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Archive | August, 2010

CheapScholar: Top 20 College Financial Aid Twitterer

CheapScholar: Top 20 College Financial Aid Twitterer

Awards and accolades come and go but getting to know and form relationships with the people that you meet along the way can last you a lifetime.  It was recently brought to my attention that CheapScholar received recognition by CollegeScholarships.org as being a Top 20 Financial Aid Twitterer. While I am pleased to share this honor with our readership, I want to take this opportunity to help you connect with other great people that are trying to “Help Make College Affordable” for you and your families.

Since the award is given to the top twenty and you already know me, that means that there are 19 other great people or organizations that you should probably take the time to connect with on Twitter. The following is the list of award recipients (as provided by CollegeScholarships.org):

1. @Fafsahelp – Get tips on everything related to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and read up on the latest news concerning student loans and scholarships.

2. @studentloaninfo – This “Student Loan Ninja” updates readers with articles she discovered while surfing the web, all of which discuss student loans and financial tips for students.

3. @BethWalker_CFC –  Beth Walker is a “college funding expert” who posts numerous links to articles each day which provide various tips on scholarships, and how to save and/or apply for college.

4. @Student_Loan_US –  Specifically for college students in America, these links cover the latest in private student loans, the Student Loan Consolidation Program, and politics.

5. @MoneyCollege – These tweets provide links to other articles about student loan horror stories, credit card debt, student employment, and even free music downloads. Users can also send in their own “college financial survival” tips to the author.

6. @CollegeBlogs –  The financial aid guru Lynn O’Shaughnessy discusses the latest in educational and financial news for college students; many of the tweets reference articles published on her blog, the College Solution.

7. @securestudent – Read up on the latest in financial literacy news that is circulating around the web. Some tweets link to articles which provide tips on how students can avoid debt and maintain their bank account balance.

8. @StudentLoanNews – Some of these posts discuss student scams and loan repayment rates, but the majority of the tweets cover the latest political issues and events which are affecting the cost of higher education.

9. @educationmoney – Read up on the most frequently asked questions regarding student loans and bad credit, as well as tips for high school graduates and the latest in educational politics.

10. @GraduateCheap –  These tweets cover numerous scholarship contests and opportunities for low or middle-income families, Pell Grants, and financial aid for minority students and single mothers.

11. @CollegeGamePlan – This humorous twitterer updates followers with articles he found which discuss tips on student debt and taxes, college applications, financial survival, and student loans.

12. @College_Experts – Get advice from college advisers and counselors who provide information on student loan debt, how to get accepted into college, or how to ace your exams.

13. @planettuition – This twitter account provides up-to-date news on financial aid, statistics on student loans and employment, as well as facts on the future of higher education.

14. @DodgeCollege – From textbook rentals and salaries, to college costs and student loan debt, followers of this account get updated on the latest in tuition costs, scholarships, and educational news.

15. @MYFinc –  Learn how to “map your future” and your finances by reading articles on identity theft, tuition costs, how to raise your credit score, and employment after graduation.

16. @nasfaa – From the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), read up on the latest in American politics and how it affects your education.

17. @GradGuard – These tweets cover numerous complex issues every college student should be aware of, such as tuition and renters insurance, refund policies, and health care.

18. @intstudentloans – International students or students interested in studying abroad could learn a thing or two from these tweets. Stay up-to-date on the types of student loans and International health insurance options that are available in different countries.

19. @CheapScholar – Doug Schantz works as a college administrator and his goal is to help others find out ways to make make education more affordable for college students. His posts discuss the cost of textbooks, tuition discounts, and health insurance tips.

20. @Green_Panda – College students/graduates can check out this twitter account to read up on personal finance, student scams, cheap travel options for students, and “what is cool on the web” regarding the latest in student loans and education.

