilt.” Nevertheless, his own studies have shown that improvements are possible with good coaching—as much as 100 to 150 points in some cases.

The College Board acknowledges that on average, students who take the SAT test twice increase their scores by about 30 points.” There is no evidence to indicate that taking the exam more than twice increases score performance.

By the way, the actual average SAT scores are 501 for Critical Reading, 515 for Math, and 493 in Writing. The highest score possible is 800 on any one of the three sections.

May 25, 2010

Where Professors Make the Best Salaries

The headlines from the annual report on faculty salaries produced by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) focused on how small this year’s average salary increase would be for college professors across the country. And, it’s definitely been a tough year.

Data collected from this year’s national survey of faculty compensation indicates that the overall average salary for a full time faculty member went up by only 1.2 percent over last year—the lowest year-to-year change recorded in the fifty-year history of the AAUP survey. And about one-third of the 1200 responding institutions reported that overall average salary levels actually decreased.

But beneath the headlines lie some interesting facts. Not only do some professors receive pretty good salaries, but these salaries vary wildly from institution to institution. And the link between salaries and tuition isn’t as simple as it may seem.

The average pay for a full time professor in 2009-10 was $109,843, for the academic year. The five highest paying institutions were:

• Harvard: $191,500
• Columbia University: $188,600
• University of Chicago: $184,100
• Stanford: $181,400
• Princeton: $181,000

Locally, the highest average full time faculty salaries may be found at Georgetown University. Professors at Georgetown earn $155,500 in base salary with compensation packages bringing the total to $191,700 per year. At American, the average professor’s salary is $146,500 ($176,500 with benefits). George Washington comes in third at $142,900 ($170,200 with benefits).

On either side of the District, professors make slightly less. In Maryland, the University of Maryland Baltimore, the University of Maryland College Park, and the US Naval Academy listed the highest average salaries paying $141,100, $134,700, and $125,000 respectively. No information was available from Johns Hopkins University, which probably pays fairly well if the president’s compensation is any indication.

In Virginia, the top three average salaries were found at UVa ($134,700), the University of Richmond ($132,100), and George Mason University ($126,400). More toward the lower end were Longwood ($74,300), Radford ($77,200), and Randolph-Macon ($78,600).

It’s worth noting that administrative salaries at colleges and universities have generally been increasing far more quickly than pay for faculty and at every type of institution, men were paid substantially more on average than women. But without making too much of the obvious, for salary purposes, prestige usually trumps relative job difficulty in the ivory tower.

May 22, 2010

Hitting the College Reception Circuit

Colleges and universities hit the road this time of year to begin a recruitment process that actually gets into full swing in the fall. Short of actually visiting a campus, these presentations offer opportunities for you to get basic information about a school as well as make yourself known to area representatives some of whom might just be reading your application in the future.

Although these sessions are usually open to the public, it’s generally a good idea to pre-register. Otherwise, how are the college reps running the event going to know how many folding chairs to set up?

Exploring College Options: This is a special recruitment program sponsored by the undergraduate admissions offices of Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford. The tour has three stops in the DC area, with the first scheduled for Sunday, May 23rd at the Washington Marriott, at 7:30 p.m.

Exploring Educational Excellence: Join Brown, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, and Rice for an information session targeted to prospective students and families. Sessions include an overview of each institution, information on admissions and financial aid, as well as a chance to speak informally with admissions representatives. The tour hits DC on June 9th. You must register to attend.

8 of the Best Colleges: Claremont McKenna, Colorado College, Connecticut College, Grinnell, Haverford, Kenyon, Macalester, and Sarah Lawrence invite students and families to learn more about these eight nationally recognized liberal arts colleges. The nearest presentation will take place at the Hilton, in Pikesville, Maryland, on Monday, May 24.

Carnegie Mellon University: Admissions counselors will present a general information session to high school students who may be in the early stages of their college search. You can register now for the event scheduled for Monday, June 6 at the Bethesda Marriott Hotel.

