7 Common FAFSA Mistakes

  1. Not Completing the FAFSA®

I hear all kinds of reasons: “The FAFSA is too hard,” “It takes to long to complete,” I never qualify anyway, so why does it matter.” It does matter. By not completing the FAFSA, you are missing out on the opportunity to qualify for what could be thousands of dollars to help you pay for college. The FAFSA takes most people 21 minutes to complete, and there is help provided throughout the application. Oh, and contrary to popular belief, there is no income cut-off when it comes to federal student aid.

  1. Not Being Prepared

The online FAFSA has gotten a lot easier over the last few years. We’ve added skip logic, so you only see questions that are applicable to you. There is also an option to import your tax information from the IRS directly into the FAFSA application. But, the key to making the FAFSA simple is being prepared. You’ll save yourself a lot of time by gathering everything you need to complete the FAFSA before you start the application.

  1. Not Reading Carefully

You’re on winter break and probably enjoying a vacation from reading for a couple weeks. I get it. But when it comes to completing the FAFSA, you want to read each question carefully. Too many students see delays in their financial aid for simple mistakes that could have been easily avoided.

Don’t rush through these questions:

  • Your Number of Family Members (Household size): The FAFSA has a specific definition of how your or your parents’ household size should be determined. Read the instructions carefully. Many students incorrectly report this number.
  • Amount of Your Income Tax: Income tax is not the same as income. It is the amount of tax that you (and if married, your spouse) paid on your income earned from work. Your income tax amount should not be the same as your adjusted gross income (AGI). Where you find the amount of your income tax depends on which IRS form you filed.

Tip: If you use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, this number will be pulled for you, directly from your income tax return.

  • Legal Guardianship: One question on the FAFSA asks: “As determined by a court in your state of legal residence, are you or were you in legal guardianship?” Many students incorrectly answer “yes” here. For this question, the definition of legal guardianship does not include your parents, even if they were appointed by a court to be your guardian. You are also not considered a legal guardian of yourself.
  1. Inputting Incorrect Information

The FAFSA is an official government form. You must enter your information as it appears on official government documents like your birth certificate and social security card. Examples:

  • Entering the Wrong Name (Yes, I’m serious): You wouldn’t believe how many people have issues with their FAFSA because they entered an incorrect name on the application. It doesn’t matter if you’re Madonna, or Drake, or whatever Snoop Lion is calling himself these days. You must enter your full name as it appears on official government documents. No nicknames.
  • Entering the Wrong Social Security Number (SSN): When we process FAFSAs, we cross check your social security number with the Social Security Administration. To avoid delays in processing your application, triple check that you have entered the correct SSN. If you meet our basic eligibility criteria, but you or your parents don’t have a SSN, follow these instructions.
  1. Not Reporting Parent Information

Even if you fully support yourself, pay your own bills, file your own taxes, you may still be considered a dependent student for federal student aid purposes, and therefore, you’ll need to provide parent information on your FAFSA. Dependency guidelines for the FAFSA are determined by Congress and are different from those of the IRS. Find out whether or not you need to provide parent information by answering these questions.

Bonus: Who is my parent when I fill out the FAFSA?

who-is-my-parent

  1. Not Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool

For many, the most difficult part about filling out the FAFSA is entering in the financial information. But now, thanks to a partnership with the IRS, students and parents who are eligible can automatically transfer the necessary tax info into the FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. This year, the tool will launch on February 1, 2015. In most cases, your information will be available from the IRS two weeks after you file. It’s also one of the best ways to prevent errors on your FAFSA and avoid any processing delays.

Tip: If you used income estimates to file your FAFSA early, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to update your FAFSA two weeks after you file your 2014 taxes.

  1. Not Signing the FAFSA

So many students answer every single question that is asked, but fail to actually sign the FAFSA with their PIN and submit it. This happens for many reasons, maybe they forgot their PIN, or their parent isn’t with them to sign with the parent PIN, so the FAFSA is left incomplete. Don’t let this happen to you. If you don’t have or don’t know your PIN, apply for one. If you would like confirmation that your FAFSA has been submitted, you can check your status immediately after you submit your FAFSA online.