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The Future of HEOA & How It May Impact You

The Future of HEOA & How It May Impact You

The Higher Education Opportunity Act has certainly set the wheels in motion to help wrestle with some of the more undefined or ambiguous aspects of Higher Education. At CheapScholar.org, I like to focus more on the financial aspect of this legislation (since our motto is “Helping to Make College Affordable”).  I have already discussed how these new laws will be impacting the purchasing of textbooks (in a positive way) and also how it will help families to accurately compare the cost of one college to another.  Today is the last article that I am going to write about HEOA (at least in this series) and I would like to focus on the future of HEOA and how it may impact you (from a financial aspect).

The Future of HEOA

While this piece of legislation was going through the drafting phases, a good number of “price controls” didn’t make the final draft but that doesn’t mean that they won’t make an appearance on a future version of this bill. The following represents some initiatives that are being considered by the federal government to help mitigate future increases in education costs:

  • No longer provide Title IV funding (federal financial aid) other than Direct Loans and Pell Grants to schools that increase tuition rates by more than twice the rate of inflation. While this seems like a logical proposal, my guess is that the reduction in this funding may actually hurt students (financially) than help. Some schools heavily depend on Title IV funding to balance the budget each year. If these funds are not available, they may be forced to pass the costs onto the students in the form of fee increases or program reductions/cuts.
  • Require Additional Reporting to the Department of Education from institutions that exceed the “college affordability index” for three or more years. This proposal is actually set to be in place by July of 2011 but the details are still being hammered out. Schools that meet this criteria will have the additional review from DOE but will also be reported to their accreditors, and be subject to an audit by the Inspector General.
  • Establish Third-Party Oversight Committees to review operations on the top 5% of campuses that have the highest cost of tuition increases. These committees will pull “experts” from various sectors of Higher Education and try to identify any areas of spending on campuses that can be contained or better controlled.
  • Require schools to report net price information with all admission materials.  This may be beneficial for those that aren’t accessing the online net price calculators but it could be quite challenging for admission offices to have the most current information on all of their brochures.

Even though the legislation above is still on the drafting board and has not made it into law, it is good to know that the education division of our federal government (DOE) is still working to implement measures that will help to make college affordable (and accessible) by all regardless of socioeconomic status. My only hope is that they implement the right legislation for the right reasons and just don’t create some more bureaucratic hurdles that ultimately don’t help students and saddle down colleges with burdensome reporting requirements. I guess time will tell…

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Managing College Costs (Video)

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Don’t Like Your Meal Plan? Sue The College…

Don’t Like Your Meal Plan? Sue The College…

I must tell you that eating on a college campus is a pretty rewarding experience at most schools across the country. Colleges know that students take their food seriously and they have stepped up the menus to be more accommodating to all students regardless of dietary need. I visited a CDR (Center Dining Room in college talk) just the other day and I was amazed to see everything from pizza and burgers to salad, humus and stir fry. At the CDR, you get an unlimited supply of whatever you can eat (or carry) and the same goes for the soda and desserts.

Given that campus dining has evolved so nicely over the years, it is hard to believe that someone would be filing a lawsuit against a college because they are unhappy with their meal plan.  However, just recently, legal action was taken against Auburn University (Alabama) because some students are not too excited about their meal plans. It appears that they are ok with the quality of the food but they are disappointed with the cost. Specifically, they don’t like a new rule that was put into effect by the Auburn Trustees that makes a meal plan mandatory for all students attending the University. The mandatory food policy states that students living on campus must have a minimum of $995 in meal plan expenses each semester and commuter students must have $300 in meal plan costs.

The following is a statement from the law firm(s) representing the students:

“In these tough economic times, students and families struggle to sustain the cost of higher education,” the statement reads. “Many are using loans, work study and minimum-wage jobs to finance their education. They need not be further burden(ed) by being forced to enrich (food vendors) using the state power of a public university.”

My Opinion (for what it is worth)

It is not uncommon for colleges to require their residential students to be on some sort of meal plan at the University. It may cost more up front but in the long run it will be healthier and cheaper than any other fast food option that the student could encounter. What I find a little odd about Auburn’s Mandatory Meal Plan Policy is the fee they are imposing on non-residential students (commuters). My personal opinion is that these students are probably already trying to save a buck or two by not living on campus and the mandatory meal plan fee is counter intuitive to that goal. Auburn will probably be able to maintain their policy for residential students but my guess is that they will need to change the policy for commuter students in the near future. I just can’t see any foundation for that policy “sticking”.