University of Virginia: The UVa Admissions Office hosts evening programs in cities across the country arranged in cooperation with local alumni clubs. Four Virginia regional events will take place this spring (UVa also travels in the fall with Harvard and Princeton).

Note that you're much more likely to receive advance notice of these events if you've registered for information or otherwise demonstrated interest to colleges on your search list.

May 21, 2010

Test Driving the NEW Common Application

High school juniors are invited to take a sneak peak at the newly-revised 2010-11 Common Application by downloading a “preview” form from the Common App website. Although this year’s launch date has been pushed back to August 1st, you’re welcome to take a test drive and get familiar with the form and its contents before tackling the real thing this summer.

For the most part, the new Common App pretty much looks like the old. There are, however, a few subtle and not-so-subtle changes in information applicants will be asked to provide. For example, the new form requests the highest degree an applicant intends to earn and inquires about additional language proficiency, sibling grade level, and religious preference (optional).

But the most significant changes involve revisions to the Academics and Activities sections. Under Academics, applicants will be asked to “self-report” class rank, class size, GPA, “scale,” and whether grades are weighted. Note that students in school districts such as Fairfax County, which do not rank, can simply answer “not applicable.”

In addition to grade information, applicants now need to provide a series of individual “best” test scores. This section doesn’t exactly square with how the College Board administers and some colleges interpret the terms of “Score Choice,” but keep in mind that official score reports will continue to be the key documents for providing this information.

The format for reporting AP, IB, SAT Subject, and TOEFL scores has also changed. Although not clear on the “preview” version, the online application will have appropriate menus covering all options.

The new Common App combines Extracurricular Activities questions into 12 opportunities to list “principal” extracurricular, volunteer, and work activities in order of importance. While you really need to complete this section, it’s still alright to attach a resume in case you run out of room.

Although essay topics have not changed from last year, the new form specifically asks applicants not to “customize” the long essay for individual colleges. Students are counseled that colleges wanting customized responses will ask for them in those pesky supplements.

And finally, the 2010-11 version of the Common Application provides for the online submission of the NACAC fee waiver request.

Without “drop down” menus, the preview version of the new Common Application is a little difficult to navigate. You can, however, access the old form online between now and July 1, to practice answering some of the basic questions and get a feel for how the software works. Be aware that anything you enter in the old form will be erased once the new form becomes available on August 1, so this exercise is only practice.

May 19, 2010

Why the Colleges That Change Lives

This weekend, the annual Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL) tour kicks off with an opening event in Orlando, Florida, followed by a quick trip up the coast to Washington, D.C. On Sunday May 23, the 40 CTCL schools will host hundreds of students from the DC area for an information session followed by college fair at the Marriott Bethesda North Hotel and Conference Center. And you’re invited.

But you never heard of these colleges? That’s partly the point. When Loren Pope originally came up with the CTCL idea and began promoting a handful of lesser-known schools, he was concerned that too many college choices were made based on misperception, misinformation, or even a total lack of information. And bad decisions lead to bad outcomes such as higher dropout, transfer, or failure rates.

To support a better college search process, Mr. Pope looked for colleges and universities that encourage a lifelong love of learning and provide “the foundation for a successful and fulfilling life beyond college.”

As a group, the CTCL schools share common characteristics, which are outlined on the CTCL website including

• low student-to-faculty ratios that foster collaboration, engaged learning, and personal attention
• a commitment to undergraduate education focusing on the liberal arts and sciences
• a living and learning environment that is primarily residential and emphasizes the benefits of community, personal growth, participation, and involvement
• smaller student enrollments
• out-of-classroom learning opportunities including participation in internships, study abroad, service to others, and special interest activities
• holistic admission policies including several with “test-optional” routes to admission
• alumni networks that stand ready to help graduates with professional and career development opportunities

In her speeches around the country, current CTCL executive director Marty O’Connell challenges students (and parents) to reconsider the notion that “a college can’t be any good if I’ve never heard of it.” Using examples of “famous” people, she suggests that “the name and visibility of a college choice has much less to do with success in life than do the experience and opportunities students take advantage of during their college years.” And where better than at one of the Colleges That Change Lives.

