Archive for December, 2011

December 19, 2011

Congress curtails Pell Grants and federal loan grace period

by Grace

The budget finalized by Congress on Saturday curtails some federal student financial aid programs.

The two most important changes: A reduction in the number of years students can receive Pell Grant money and the temporary elimination of a six-month grace period on interest payments on federal student loans.

Pell Grant maximum eligibility period cut from eight to six years

College students taking longer than six years to obtain their undergraduate degree would have their Pell grants cut off next school year under a $1 trillion budget bill passed Friday in the House.

Federal loan grace period

Stafford loan borrowers will still get a six-month reprieve upon graduation from having to pay back their loans, but the principal on the loans will accumulate interest during that period for loans issued between July 1, 2012, and July 1, 2014.

Also will be harder to qualify for automatic zero Expected Financial Contribution (EFC)

It appears that a lower income will be needed to qualify for the automatic zero EFC loophole

The bill also reduces the income level under which a student will automatically be eligible to receive the maximum Pell grants from $30,000 to $23,000. 

December 16, 2011

Berkeley will offer financial aid to ‘middle-class’ families

by Grace

The University of California, Berkeley, announced Wednesday that it would offer far more financial aid to middle-class students starting next fall, with families earning up to $140,000 a year expected to contribute no more than 15 percent of their annual income, in what experts described as the most significant such move by a public institution.

While Berkeley has been enrolling low-income and wealthy students at increasing rates,  the relative number of middle-class students has declined.

Copying the Ivies

While several elite private universities — including the Ivy League triumvirate of Harvard, Princeton and Yale — offer similar programs for families with incomes up to $200,000, experts said that Berkeley was the first public university to do so. For the most part, public colleges have focused on merit scholarships to lure top students and aid for the poorest families to ensure access, but many now worry that approach has left out a wide group of families.


Berkeley’s definition of middle-class in creating its new financial aid program is a family with income between $80,000 and $140,000 a year. On top of the parental contribution of 15 percent of income, students would also have to pay about $8,000 per year — generally a combination of loans, work-study and private scholarships. At the bottom end of the spectrum, that would make for a total payment of $20,000, a 37.5 percent discount off the $32,000 total of tuition, room and board for California residents. On the upper end, it would be about $29,000, or a 10 percent discount.

(Out-of-state students, who make up 30 percent of Berkeley’s freshman class this year, will get comparable discounts on the first $32,000 of tuition and fees, but still have to pay an additional $23,000.)

Berkeley’s admission rate is 22%, making it clear this financial aid will be limited to top students.

UPDATE:  A commenter on collegeconfidential pointed out that under this new program a family earning $120,000 would pay $26,000 a year for their child to attend Berkeley, a discount of about 19% from the $32,000 COA.  After looking carefully at these numbers, and taking into account that the median household income in California is about $59,000, I have changed my post title from “Berkeley will offer generous financial aid to middle class families” to “Berkeley will offer financial aid to ‘middle-class’ families“.

December 15, 2011

‘Writing, writing, writing’ – a skill lacking among too many college graduates

by Grace

Jeff Selingo wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about what he learned from employers who are having a difficult time finding qualified employees to hire among recent college graduates.  This was just one problem he found.

Writing, writing, writing. We keep throwing around the word “skills,” but it seems the one skill that almost every job requires is the ability to write well, and too many graduates are lacking in that area. That’s where many of the recruiters were quick to let colleges off the hook, for the most part. Students are supposed to learn to write in elementary and secondary school. They’re not forgetting how to write in college. It’s clear they’re not learning basic grammar, usage, and style in K-12.

Why are students not learning to write before they get to college?  Maybe a different type of writing instruction is needed?