Nicole Callahan is a Digital Engagement Strategist at the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

Parents: Tips To Help Your Child Complete the FAFSA

who-is-my-parent

If you’re a parent of a college-bound child, the financial aid process can seem a bit overwhelming.  Who’s considered the parent? Who do you include in household size?  How do assets and tax filing fit into the process? Does this have to be done every year?  Here are some common questions that parents have when helping their children prepare for and pay for college or career school: 

Why does my child need to provide my information on the FAFSA®?

While the federal government provides nearly $150 billion in financial aid each year, dependency guidelines for the FAFSA are determined by Congress. Even if your child supports himself, he may still be considered a dependent student for federal student aid purposes. If your child was born on or after January 1, 1992, then he or she is most likely considered a dependent student and you’ll need to include your information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Who’s considered a parent when completing the FAFSA?

If your child needs to report parent information, here are some guidelines to help:

  • If the child’s legal parents (biological and/or adoptive parents) are married to each other, answer the questions about both of them.
  • If the child’s legal parents are not married to each other and live together, answer the questions about both of them.
  • If the child’s parent is widowed or was never married, answer the questions about that parent.
  • If the child’s parents are divorced or separated, follow these guidelines.

More information on who’s considered the parent can be found here: http://1.usa.gov/1AbWmp6

Who’s considered part of the household?

When completing your child’s FAFSA, you should include in the household size: parents, any dependent student(s), and any other child who lives at home and receives more than half of their support from you.  Also include any people who are not your children but who live with you and for whom you provide more than half of their support.

Do we need to wait to apply until I file my income taxes?

Deadlines in some states are before the tax filing deadline so you’ll want to ensure your child files his or her FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1st to maximize financial aid. You do not need to wait until you file your federal tax return.  If you haven’t done your taxes by the time your child completes the FAFSA, you can estimate amounts based on the previous year if nothing has drastically changed.  After you file your taxes, you’ll need to log back in to the FAFSA and correct any estimated information.  If you’ve already filed your taxes, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically pull in your tax information directly from the IRS into the FAFSA. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool will be available February 1, 2015.

Do I need to do this every year?

Yes, you and your child need to complete the FAFSA each year in order for your child to be considered for federal student aid.  The good news is that each subsequent year you can use the Renewal Application option so you only have to update information that has changed from the previous year!

What else do I need to know before I begin?

You’ll need to get a PIN and have all the necessary documents before you begin.  Here’s a handy checklist: http://studentaid.ed.gov/fafsa/filling-out

Susan Thares is the Digital Engagement Lead at the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid.

5 Reasons You Should Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid

Did you hear? The 2015-16 FAFSA became available on January 1, 2015! Fill it out: fafsa.gov

If you will be attending college between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, you should complete the FAFSA. Here are some reasons why:

It’s FREE!

The FAFSA is free to complete and there is help provided throughout the application. Several websites offer help filing the FAFSA for a fee. These sites are not endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education. We urge you not to pay for assistance that you can get for free at the official government website: fafsa.gov.

It’s easier than ever.

We’ve done a lot over the past few years to simplify the FAFSA. One of the most exciting enhancements has been the launch of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. The tool allows students and parents to access the required information from their IRS tax return to complete the FAFSA, and transfer the data directly into their FAFSA from the IRS website with just a few clicks. This year, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool will launch on February 1, so be on the lookout for that. Also, for those who have completed the FAFSA in the past, when you go to renew your FAFSA for the upcoming school year, a lot of your information will automatically roll over, saving you lots of time.

It takes less than 21 minutes to complete.

Did you know that, on average, it takes less than 21 minutes to complete the FAFSA? That’s less time than it would take you to watch your favorite TV show! And think of the benefits! Spend 21 minutes completing the application and you could qualify for thousands of dollars in financial aid. Talk about return on investment…

More people qualify than you’d think.

If you don’t fill out the FAFSA, you could be missing out on a lot of financial aid! I’ve heard a number of reasons students think they shouldn’t complete the FAFSA. Here are a few:

  • “I (or my parents) make too much money, so I won’t qualify for aid.”
  • “Only students with good grades get financial aid.”
  • “The FAFSA is too hard to fill out.”
  • “I’m too old to qualify for financial aid.”

These are all myths about financial aid. The reality is, EVERYONE should fill out the FAFSA! Don’t leave money on the table.

You may need it to apply for state and college financial aid and even private scholarships!