This link represents Auburn’s response to the mandatory meal plan policy. They appear to put a good “spin” on their approach to meal plans.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of whether you go to Auburn or another college or university, the lesson to be learned from this situation is to look at ALL the costs associated with your educational experience at a specific institution. You may find that tuition is cheaper at one school verses another but if you start adding in all the ancillary expenses (like mandatory meal plans) you may find that the bottom line costs are more comparable from one school to the next.

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Should College Rankings Be Ranked?

Should College Rankings Be Ranked?

If you are a student that is in the middle of the college search process or you are a college administrator, college rankings play a BIG role in your life. Students rely upon these rankings to help them find the right school for their educational needs and college administrators either cower in fear or jump for joy depending on the results of the various rankings.

Given the widespread impact of these rankings…I really want to know… who is the watchdog for all of these college ranking entities? Who makes them accountable for the final results? Do they really know what they are doing?

I know that all the data and methods utilized to gather and sculpt the information are generally available for public review but at the end of the day it appears that most people really just take the rankings for face value and trust that someone applied the appropriate variables to the final calculations that ranked one institution higher (or lower) than another. This public trust of our college ranking systems put a lot of power at the hands of those doing the rankings. So… since the college rankings play such a big role in our lives, I think it is extremely reasonable for us to apply a similar ranking formula to the “College Rankers” and see how they fair.

I have devised the following formula as a starting point for our “ranking of the rankers”. As you can imagine, I can make it as complicated as humanly possible but I like to keep things simple. Besides, it allows a lot of room for subjective tweaking by me (which we know NEVER happens in college rankings). Each category/variable of the equation below can receive a score of 1 to 5 and I will try my best to work with round numbers but given the mathematical complexity of my equation, I can’t guarantee that some long stranded decimal point action won’t present itself. 😉 If my calculations are accurate, the highest score that can be achieved is 50 and the lowest is .40 (but that low number would take some real effort to reach).

Simple Equation for Ranking the College Rankers


Accuracy (plus) Legitimacy (divided by) Lack of Quantitative Intelligence (times) Method of Delivery (equals) Overall Ranking

-or-

(A+L) x MOD = OR
LQI

Now that we have an equation in place for our rankers. Let’s go ahead and start the Ranking of the Rankers… or ROTR for short…

U.S. News and World Report

U.S. News and World Report is to college rankings as Tiffany’s is to jewelry. If U.S. News and World Report were around when the first three colleges were formed, my guess is that they would have established the first college ranking system without haste. (By the way – if you are curious about which three were first, it all started with New College (known know as Harvard) in 1636, College of William and Mary in 1693, and Collegiate School (Yale) in 1701). U.S. News is probably the best known of all the college rankers. Every year people are chomping at the bit to see the release of their college ranking results. I would liken the interest to that of Groundhog’s day when everyone patiently awaits to see if Punxsutawny Phil catches a glimpse of his shadow. The only difference is that everyone leaves Groundhog’s day resolved on the prospect of snow for the coming weeks and it seems like absolutely no one is resolved after the release of the rankings by U.S. News. I wonder how the ROTR Report will treat them?

Accuracy: I am going to give U.S. News a 5 in this category. Over the years they have established a comprehensive systematic approach to how they gather data and the accuracy of this information doesn’t seem to draw too many questions

Legitimacy: They will get a 3 in this category. The resources that they utilize to gather their information are fairly reliable (at least the institutional figures). However, some of the rankings do take into account the opinions of high school counselors and academic peers (college presidents, provosts, and deans). The results on these surveys can definitely be skewed depending on a person’s knowledge (extensive or lack there of) and views of various schools. So that is why I ranked a 3 on this variable.