Related:  The Kerrigan method of ‘Writing to the Point’

(Cross-posted at Kitchen Table Math)

December 14, 2011

Recent developments among 529 plan providers

by Grace

A few recent changes among 529 plan providers, some precipitated by volatile market conditions

  • Addition of FDIC insured certificates of deposit and bank savings accounts.
  • Less exposure to stocks in some age-based allocated funds.  For example, average stock exposure for 14-year old beneficiaries dropped to 33% from 39% over a one-year period.
  • Introduction of “open architecture”, plans that offer mutual funds managed by outside firms in addition to those from the main manager.

529 plans from six states earned the top performance ranking from Morningstar – Alaska, Maryland, Nevada, Ohio, Utah, and Virginia.

More details can be found at this link:  529 Plans Roll Out New Perks – WSJ

December 13, 2011

New York teachers will no longer grade their own students’ standardized tests

by Grace

Teachers in New York State will no longer be grading their own students’ standardized tests.  This is a welcome change, considering that New York has a long-standing problem with inflated state test scores and a history of teacher intervention skewing the normal statistical distribution of grades.

The ban, which will go into effect in the 2012-13 school year for all elementary school, middle school and high school standardized exams, will reverse a longstanding practice that State Education Department officials say is inappropriate in an era when student test scores are used to evaluate teachers and principals. It is also a move to avoid the kind of cheating scandals that have erupted in cities like Atlanta and Washington….

December 12, 2011

College for everyone? As long as you’re willing to pay for everyone’s ‘six-year bong party’

by Grace

“We should be doing everything we can to put a college education within reach for every American,” President Barack Obama told a group of college students in Denver last week.

Michael Graham points out that a problem with the idea that “everyone should go to college” is that it follows that taxpayers must pay for “everyone”.  In effect, taxpayers  are paying, and he gives his own state as an example.

Every year Massachusetts taxpayers pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the University of Massachusetts system, subsidizing college costs for all. Add the $36 billion in federal Pell Grants and that giant sucking sound is the money going from your wallet to some kid’s six-year bong party known as “the college experience.”

He asks us to look around and seriously consider who these kids are.

… The kid behind the fast-food counter, the geek camped out at Best Buy waiting for the Call of Duty game, the girl popping her gum at the hair salon.

Would it really be the “best investment in America” to spend $100,000 of our money sending each one of them to college?

The answer is no. 

It’s bunk. About 50 percent of current college kids are just there because mom and dad don’t want to explain at the next cocktail party that Junior isn’t college material. These mediocre students clog our classrooms and drive up college costs. In the end, they’re still mediocre students with meaningless degrees who wind up working as the assistant manager at a TGI Fridays.

Who ends up getting screwed? The rest of the students who actually belong in college. Because demand is artificially high, so are college costs — up 8.3 percent in just the past year at public colleges.

The more worthy goal is to promote the preparation of all citizens to become productive members of society, but a four-year college degree is not the right solution for “everyone”.

December 9, 2011

Step 4 of the Kerrigan method of ‘Writing to the Point’ – using EXAMPLES

by Grace

The use of examples is covered in the next assignment in Step 4 of the Kerrigan method of Writing to the Point.  (This is part of my project to study and learn the entire Six-Step method, explained in my initial post in this series.)  For a recap, here are Steps 1 through 4.

STEP 1. Write a short, simple declarative sentence that makes one statement. (Chapter 1, page 6)

STEP 2. Write three sentences about the sentence in Step 1—clearly and directly about the whole of that sentence, not just something in it. (Chapter 2, page 18.)

STEP 3. Write four or five sentences about each of the three sentences in Step 2—clearly and directly about the whole of the Step 2 sentence, not just something in it. (Chapter 3, page 31.)

STEP 4. Make the material in the four or five sentences of Step 3 as specific and concrete as possible. Go into detail. Use examples. Don’t ask, “What will I say next?” Instead, say some more about what you have just said. Your goal is to say a lot about a little, not a little about a lot.  (Chapter 4, page 43)

Another definition of detail is “short example”.  An example is something taken from among a number of things like it, and used to stand for them.