Completing the FAFSA is the first step toward getting financial aid for college, career school, or graduate school. The FAFSA not only gives you access to the $150 billion in grants, loans, and work-study funds that the federal government has available, but many states, schools, and private scholarships require you to submit the FAFSA before they will consider you for any financial aid they offer. That’s why it’s important that every college-bound student complete the FAFSA. You’ll never know what you get unless you apply.

For information and tips on completing the FAFSA, visit StudentAid.gov/fafsa.

Nicole Callahan is a Digital Engagement Strategist at the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

6 Steps to Filling Out the FAFSA

Need to fill out the FAFSA® but don’t know where to start? We’re here to help. You’ve already done the hard part and gathered all of the necessary information, so now it’s time to complete the FAFSA. Let us walk you through it step by step: 

  1. Go to fafsa.gov. One thing you don’t need in order to fill out the FAFSA? Money! Remember, the FAFSA is FREE when you use the official .gov site: fafsa.gov.
  2. Choose which FAFSA you’d like to complete. The new FAFSA that becomes available on January 1, 2015, is the 2015–16 FAFSA. You should complete the 2015-16 FAFSA if you will be attending college between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016. Remember, the FAFSA is not a one-time thing. You must complete your FAFSA each school year.

Note: The 2014–15 FAFSA is also available if you will be attending college between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015, and you haven’t applied for financial aid yet.

  1. Enter your personal information.* This is information like your name, date of birth, etc. If you have completed the FAFSA in the past, a lot of your personal info will be pre-populated to save you time. Make sure you enter your personal information exactly as it appears on official government documents. (That’s right, no nicknames.)
  2. Enter your financial information.* All of it. You should use income records for the tax year prior to the academic yearfor which you are applying. For example, if you are filling out the 2015–16 FAFSA, you will need to use 2014 tax information. If you or your parent(s) haven’t filed your 2014 taxes yet, you can always estimate the amounts using your 2013 tax return; just make sure to update your FAFSA once you file your 2014 taxes. Once you file your taxes, you may be able to automatically import your tax information into the FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. It makes completing the FAFSA super easy!
  3. Choose up to 10 schools to which you wish to apply, and we will send the necessary information over to them so they can calculate the amount of financial aid you are eligible to receive. Make sure you include any school you plan to attend, even if you’re not sure yet. This will prevent your financial aid from being delayed. If you’re applying to more than 10 schools: http://1.usa.gov/1mHPD1F
  4. Sign the document with your PIN.* The PIN serves as your electronic signature, or e-signature. You’ll use it to electronically sign and submit your FAFSA. If you don’t have a PIN, you’ll need to get one. If you’ve completed the FAFSA in the past, you probably already have a PIN. You can use the same PIN you used in the past to renew your FAFSA each school year, so keep it in a safe place. If you have forgotten your PIN, you can retrieve it. If you’re considered a dependent student, at least one of your parents or your legal guardian will need a PIN as well. If you or one of your siblings have completed the FAFSA within the last 18 months, your parent(s) will use the same PIN they used before. If not, your parent(s) may need to apply for a new PIN.

*If you are considered a dependent student, your parent(s) will also need to do this.

I’m finished. What’s next?

That’s it. You’ve filled it out. We told you it wasn’t so bad. With the hard part over, check out this page to learn what you should do next.

Still have questions?

We’re here to help. Connect with us: StudentAid.gov/social.

Nicole Callahan is a Digital Engagement Strategist at the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

7 Things You Need Before You Fill Out the FAFSA®

If you need financial aid to help you pay for college, it’s important that you complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). The good news? The FAFSA is simpler than ever! Did you know that, on average, it only takes 21minutes complete? That’s less time than it takes to watch an episode of your favorite TV program, so no excuses about not having the time. Record that TV show and watch it later.