For more information on the Colleges That Change Lives, visit the CTCL website.

Picture of Eckerd College found on Wikipedia.

May 18, 2010

William & Mary Gets a New Mascot and Raises Tuition

Between hefty tuition increases and the on-campus arrival of a new mascot, recent news from Williamsburg has been good, bad and a little costly.

First the bad news. Two full weeks after requiring prospective freshmen to send in deposits and commit unconditionally to fall attendance, William & Mary finally announced how much it was going to cost. And not surprisingly, tuition went up.

Already the most expensive public institution in the Commonwealth for Virginia residents, the College of William & Mary raised tuition and fees by $1,088 or 9.8 percent for the 2010-11 academic year. The total cost for in-state undergrads, including room and board, quietly broke the $20,000 barrier and rose to $20,872. UVa remains just below $20,000 for residents.

And the news for out-of-state students was even worse. Tuition and fees (alone) for out-of-state undergraduates will increase by $2,500 to $33,764, making William & Mary the most expensive Virginia public institution for those students as well (UVa’s tuition is about $200 less). Including room and board, students coming from outside of Virginia will now pay $42,448 or more than double what is asked of Virginians.

But now for the good news. After an exhaustive search, including substantial input from visitors to a website set up for the purpose of commenting on various mascot options, the College of William & Mary recently announced the arrival of its new mascot, the Griffin—a mythical creature with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion.

“The Griffin has joined the Tribe,” said William & Mary president Taylor Reveley, who unveiled the new mascot at a campus-wide event. “With its arrival, we now have a mascot that unites strength with intelligence, recalls our royal origins, and speaks to our deep roots in American history.”

Hopefully, the Griffin also has deep pockets.

May 15, 2010

There really is a Duct Tape College Scholarship

It’s the stuff of urban legend. Who would believe that fashioning a prom dress entirely from duct tape could earn college-bound high school students up to $3000 in scholarship money? But it’s true and there’s still time to enter.

Ten years ago, Duck Tape® brand duct tape launched the Stuck at Prom® Scholarship Contest open to high school students in the US and Canada who are creative enough to assemble and accessorize prom wear that is unique, beautiful, and made entirely out of duct tape. Since 2001, more than 5500 students have participated in the contest and more than $80,000 has been awarded in scholarships.

And most importantly for duct tape designers, the Duck Tape® product line has expanded from the more traditional silver to a rainbow of 20 colors and patterns including aqua, camouflage, florescent colors, and this year’s latest addition of tie-dyes. Now how many electricians use tie-dyes to spruce up their connections?

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Stuck at Prom contest, the top 10 couples will each receive scholarships: first place will receive $3000 each and $3000 for the school that hosted their prom; second place will receive $2000; third place will receive $1000; and the remaining seven finalist couples will receive $500 each and $500 for their school.

Finalist couples will be chosen from all contest entries by a panel of judges who consider workmanship, originality, use of color, accessories and quantity of tape used to create the outfits. In other words, simply covering your purse in duct tape won’t win you any prizes. These ten couples will compete during an online voting period where school spirit definitely kicks in.

Participants are required to submit completed applications and a photo of themselves wearing their duct tape formalwear by June 7, 2010. The online voting period runs from June 18 to July 26, and features a new elimination twist to heighten the drama.

Winners from last year’s competition may be viewed on the Stuck at Prom website. Unfortunately for our area, there were no 2009 finalist couples from DC or Virginia. And out of about 200 entries nationwide last year, only one couple from Maryland entered and made it to the top ten—Maryland did have a first place prizewinner in 2007.

For more information including some bizarre design tips, visit the contest website. Note that these outfits take hours to complete and more importantly, duct tape as a fabric doesn’t breathe well.