  • Examples tend to be concrete and specific.
  • Examples are not analogies, which are fine but get us away from facts.
  • Use these kind of words:  “like, such as, for example, for instance”
  • Use lots of examples to bring a matter vividly before the mind’s eye of a reader.

Write a theme in which you use examples liberally.  Mare sure each paragraph has at least one sentence that beings with “For example” and then is followed by a sentence that is a long example.

For this assignment I re-used my “Autumn” essay, but added “for example”  in several places according to assignment instructions.

Here is my essay, using the Kerrigan format of starting with the X-1-2-3 sentences.

X  Autumn is an exhilarating time of year.
1. It is a time of colorful foliage.
2. It is a time of crisp weather.
3. It is a time of fun-filled activities.


X  Autumn is an exhilarating time of year.

1.  It is a time of colorful foliage. For example, during this time of year maple trees turn bright red and oak trees become golden. Ferns become a rusty copper color. As they fall to the ground, beautifully colored leaves cover paths and roads like a rainbow. Mountainsides and roadways become brilliant works of art.

2.  It is a time of crisp weather. It usually starts in late September when people will comment that there’s a touch of fall in the air. They bring out their sweaters to protect against the slight chill of early fall. As the season moves on, the first hints of frost appear on some early mornings. Even on days with full sun, the atmosphere feels different from typical summer days. For example, going to the beach on a sunny fall day is a sharp contrast to spending a long July day there when the sun is high in the sky.

3.  It is a time of fun-filled activities. Many families spend weekends picking apples and pumpkins. The next few days may find them baking pies and carving jack-o-lanterns. Preparations for Halloween are as much fun as the actual trick-or-treating. For example, people enjoy designing and creating costumes while anticipation builds for the big Halloween night when children roam the neighborhoods trying to fill their bags with candy.


Besides the basic lesson on the importance of examples, this assignment also reminded me that the Kerrigan method teaches writing by systematically moving through a hierarchy of skills.  In this case, instructions to use specific words (“like, such as, for example, for instance”) serve to nudge the developing writer into adding examples.  Later on, as the student’s writing becomes more sophisticated, it becomes unnecessary to use these specific words every time.

Since my original essay already included many examples, following instructions and adding at least one “for example” phrase to each paragraph did not appreciably enhance the final product.  In fact, I think this step made the essay a little clunky.   But it was a valuable exercise to show a technique for explicitly teaching a developing writer to use examples.  (In hindsight, I realized I should have started from scratch and not re-used my old essay, but I was trying to save myself a little time.)

Previous posts in this series:

December 9, 2011

‘Tips for Using Net Price Calculators’

by Grace

Here are some practical tips for using Net Price Calculators, a tool that is a useful first step in comparing affordability among the various options during the college search process.

Finding them on the college website (they won’t always be in the same place)

  • Some calculators are easier to find than others. A few are posted on the college’s homepage, but most are in the Financial Aid section, which is sometimes under Admissions. Otherwise, try looking in Consumer Information or Disclosures, or search for the calculator within the site or by using an outside search engine like Google.
  • It’s not always called a “net price calculator,” so also keep an eye out for the keywords “cost,” “estimator,” and “financial aid.”…
  • Eventually, the Department of Education is planning to post all net price calculator URLs on its College Navigator tool ( We will update these tips when we find out more information about when the URLs will be posted.

Answering the questions

  • Be prepared to encounter all kinds of calculators, from the simple (as few as 10 questions) to the complex (50 or more). Some calculators ask questions that require you to dig up detailed financial information from your (or your parents’) tax returns, earnings statements, and bank statements. If you don’t have that information handy, answer as best you can or try to skip the question.
  • Colleges cannot require you to provide your contact information. If you aren’t comfortable giving them your name, email address, or other information, you don’t have to.