The 2015­­–16 FAFSA becomes available on January 1, 2015, at 12 a.m. Central Time. You can fill it out for FREE on the official government site, fafsa.gov. To speed up the FAFSA process, get prepared early. Here is what you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA:

  1. Your Federal Student Aid PIN* — In order to sign your FAFSA electronically, you’ll need a Federal Student Aid PIN. You can help to prevent processing delays by getting a PIN before you begin the FAFSA. Find out how to get a PINand what to do if you forgot your PIN. It only takes a minute.
  2. Your social security number* — If you don’t know it, it can be found on your social security card. If you don’t have access to that, it may be on your birth certificate or permanent resident card. If you don’t have one of those, or don’t know where it is, ask your parent or legal guardian. If you’re a dependent student, you’ll need their help with portions of the FAFSA anyway. If you are not a U.S. citizen, but meet Federal Student Aid’s basic eligibility requirements, you’ll need your Alien Registration Number.
  3. Your driver’s license number — If you don’t have a driver’s license, then don’t worry about this step.
  4. Your tax records* — Use income records for the tax year prior to the academic yearfor which you are applying: so if you are filling out the 2015–16 FAFSA, you will need 2014 tax information. If you haven’t filed your taxes yet, you can always estimate the amounts using your 2013 tax return, just make sure to update your FAFSA once you file your 2014 taxes. Once you file your 2014 taxes, you may be able to automatically import your tax information into the FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.
  5. Records of your untaxed income* — This includes a whole bunch of variables that may or may not apply to you, like child support received, interest income and veterans non-education benefits. Parents can find specific details here. Students can find details here.
  6. Records of all your assets (money)* — This includes savings and checking account balances, as well as investments like stocks and bonds and real estate.
  7. List of the school(s) you are interested in attending — The schools you list on your FAFSA will automatically receive your FAFSA results electronically. They will use your FAFSA information to determine the types and amounts of financial aid you may receive. You can list up to 10 schools on your FAFSA. If you’re applying to more than 10 schools, you can add more later. Be sure to list any school you’re considering, even if you’re not sure yet.

*If you’re a dependent student, you will need this information for your parent(s) as well.

Still have questions?

We’re here to help. Connect with us: StudentAid.gov/social.

Nicole Callahan is a Digital Engagement Strategist at the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

Our 10 Favorite Photos from 2014

2014 was an eventful year for Secretary Duncan and the Department of Education. Below are some of our favorite photos:

The Importance of Early Learning: Secretary Duncan  visited the Child & Family Network Centers in Alexandria, Va., in March to discuss the President’s budget proposal for early learning. In December, 18 states were awarded Preschool Development Grants. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The Importance of Early Learning: Secretary Duncan visited the Child & Family Network Centers in Alexandria, Va., in March to discuss the President’s budget proposal for early learning. In December, 18 states were awarded new Preschool Development Grants to increase access to high-quality preschool programs. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

 

Education for All: Secretary Duncan stopped by Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury, Mass., in March as part of the Partners in Progress tour, highlighting America’s ingenuity in education at work. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Education for All: Secretary Duncan stopped by Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury, Mass., in March as part of the Partners in Progress tour, highlighting America’s ingenuity in education at work. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

 

Secretary Duncan joined Attorney General Eric Holder in March of this year at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Washington, D.C., to announce the findings of expansive survey of America's public schools and discuss the importance of universal access to preschool, the need to reduce unnecessary and unfair school discipline practices, and address other barriers to opportunity for students that may prevent them from reaching their full potential at all levels of education. (Photo credit; U.S. Department of Education)

Ensuring Civil Rights in Education: Secretary Duncan joined Attorney General Eric Holder in March of this year at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Washington, D.C., to announce the findings of expansive survey of America’s public schools, including the need to reduce unnecessary and unfair school discipline practices. (Photo credit; U.S. Department of Education)

 

Teacher Appreciation Week: ED employees across the country visited classrooms and shadowed teachers, principals and educators during May 5-9 of this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Teacher Appreciation Week: ED employees across the country visited classrooms and shadowed teachers, principals and educators during May 5-9 of this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

 

Cooking Up Change: In June, ED hosted the finalists of Cooking Up Change, a culinary competition sponsored by the Healthy Schools Campaign, a non-profit Chicago organization. The meals were required to be between 750-850 calories and needed to cost around one dollar per meal, showing the possibility of executing nutrition, taste, and low budgets. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Cooking Up Change: In June, ED hosted the finalists of Cooking Up Change, a culinary competition sponsored by the Healthy Schools Campaign, a non-profit Chicago organization. The meals were required to be between 750-850 calories and needed to cost around one dollar per meal, showing the possibility of executing nutrition, taste, and low budgets. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

 