Image provided by Stuck at Prom

May 13, 2010

How Many Teams are in the Big Ten?

It’s a trick question. For now, there are eleven teams in the Big Ten Conference. But maybe not for long. If conference commissioner Jim Delany has his way, the Big Ten could be expanding to as many as sixteen teams. And the University of Maryland could be among those getting an invitation to join the club.

Last December, the Big Ten promised commissioners of potentially affected conferences they would be notified before officials engaged “in formal expansion discussions with other institutions.” Since then, attention has focused on Missouri, Syracuse, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Nebraska, or Texas. But Maryland would be a logical candidate if the conference is looking to limit membership to institutions belonging to the Association of American Universities (AAU)—a prestigious academic organization thought to enhance the overall profile of Big Ten members.

Maryland is a big player in Baltimore and Washington DC television markets, and its proximity to current Big Ten member Penn State as well as potential new members Rutgers, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse makes it an interesting option, according to reporter Kevin McGuire. The fact that Penn State’s Joe Paterno thinks that the Big Ten should grow to fourteen members, adding two in the east and one in the west, might add substance to rumors about Maryland’s interest in jumping ship from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

Originally planned to take 12 to 18 months, Big Ten expansion plans appear to be on a faster track with discussions taking place at the semi-annual AAU meeting a couple of weeks ago. Rumors continued to circulate at recent Bowl Championship Series (BCS) meetings, but nothing definitive has been forthcoming.

It’s an anxious time for colleges wondering how the larger conference structure will be affected, and undergrads concerned about the impact on long-standing rivalries. And prospective students—aspiring athletes and fans—will have to be patient as the various conferences sort things out in the aftermath of a Big Ten expansion.

The Big Ten expansion will most likely bring the total to twelve or fourteen, but either way, it’s never going to be ten again. Maybe these guys need help adding.

May 12, 2010

Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair Opens Doors in San Jose

Unless you’ve been there, it’s probably difficult to imagine the rock star atmosphere that accompanies opening day of Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Last night, the San Jose Convention Center opened its doors to 1616 talented high school students from 59 countries, all of whom are competing to win over $4 million in prizes and scholarships. And I guarantee the place was rocking.

Here’s a secret: ISEF is fun. It’s a week of drama, excitement, and new friends. It’s also the most amazing forum in the world for high school students to showcase their talents and be recognized for groundbreaking independent research on an international stage.

Colleges and universities recruiting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students love the credential at any level of competition—local to international. They’re all looking for the next Nobel Laureates or Rocket Boys, and this is where they find them!

Each year, millions of students worldwide compete in local science fairs with projects spanning the spectrum of scientific research. Winners go on to participate in ISEF-affiliated regional, state and national fairs where they can earn the opportunity to attend the Intel ISEF.

And, there’s serious money at stake. Dozens of sponsors offer prize money and really amazing scholarships from corporations, nonprofit organizations, a host of federal agencies, as well as a number of colleges and universities.

In San Jose, ISEF Best of Category winners will take home $5000 scholarships and $1000 grants for their school and the ISEF-affiliated fairs they represent. Grand Prize awards will be presented in each of 17 ISEF categories (and for teams) in increments ranging from $500 to $3000 for first place.

This year, Intel is celebrating the 61st year of ISEF by offering the biggest prize yet—the Gordon E. Moore Award, named for the co-founder of the Intel Corporation. The 2010 winner of the Gordon E. Moore Award will be selected on the basis innovative research and will be recognized with an award in the amount of $75,000.

Local regional fairs including Montgomery, Fairfax, Arlington, and Prince Georges Counties, as well DC, Baltimore, and Richmond will be sending students to San Jose. Fairfax County alone has a slate of 12 competitors representing Chantilly, Fairfax, Langley, Madison, Oakton, and Thomas Jefferson High Schools. Montgomery County is represented by 6 students; DC has 2 competitors; and the Prince George Area Science Fair is sending two students.