Interpreting the results

  • The most important number on the page is the “net price” – the full cost of attendance minus grants and scholarships. Make sure you focus on that dollar figure when interpreting calculator results and comparing colleges. Some colleges also subtract their expectations of how much you’ll earn and borrow to get a smaller cost figure, but it won’t be called “net price. Remember that grants and scholarships don’t need to be repaid, while work expectations must be earned and loans repaid with interest. That’s why work-study and loans are called “self-help.” You don’t want to accidentally compare one school’s net price with another school’s figure that includes loans and work-study.
  • Be wary of estimates that include unrealistic amounts of self-help. We have found calculators that subtract $20,000 or $30,000 worth of expected loans to get to what might be called a “final” or “out of pocket” cost figure of zero. This can make colleges look more affordable than they really are. It may look like you will have no out-of-pocket costs, but the costs are just delayed.
  • The results are only estimates and colleges can calculate them differently, so use them to make ballpark comparisons between colleges. Don’t draw conclusions based on differences of several dollars or even several hundreds of dollars – talk to the schools’ financial aid offices to find out more.
  • The estimates are only for your first year of college and apply to a particular academic year (e.g., 2011-12). If you expect to enter college at a later date, know that the college’s costs and financial aid policies may change.
  • Not all grants and scholarships are available for all years of college. You can contact the college’s financial aid office (or try searching its website) to find out whether you can expect the same amount of grant assistance after your first year.
  • As all net price calculators are required to tell you, the estimates are not final or binding financial aid awards. To get an actual aid offer, you have to apply to the school for admission and fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to qualify for federal financial aid, and you may have to fill other applications for aid from your state or college. Net price calculators can help you decide whether to take those next steps.

Courtesy of the Institute for College Access & Success, which also produced a report titled “Adding It All Up: An Early Look at Net Price Calculators.”

December 8, 2011

What does a college degree really signify?

by Grace

Glenn Reynolds puts it this way.

Right now, a college degree is an expensive signifier that its holder has a basic ability to show up on time (mostly), to follow instructions (reasonably well), and to deal with others in close quarters without committing serious felonies. In some fields, it may also indicate important background knowledge and skills, but most students will require further on-the-job training.

The “mostly” and “reasonably well” parts should be emphasized.

Another way to put it:

Guy managed to keep his partying under control for four years is what it tells us.

December 7, 2011

Do you qualify for the automatic zero EFC loophole?

by Grace

In determining eligibility for college financial aid, the lower your Expected Financial Contribution (EFC) the better position you’ll be in to receive money.  Even better than a low EFC is one that equals ZERO.

Some families can qualify for the automatic zero EFC “loophole” when completing the FAFSA, landing them in an ideal position for maximum benefits.  How do you qualify?  One common way is if your household Adjusted Gross Income is $31,000 or less and if you are eligible either to file the short tax form or no form at all.  Here are full details.

For the 2011-2012 school year, a dependent student automatically qualifies for a zero EFC if both (1) and (2) … are true.

(1) Anyone included in the parents’ household size (as defined on the FAFSA) received benefits during 2009 or 2010 from any of the designated means-tested Federal benefit programs: the SSI Program, the Food Stamp Program11, the Free and Reduced Price School Lunch Program, the TANF Program12, and WIC; OR
the student’s parents filed or were eligible to file a 2010 IRS Form 1040A or 1040EZ, they filed a 2010 Form 1040 but were not required to do so, or the parents were not required to file any income tax return; OR
the student’s parent is a dislocated worker.


(2) The 2010 income of the student’s parents is $31,000 or less.
• For tax filers, use the parents’ adjusted gross income from 2010 Form 1040A or 1040EZ to determine if income is $31,000 or less.
• For non-tax filers, use the income shown on the 2010 W-2 forms of both parents (plus any other earnings from work not included on the W-2s) to determine if income is $31,000 or less.

Details that apply to independent students, along with other information about the EFC formula, can be found in THE EFC FORMULA, 2011-2012 document.

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