Reflecting on Civil Rights: On Wednesday, July 2, ED commemorated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with a Civil Rights Bus Ride. Some of the original Freedom Riders and current student leaders took a trip from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, Virginia, for a symbolic and celebratory returning ride. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Reflecting on Civil Rights: On Wednesday, July 2, ED commemorated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with a Civil Rights Bus Ride. Some of the original Freedom Riders and current student leaders took a trip from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, Virginia, for a symbolic and celebratory returning ride. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

 

Let's Read, Let's Move!: The third installment of ED’s summer series Let’s Read! Let’s Move! blasted into space at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on July 23. Learn more about First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative and our Let's Read, Let's Move! events. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Let’s Read, Let’s Move!: The third installment of ED’s summer series Let’s Read! Let’s Move! blasted into space at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on July 23. Learn more about First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative and our Let’s Read, Let’s Move! events. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

 

Partners in Progress: 'Lemme take a selfie!' Secretary Duncan poses with two students during his visit to Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., in August. The HBCU was the first stop during the 2014 Back to School Bus Tour. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Partners in Progress: ‘Lemme take a selfie!’ Secretary Duncan poses with two students during his visit to Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., in August. The HBCU was the first stop during the 2014 Back to School Bus Tour. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

 

Building Strong Foundations: Secretary Duncan discussed the importance of investment in early learning during an event on Capitol Hill in September. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Building Strong Foundations: Secretary Duncan discussed the importance of investment in early learning during an event on Capitol Hill in September. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

#BlackLivesMatter: On Saturday, December 13, Secretary Duncan joined the Rev. Al Sharpton, Marc Morial, President & CEO of the National Urban League, and hundreds of protestors during a #BlackLivesMatter march in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Joe Portnoy/U.S. Department of Education)

#BlackLivesMatter: On Saturday, December 13, Secretary Duncan joined the Rev. Al Sharpton, Marc Morial, President & CEO of the National Urban League, and hundreds of protestors during a #BlackLivesMatter march in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Joe Portnoy/U.S. Department of Education)

Want more great images? Check out our Storify account and our Flickr page!

Now is the Time for Safe and Equal Access to Education for All Children All Over the World

On October 9th 2012, Malala Yousafzai was on a school bus returning to her home in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. A masked gunman boarded the bus and asked for her by name. When her classmates could not help but to glance at her, the gunman approached Malala and shot three times, hitting her in the head and neck. She was 15 years old and her only crime was advocating for equal access to education for all children.

On December 8th of this year, UNICEF declared that 2014 was a devastating year for children. Two years after the brutal attack on Malala, as many as 10,000 children have been recruited to fight by armed groups in the Central African Republic. In Syria, there have been more than 35 attacks on schools and 1.7 million children are now refugees. And a mere eight days after the UNICEF report was released, Taliban gunman launched an unimaginable attack on a Pakistani school, killing 132 students.

These are just some of the challenges that world leaders and non-governmental organizations face in their efforts to establish a new set of sustainable development goals. Technical experts and advocates from Save the Children and other groups are engaging in a series of global consultations on post-2015 education indicators. What has emerged is this: the only way to offer children a future free of violence and extreme poverty is to provide every child safe and equitable access to quality education. Simply counting the number of children in schools is not enough.

Of course, violence against children is not limited to countries outside our borders. Speaking to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in October, Secretary Arne Duncan referenced the impact violence has had on his own experience. He said, “I saw children who happened to come from a very violent community; who happened to all be African-American; who happened to be very poor. Despite many real challenges, many went on to do extraordinary things.”

Duncan also pointed out that students of color in the U.S. are more likely to be assigned inexperienced teachers; that they have less access to advanced classes; and that they are more likely to go to schools with lower-quality facilities, such as temporary structures. These are circumstances we can and must change.

In October, ED’s Office of Civil Rights issued guidance to states, school districts, and schools to help ensure students in the U.S. have equal access to educational resources. Initiatives such as My Brother’s Keeper and Excellent Educators for All are designed to help level the playing field for U.S. students who face an uphill battle in attaining an education. The goal is to ensure that our children – no matter their circumstances – have every opportunity to reach their full potential.