You can keep up with daily events and get the first word on winners by logging on to the Science for Society & the Public homepage or the Inspired by Education website. Photos are being uploaded daily on the ISEF Flickr group, and you can get the latest ISEF news via Facebook.

May 11, 2010

Stanford University Recognizes Contributions of Secondary School Teachers to College Success

Each year, Stanford University invites nearly 50 secondary school teachers to on-campus ceremonies celebrating the accomplishments of seniors graduating at the top of their class in either engineering or humanities and sciences. These events honor the most memorable, inspirational, or just plain talented teachers across the nation and around the world.

And they truly come from all over. At the 2010 Frederick Emmons Terman Engineering Awards ceremony, teachers arrived from nine states and four countries, including Indonesia, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Armenia. Two weeks later, the J.E. Wallace Sterling Award winners invited teachers from 11 states, as well as Iceland and China.

Both the Sterling and Terman awards are presented to students ranking in the top two to five percent of graduating seniors in either the School of Humanities and Sciences or the School of Engineering. Each recipient nominates a high school teacher who has been most influential in the student’s academic career, and Stanford picks up the tab for travel and lodging.

Locally, two Fairfax County teachers were recently invited to Palo Alto for separate events. Pat Gabriel, long-time math teacher and math team organizer at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, was honored at the Terman Engineering Awards ceremony, and Dr. John Dell, physics teacher also from TJHSST, was a guest of honor at the 2010 Sterling Awards luncheon.

But Stanford isn’t the only university recognizing the contributions of high school teachers to college success. Cornell’s top seniors annually honor 36 high school teachers through the Merill Presidential Scholars Program, and MIT invites current students to nominate their favorite teachers for the Inspirational Teacher Award. Williams College awards the Olmsted Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching at Class Day in June, while the University of Scranton recognizes high school teachers through the Rose Kelly Awards. Happily, Amherst College extends the honor to include counselors among those recognized for their influence on the success of graduates through the Phebe and Zephania Swift Moore Teaching Awards at Commencement.

One of Cornell’s honored teachers said of the Merrill Presidential Scholars program, “I have received several awards over the years, but this will rank as number one since I received it from one of my students. What more can a teacher ask for?!”

And Stanford’s Dean of Engineering Jim Plummer sums up the real value of these honors, “Of all the events that we do each year, this really is the most special. It’s a chance for all of us to talk about a group of people who do not get the recognition they truly deserve.”

Amen to that.

May 10, 2010

What You Need to Know about Changes in Federal Student Aid

President Obama recently signed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, celebrating with students at the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) “the largest rewrite” of federal college assistance programs in four decades.

While the feds continue to work with individual financial aid offices to implement program specifics, students should be aware of the most basic changes and how they may affect the aid they receive.

No More Middlemen
Beginning July 1st, all federal student loans will only be provided by the government instead of through banks or other lending institutions. Students will deal directly with college financial aid offices, which will work with private companies approved by the feds to lend funds through the “Direct Loan Program.” In other words, all students applying for federal loans will do so through their college or university. Students who previously received a federal student loan from a private lender under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program will need to complete a new promissory note to receive assistance under the Direct Loan Program. And, between July 1st and June 30, 2011, students still in school who have multiple federal loans can consolidate them into a single federal loan through the same program. If you haven’t completed a FAFSA, you won’t qualify.

Increased Pell Grants
Unlike loans, grants are a form of student aid that doesn’t need to be repaid. In the case of Pell grants, a student’s eligibility is determined by household income. For now, the maximum Pell grant will remain $5550, but between 2014 and 2018, maximum grants will increase with the rate of inflation which is estimated to bring the maximum award to $5975.

Lower Income-Based Payments
After 2014, student loan payments will be capped at 10 percent of “discretionary income” or income after living expenses. It is estimated that more than 1.2 million borrowers will be able to take advantage of the expanded income-based payment plan, and typical monthly payments will be significantly reduced for many borrowers.