Quantitative Intelligence (Lack There Of): U.S. News has repeatedly tweaked the manner in which they calculate their numbers. A lot of time and effort seems to be emphasized in this area (since it garners the most attention?). Even so, I think they still have room to grow in this area so I am going to give them a ranking of 2 (remember a low number on this variable is better than a higher one because a larger number indicates that you excel in having a lack of quantitative intelligence)

Method of Delivery: U.S. News promotes their rankings in just about every media method available to mankind. They dominate the internet, the news stands, and also the reference section of bookstores with their statistical rankings. Therefore, I give them a 5 in this category.

The End Result: Using the ROTR calculation above, I see that U.S. News and World Report scores a 20 on the ROTR Report. Not too shabby all things considered.

Forbes

When Forbes started doing college rankings, I had high hopes of the role they would play in the ranking system. If anyone was going to dissect and calculate the financial aspect and viability of colleges, you couldn’t get any better than Forbes… right?  I mean.. seriously.. it is FORBES.  Unfortunately, the financial wizards at Forbes let me down. I guess I must have had my expectations set too high. When they showed up to the college ranking dance floor, it looks like they left their “A game” at home and were prepared to make a mediocre appearance. Shame shame on Forbes… Let’s see how they fair on the ROTR Report.

Accuracy: Forbes is getting a 3 in this category. I would like to give them lower but they do a decent job of gathering the data from their various sources and compiling the data for their rankings.

Legitimacy: Going with a 1 on this category. Any ranking entity that utilizes RateMyProfessor.com as a resource for the data they are calculating, should get a zero but since zero is not an option in the ROTR Report, I am giving Forbes a 1. For those that don’t know, RateMyProfessor is open to the public and anyone can rate a professor regardless of whether they even had them for a class. Many times, professors even vote for themselves! I am also giving Forbes a 1 because they introduced this ill-conceived and unfounded ranking (be sure to check out the comments on this one).  Lastly, they also use the Who’s Who in America series to measure post-graduate success. I really don’t see a connection there so I feel the legitimacy of the Forbes data and ranking system is sub par.

Quantitative Intelligence (Lack There Of): You would think that a bunch of financial wizards from Forbes Magazine would do a great job at crunching the numbers to come up with the most equitable results. However, their method is greatly flawed in that it doesn’t distinguish between school types so small private liberal arts colleges, large military academies, and research universities all get thrown into the same mix. I going to give Forbes a 5 on their lack of quantitative intelligence.

Method of Delivery: Forbes maximizes most media outlets to get their ranking out amongst the people. They have a great web tool that makes sorting out specific results a cinch. They provide appropriate coverage in their magazine but it appears they have not gone the route of book publication just yet. I give Forbes a 3 in this category.

The End Result: Using the ROTR calculation (above), Forbes comes out of the gate with a 2.4. This certainly leaves them room for improvement. Maybe they can adjust their ranking operations to perform better next year on the ROTR Report. 😉

The Princeton Review

You know… with a name like Princeton it just has to be good …right? The Princeton Review has certainly been around for a number of years and personally I would probably rank them right up there with U.S. News and World Report in regard to viability and usability by prospective students and families. However, at the end of the day, the ROTR Report decides all, so lets see how they compare.

Accuracy: Princeton Review (PR) used to collect all of their data by canvasing the nation and surveying students on each of the college campuses utilizing a paper form. However, in recent years they now offer an electronic survey that students can complete online 24 hours a day , 7 days a week.  The information gathered in this survey is compiled in an efficient and effective manner that allows very little room for inaccuracy. Based upon this, I am giving them a 5 in this category.

Legitimacy: The unfortunate aspect of the Princeton Reviews data gathering process is that it is all based upon the opinion of students. However, since their rankings seem to be more personal in nature (the warm fuzzies of campus), the legitimacy of this data and how it impacts their ranking system is rather fitting. So, I give them a 4 in this category.