In the wake of the brutal attack in Peshawar and the seemingly never-ending violence against children in our own country, there is a tremendous amount of work left to be done. It’s in our nation’s best interest to prepare all of our children, not just a privileged few, for the challenges of the global economy. With the world’s focus turned to safe and equitable access to quality education, now is the time for us to make good on our promises.

Rebecca Miller is an International Affairs Specialist in the International Affairs Office at the U.S. Department of Education.

Progress Toward Designing a New System of College Ratings

This is the third in a series of posts about the Department’s new college ratings system.

Read the first blog in this series.

Read the second blog in this series.

female indian university student using laptop

In today’s world, college should not be a luxury that only some Americans can afford to enjoy; it is an economic, civic and personal necessity for all Americans. Expanding opportunity for more students to enroll and succeed in college, especially low-income and underrepresented students, is vital to building a strong economy with a thriving middle class and critical to ensuring a strong democracy. That is why President Obama believes the United States must lead the world in college attainment, as our country did a generation ago.

Since the President took office, the Administration has increased Pell Grants by more than $1,000 a year, created the new American Opportunity Tax Credit worth up to $10,000 over four years of college, capped student loan payments to 10 percent of monthly income, and laid out an ambitious agenda to keep college affordable. We have focused on improving college performance, promoting innovation and competition that can lead to breakthroughs on cost and quality, and helping students and families manage their student loan debt after college.

The development of a college ratings system is an important part of the President’s plan to expand college opportunity by recognizing institutions that excel at enrolling students from all backgrounds; focus on maintaining affordability; and succeed at helping all students graduate with a degree or certificate of value. Our aim is to better understand the extent to which colleges and universities are meeting these goals. As part of this process, we hope to use federal administrative data to develop higher quality and nationally comparable measures of graduation rates and employment outcomes that improve on what is currently available.

Over the past year, we’ve had many conversations with a wide range of stakeholders including colleges and universities, students and parents, researchers, statisticians, economists, and advocates. Together, we considered tough questions that needed to be thoughtfully addressed in designing a meaningful system of ratings that meets the aims of: (1) helping colleges and universities measure, benchmark, and improve in fulfilling the principles of access, affordability, and outcomes; (2) helping students and families make informed choices when searching for and selecting a college; and (3) developing a framework that could eventually align the incentives and accountability provisions in the federal student aid program with these key principles.

The Department has now published a framework and questions for public review and comment at www.ed.gov/collegeratings. We’ve also posted a fact sheet that summarizes the basic rating categories, institutional groupings, data, metrics, and tools we are currently weighing in designing the system. This is our next step in designing the college ratings system, and the framework lays out the options and questions we are actively considering.

Our thinking has been informed by insights from stakeholders and experts about how best to use transparency and accountability to achieve our goals using available and attainable data. With this release, we have tried to be clear about pros and cons of alternatives; to explain what data are available and what analyses are underway to inform development of the ratings; and to invite comment on specific issues. Throughout our conversations, we’ve been urged by the field to move forward carefully and to share the evolving approach to the ratings methodology widely. We are therefore seeking public feedback on our proposed approach and potential metrics before analyzing actual data and generating specific institutional ratings.

At the same time, we deeply appreciate that a simple quantitative system will not capture all the benefits and outcomes of postsecondary education. Wide discussion of the college ratings proposal has already helped deepen the national conversation about our shared commitment to college opportunity and other significant measures of postsecondary education success – both tangible, like obtaining a diploma or job, and intangible, like increasing knowledge and skills, civic engagement, workforce resilience, and confidence.

An important part of the continued national conversation must focus on those broad benefits and contributions of higher education in the United States.

A college degree has never mattered more to the success of individual Americans, to our democracy, and to the prosperity of our nation and our economy. But we all – students and families, institutions and researchers, policymakers and elected officials, taxpayers, philanthropies, and states – need new ways to compare the accessibility, affordability, and outcomes of different schools to make good investments and wise decisions for the future.

With this latest release, we feel confident that we are closing in on that goal.

We welcome input from students, institutions and the public about the types of tools and formats that could be part of the system that the Department plans to release by the 2015-2016 school year. Submissions can be provided through this online form or by email to collegefeedback@ed.gov.

Jamienne Studley is Deputy Under Secretary of Education.

2015-2016 Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellowship Program Applications Now Available!