More Forgiveness
Also beginning in 2014, borrowers who stick with their income-based payment plan for 20 years will be forgiven if they have not yet paid off their loans. Currently, borrowers must make payments for 25 years before loan forgiveness kicks in. Public service employees (teachers, nurses, military) will see their balances wiped out in 10 years.

Note that rules governing private student loans were not affected. While federal loans have fixed rates and fees, private student loans come in many different shapes and forms. It’s advisable to compare options before agreeing to terms.

Together with the expansion of college-related tax credits and simplifications in the FAFSA, the changes in federal student aid are designed to make the entire process more “user friendly.” If you have questions about how the new law will affect you, contact your financial aid office.

May 8, 2010

Tuition Increases at GMU, Mary Washington, and Radford

One week after Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) announced a stunning 24 percent tuition increase, three more of Virginia’s public universities approved significant rate hikes for the coming year.

On Thursday, George Mason University (GMU) increased in-state tuition and fees 8.2 percent to $8,686 for Virginia students. Nonresidents will pay an additional 6 percent or $24,500. With room and board, in-state students can expect to pay about $16,624, and out-of-state undergrads will pay a total of $33,388 for the coming year.

In a release announcing 2010-11 tuition rates, it was noted that GMU faculty and staff have not received salary increases in three years, as Mason’s state general fund appropriation has been cut by more than $45 million since the 2007-08 academic year.

In Fredericksburg, the University of Mary Washington raised in-state tuition and fees by nearly 9 percent to $7,862. Out-of-state students were hit with a 3.4 percent increase, keeping total tuition and fees just under $20,000. UMW students also saw an unusual midyear tuition increase that added $100 to the cost of the spring semester.

Acknowledging the role federal support played in setting tuition, UMW officials expressed concern about the future. “Although a portion of the state funding cut for this year will be offset by federal stimulus funding, that support ends next year,” said acting president Rick Hurley. “A key consideration in setting this year’s tuition rates has been our longer term financial outlook and an effort to avoid double-digit increases in any given year.”

And finally, Radford’s Board of Visitors voted Friday to hike in-state tuition and fees by 11.4 percent, from $6,904 to $7,694. Total costs, with room and board will be $14,892, for Virginia students and $25,626, for students coming from out-of-state.

“We are all very concerned about cost increases in higher education and have worked diligently to manage the impact on students and parents,” said Radford president Penelope W. Kyle. “However, the university is at a point where it cannot continue to reduce academic program resources without impacting the core mission of our institution, which is educating our students.”

Ten percent of Radford’s increased tuition revenues will be earmarked to support student financial aid. The increases will also be used to hire up to 18 additional new faculty members to fill those positions lost due to budget cuts over the past two years.

Even with the rate increases, Virginia's public institutions still represent a great value. Check it out:

• Christopher Newport University: $9,395 Virginia resident/$13,766 nonresident
• George Mason University: $8,686/$24,500
• James Madison University: $7,860/$20,624
• Longwood University: $9,855/20,655
• Norfolk State University: $6,226
• Old Dominion University: $7,708/$21,148
• Radford University: $7,694
• University of Mary Washington: $7,862/$19,590
• University of Virginia: $10,628/$33,574
• Virginia Commonwealth University: $8,817/$21,949
• Virginia State University: $6,570/$15,136
• Virginia Tech: $9,459/$23,217

William and Mary’s Board of Visitors is scheduled to vote on tuition for the 2010-11 academic year some time in the coming week.

May 7, 2010

Tour Campuses with HopStop

HopStop is free, customizable, and very technologically cool. And if you’re planning campus visits, you might want to leave driving to the professionals and use HopStop to navigate public transit or plan efficient walking routes to get from point-to-point on your college tour itineraries.

Basically, HopStop is an online city travel guide—giving you step-by-step instruction on how to reach destinations in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Boston, Providence, Hartford, Philadelphia, Delaware, Baltimore, Washington DC, Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco. Paris and London are also available if you’re planning to go that far afield on your campus tours.