Quantitative Intelligence (Lack There Of): Princeton Review does a great job of simplifying how they calculate the data received. All the information they gather is warehoused in a database and each school is scored in a manner that is similar to how a student is graded in college (like a GPA). These scores alone decide which colleges make the 62 ranking lists. Nothing more.. nothing less.  Based upon this simplistic approach, I am giving Princeton Review a 1 in this category (meaning, they have a high aptitude when it comes to quantitative intelligence).

Method of Delivery:
Princeton Review has a fairly basic delivery method on their website. In addition, they also publish books each year with their findings.  However, the greatest tool that they use to get the word out is their partnership with USA Today. Using the readership base of USA Today(online and paper subscriptions), they are able get their ranking results out among the masses. I give Princeton Review a 5 in this category.

The End Result:
Dropping the figures above into the ROTR calculation, I show that Princeton Review scores a 45. Surprisingly, this allows them to blow past the competition and secure the ranking of 1st place in the 2010 ROTR Report (Ranking of the Rankers).


In Summary

College rankings serve as a great reference tool for students that are in the midst of the college search process. However, don’t let these rankings be the end all be all deciding factor in the college that you ultimately choose to hang your hat for four years.  Take the time to visit each of the colleges you are interested in and ask the questions that are near and dear to what YOU are looking for in a college environment (academically, socially, politically, etc…). Then, and only then, can you make a decision about the best college for you. Don’t let these guys above (Forbes, U.S.News, and Princeton Review) make that choice for you. At the end of the day it is a personal choice and you will feel accomplished that you made it on your own.

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The Cost of College : Student Health Insurance Tips

The Cost of College : Student Health Insurance Tips

Health insurance is just one of those things that everyone should have. College students, of all people, should definitely have some sort of health insurance coverage to provide a financial cushion for any medical ailments that fall upon them during their time away at school. The question is, what are their options in regard to health care and what is the associated expense?

From what I can tell, college students have three options that they can choose from in order to get appropriate health care coverage:

  1. Stay on Your Parent’s Plan: If your parent has medical coverage and it is beneficial from a cost and coverage standpoint, you should just stay on their plan. Starting this year qualified dependents are eligible to receive coverage under their parent’s plan until the age of 26. …just as an FYI.. this is not a green light for students to take 7 years to finish their undergraduate degree! 😉
  2. Enroll in the School’s Health Insurance: Colleges want all of the students on their campuses to have some sort of medical coverage. In order to achieve this, they have usually partnered up with an insurance provider to come up with an optional medical coverage plan just for students.  I refer to it as optional but most schools will charge you the fee upfront and enroll you in the plan unless you opt-out of the insurance, submit a waiver (electronic or paper), and show proof of alternate coverage. I have seen the annual fees vary on student health insurance from anywhere as low as $190 to as high as $1800.  A report from the U.S. Govt Accountability Office (GAO) states that $850 is about the average fee charged by colleges in the nation. If you decide to use the school’s program you just need to be mindful of the coverage and know if there are any limits that are imposed. The cost of these college health insurance programs are fairly cheap but as you can imagine, you get what you pay for, so the coverage may also have it’s short-comings.
  3. Get an Individual Health Insurance Policy: Just about every medical insurance provider in the country has some sort of individual insurance plan that they provide to the public. Some of these programs are even geared (priced) for the typical college student. The GAO estimates that the average premium for this type of program is going to be approximately $1400 a year.  As you can see, it may be costlier than the college program but chances are the coverage will be better.

Based upon the information above, I would recommend the following student health insurance tips:

  • Pick a Plan That Satisfies Your Medical Needs – If you are prone to needing medical care, a more comprehensive plan is the right choice for you. It may cost more up front but it will save you money over time.
  • Your Parent’s Employer Sponsored Plan Should Probably Be Your First Choice – These plans will more than likely be the most comprehensive and the least expensive (when compared to similar options)
  • Don’t Over Insure – If you stay on your parent’s plan, then make sure you opt-out of the college’s health insurance option. No sense in paying for something that you won’t use.
  • Check Out Coverage Limits – If you have to go with the school’s insurance plan or sign up for an individual policy, make sure you are aware of any limitations to the coverage. It is not uncommon for these insurance companies to put a cap on how much they will spend on each illness or injury.
  • Find Out How The Campus Health Center Operates – Most campus based health centers will only accept the insurance provided by the school. All other insurance claims would be your responsibility to submit to your insurance provider. This means you have to pay the fees up front and then seek reimbursement from your insurance company (you can imagine how daunting of a task this can be…).
  • Consult Your Insurance Provider – In order to avoid the headache associated with the tip above, check with your insurance provider to find in-network doctors that are close in proximity to the school. They could prove to be a better option than the campus health center.

I hope our readers at CheapScholar.org find this information helpful.  As you can imagine, college expenses don’t stop with just tuition, room, and board. You have to make sure you are leveraging your options to limit your exposure to all fees associated with your college education.. that includes Student Health Insurance…

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HEOA – College Pricing Calculators and Transparency Lists

HEOA – College Pricing Calculators and Transparency Lists

If you are a college student (or about to become a college student) you probably already know that trying to figure out the best college to attend strictly based upon price is a very difficult task. There are a multitude of variables that come into play and inevitably you are never able to compare apples to apples when calculating the cost of one institution verses another. The Department of Education has recognized this issue and is implementing some legislation through the Higher Education Opportunity Act to help make things a little simpler (or so they say..)

Net Price Calculators For All

By October of 2011, all colleges and universities will need to have a Net Price Calculator established and available on their websites. They can use the free template provided by the Department of Education or they can create their own program as long as it includes the same perimeters provided by the Department of Education’s template.  It is unclear which approach most institutions will be utilizing but they will need to have something in place by October of 2011 if they are to adhere to the legislation and maintain their access to Title IV funding (Federal Financial Aid).

These online calculators will use preset data provided by the school and inputted data supplied by the student to come up with a net figure that the student can expect to spend if they attend that college. As you can imagine, there is no perfect formula that can be applicable to all students, so you will need to take the figures with a grain of salt. Basically, the net cost calculator will compare your financial situation to that of similar students from the prior year and tell you the average amount spent by those students (Cost of Attendance minus Financial Aid).

What is really nice about these net cost calculators is that students will now have the opportunity to get past the sticker shock of the schools they are interested in and look at what comparable students attending that school are actually paying out-of-pocket after financial aid is factored in. This is sure to take a lot of the guesswork out of the financial aspect of your college search process. The only significant downside I can see to this program is that it is only as good as the data provided by the school (and I guess the student). So, if the school misrepresents (miscalculates?) something in the net price calculator tool or the student inadvertently provides the wrong information, the net price figure may be drastically off from what the end result actually turns out to be (the amount of the check from your checkbook).

The First College Ranking That Nobody Wants To Be On

Colleges and Universities love to be at the top of ranking lists. Some schools even actively make decisions on their campus based upon the outcome they think it will have on some of these rankings.

Well… the Department of Education is introducing it’s own ranking and it is called the “College Affordability and Transparency List” (CATL). This list will be published by July of 2011 and it is aimed at highlighting the schools that have the highest prices AND the highest rate of price increases. Schools at the top of this list for the three year period preceding the release of this list will be required to submit additional reports to the Secretary of Education (kind of like being summoned to the Principal’s office..never a good thing).

Click Here To Access The List

I am really unsure how the Department of Education will be calculating these figures but I can guarantee you that no college or university wants to be on this list and will do whatever possible to steer clear of being in the top ranking slots.

Ultimately, I think these changes in legislation are a good step to helping more students find the right college (academically and financially). However, I am cautiously optimistic on how this new legislation will mold the educational sector for the long-term. For example, if a college or school continues to be at the top of the CATL, will they eventually lose partial or full access to federal financial aid? I know that this would be of great detriment to the school but I think it would probably financially impact the students attending that school even more… I guess time will tell. For now though, lets enjoy these new legislative initiated tools that help us to make the college experience affordable.

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Unique Take On College Costs

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