Getting Started
Go to the HopStop website and click on one of the city tabs—Washington DC for example. You’ll land on the Directions page. Enter your starting point and your destination. Indicate a few preferences like:

• Do you want to travel by rail only? Bus only? Rail and Bus?
• Would you prefer more transfers and less walking, or fewer transfers and more walking?
• What is your departure time?

Once you’ve set your preferences, click Get Directions. HopStop responds with detailed instructions, transit routes and numbers, travel time, and full-color maps—all neatly illustrated with symbols indicating which part of your trip will be via bus, train, or on foot. If you have more than one campus to visit, set up an “itinerary” and HopStop will plan your day.

Mobile HopStop
To use HopStop mobile services, you must complete a short, free registration at the HopStop website. You’ll be asked to provide your mobile number or PDA information. Once registered, you may go to HopStop’s PDA page and get directions and maps. You also can send an email or text message and HopStop will reply with directions—standard charges apply.

iPhone users can download the free HopStop application from the iTunes Store. And just like the website, you’ll have access to detailed public transit directions and information for all the cities in the HopStop system.

Additional Features
Using the customizable features in My HopStop, you can set travel preferences, receive directions in any one of nine different languages, or be notified of subway diversions or delays. HopStop also has a large database (and quite a few ads) including popular city destinations, which are made available through the City Guides.

If you don’t like driving in strange cities or just prefer the “greenness” of traveling by public transit, check out HopStop. It could be a great addition to your campus tour toolbox!

May 5, 2010

College Survey Shows Space, Housing, and Financial Aid Still Available for the Fall

Back by popular demand, the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual “Space Availability Survey: Openings for Qualified Students” was released today. And a surprising number of colleges and universities throughout the country are continuing to accept applications for fall enrollment—even at this late date.

According to NACAC, at least 240 schools have space available for qualified freshman and/or transfer students and nearly all have financial aid and housing to offer. The annual survey asks NACAC member institutions to provide information on the availability of space, financial aid, and housing as of May 1, 2010 or after the close of the traditional college admissions season. In its 23rd year, the survey is designed as a tool for counselors, parents and teachers as they work with students who have not completed the process for one reason or another.

Locally, Trinity Washington University is still accepting applications from prospective freshman as well as transfer students. “Trinity continues to welcome applications from students who are interested in a dynamic college experience in the nation’s capital,” said Ann Pauley, Trinity’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement. “Financial aid and limited housing are also available for the fall of 2010.”

In Maryland, the College of Notre Dame, Hood College, and Stevenson University indicate they will consider qualified freshman and transfer students, but UMBC suggests that remaining space, financial aid, and housing are “limited.” Mary Baldwin College, Roanoke, and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise also show at least some space and resources left for prospective freshmen and transfers.

Note that the colleges and universities listed on the NACAC survey are subject to change. It's possible that more will be included as time goes on.Listing on the NACAC survey implies only space available. Students must contact institutions directly for application information, and admission will be contingent on each institution’s review of individual candidates.

May 3, 2010

Six Ways to Stay Ahead in the Financial Aid Game

The clock may be ticking down, but there are still ways to stay ahead in the financial aid game. With a few properly-executed plays, you can definitely have an impact on what financial aid is offered and how close it comes to meeting your needs.

1. Complete the FAFSA. Even if you missed state and/or university deadlines, you should still complete a FAFSA as soon as possible. Yes, most schools have already allocated their funds, but if there is anything left over, they may try to accommodate late filers. And even if a school has distributed all its own aid, applicants remain eligible for federal Stafford student loans, PLUS loans for parents, and Pell grants. Although it’s true you may file the FAFSA any time before June 30, 2011, for the 2010-11 academic year, don’t waste any more time. Do it NOW.

2. Submit Corrections. If you completed your FAFSA based on estimates, you should update immediately using tax information from 2009. Ideally, you should do this online using FAFSA Corrections on the Web. Note that some colleges distribute financial aid packages based on estimates, but they expect corrections to be made as soon as final information is available. Be aware that they may amend your package if revised numbers vary significantly from the estimates you provided—but this can certainly work to your advantage if your income estimates were high.

3. Answer your mail. Watch for correspondence related to your FAFSA or other school-based financial aid requests. And keep in mind that colleges are required by the federal government to randomly select some applications for “verification.” If you are asked to provide additional information or to clarify any of your answers on application forms, respond immediately.

4. Keep financial aid offices informed. Be sure to make financial aid offices aware of any significant change in family circumstances, such as an unexpected layoff, a salary cut, a divorce, or the death of a parent or guardian. Most colleges are very understanding and will make every effort to respond promptly and with great compassion. It’s better to be upfront about situations over which you have no control than to let a problem fester until neither you nor the college can solve it.

5. Educate yourself about student loans. On March 30, President Obama signed a major student loan reform package into law. Starting July 1st, federal student loans will be handled directly by the government instead of banks and other lending companies. In future years, the maximum Pell grants will gradually increase, and after 2014, borrowers may take advantage of lower income-based payments and additional loan forgiveness opportunities. You may want to contact your financial aid office to learn how these changes could affect you.

6. Continue the scholarship hunt. Admittedly pickings are getting a little slim. Nevertheless, continue checking with scholarship websites like Cappex or FastWeb, and register to receive up-to-date information on competitions or other scholarship opportunities. Also, ask about the availability of additional or future scholarship money at your college or university. Sometimes an improvement in GPA may result in extra scholarship dollars. It never hurts to ask.

If you have questions concerning FAFSA on the Web, do not hesitate to contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 1-319-337-5665. You can also contact the Center by email or request "live help" by pushing a button located within the pages of the FAFSA application.

Even at this late date, it’s worth playing the game to win.

May 1, 2010

The Easiest Scholarship Competition Yet

Any college-bound high school senior can win. All you have to do is read an essay on how fire sprinklers save lives and take a ten-question multiple-choice quiz. And the quiz is “open book.”

Through one of the more unique national scholarship competitions still available for this year, the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) is offering two opportunities to win prizes totaling $25,000. In the first phase (entries due May 3), ten $2,000 scholarships will be awarded to high school seniors planning to attend a college, university, or certified trade school beginning in the fall of 2010. The second phase will award five $1000 scholarships (entries due August 25), and is open to high school graduates (diplomas, GED or equivalent). Members of the Class of 2010 are eligible for both.

Here’s how it works:

• Start by reading the “Fire Sprinkler Essay” about automatic fire sprinklers (pdf or html). Hint: print out the essay for later use.
• Complete the registration page by clicking on the “Take Test Now” button. It requires pretty basic information like name, address, birth date, high school, and year of graduation. Income or financial need does NOT count for this contest.
• Take the quiz by selecting answers based on the essay you already read. Because this is an “open book” test, you can refer back to your printout or use the essay text online to find correct answers.
• Click on the “submit” button. You will receive immediate notification of questions answered incorrectly and a chance to correct your answers. Do it.
• Click on the “submit” button again.

Once you submit your answers a second time, you will receive final score notification. For each question answered correctly, you receive one entry into a drawing for one of the scholarships. Ten entries are possible if you answer all questions correctly. Really, it’s that simple!

Note that you will only be allowed to take one quiz for each of the two contest phases. Any attempt to try twice with a different name or address will result in automatic disqualification.

In addition to the online competition, several state AFSA chapters offer additional scholarships through separate essay contests. The Virginia Chapter annually awards 6 prizes totaling $3050. This year’s first place $1500 scholarship went to Christina Lee, of Potomac Falls High School in Sterling, Virginia.

The bottom line for the AFSA is that you learn something about fire sprinklers. The scholarships are just a nice incentive.