“The Ambassador Fellows are a critical investment in ensuring that the decisions affecting students are informed and implemented by our nation’s best teachers and leaders. The answers to our most challenging educational problems lie in the voices of the courageous principals and passionate teachers our Fellows bring us every day.”
– Secretary Arne Duncan

Teaching Ambassador Fellows gathered at the Teaching and Learning conference for the announcement of the Teach to Lead initiative earlier this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Teaching Ambassador Fellows gathered at the Teaching and Learning conference for the announcement of the Teach to Lead initiative earlier this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Applications for the U.S. Department of Education’s 2015-2016 cohort of Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows opened on December 18, 2014 and are scheduled to close on January 20, 2015 at 11:59 pm EST. For more information about the application process, visit our Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows program pages or go directly to the applications for the Teaching and Principal Fellowships on USAJobs.gov.

Since 2008, the Department has employed 87 outstanding teachers on a full- or part-time basis through the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program. Last year, ED piloted a Principal Ambassador Fellowship that brought three highly-talented principals to work for the Department on a full- and part-time basis.

Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows are outstanding educators, with a record of leadership in the school community, strong communication skills, and insights on education policy based in their school and classroom expertise. They come with networks of support from their professional communities and have participated in a variety of activities that have prepared them to write and speak frequently about instruction, school culture and climate, educational leadership and policy.

Both of the highly selective programs reflect the belief that teachers and principals should have meaningful opportunities to learn about and shape the policies that impact students and school communities nationwide. As teachers and principals are often the most trusted sources of information about education policy for parents, community members, colleagues, and students themselves, it is imperative to create more ways to link the Department’s programs, policies, and resources directly to the field.

The 2013-2015 Principal Ambassador Fellows and Secretary Duncan. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The 2013-2015 Principal Ambassador Fellows and Secretary Duncan. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The Ambassador Fellows have directly contributed to hundreds of activities at the Department and captured the voices of thousands of teachers and principals from every state. They were particularly instrumental in the RESPECT project and in inspiring and executing the Department’s current Teach to Lead initiative. They were also critical partners in offering flexibility around tying teacher evaluations to new assessments and addressing a culture of over-testing.

There are two different options for candidates. The Washington Fellowship is a full-time appointment, based at the Department’s Headquarters in Washington. The Classroom Fellowship, on the other hand, enables teachers and principals to participate on a part-time basis, while still allowing them to fulfill their regular school responsibilities.

All Teaching Ambassador Fellows spend one year learning about key federal programs and policies, sharing their expertise with federal staff members, and providing background on federal initiatives to other educators. This helps teachers better understand and implement these efforts at the federal, state and local levels. For the Fellows, the program provides greater knowledge of federal educational policy, strengthens their leadership skills, and gives them the firsthand opportunity to address some of the  challenging issues facing education today.

“Being a Teaching Ambassador Fellow has been the best professional learning of my career,” says Tami Fitzgerald. “I have learned about educational policy, but more than that, I have discovered that my voice can be heard, and our collective voices can make a difference.”  Principal Ambassador Fellow, Rachel Skerritt adds, “The Principal Ambassador Fellowship is intended to be a beneficial resource to the Department, allowing ED to hear valuable input from school leaders. However, the experience has been just as beneficial to my own learning and leadership. I constantly bring back best practices to my own school, having had the privilege of meeting passionate principals nationwide.”

Great teachers and principals—please consider applying and sharing this information with your colleagues! Sign up for updates on the Teaching and Principal application processes, call 1-800-USA-Learn, or email us at TeacherFellowship@ed.gov or PrincipalFellowship@ed.gov with questions.

Gillian Cohen-Boyer is Director of the Principal and Teaching Ambassador Fellowships Programs at the U.S. Department of Education.

Student Voices Session: Shining a Spotlight on Native Youth in Foster Care

Youth from every ethnicity and population group experience challenges. American Indian and Alaska Native youth in the foster care system often also must contend with a disconnection from their tribal communities and cultures.

On Dec. 8th, I attended a Student Voices session at the White House hosted by the Department of Education (ED) and Department of Interior. During this time, I witnessed the Obama Administration turn a corner on an issue that is too often invisible to the general public and politicians – understanding the plight of Native youth in foster care.

Fifteen current and former foster care youth representing American Indian and Alaska Native nations from across the United States sat down with Secretaries Arne Duncan and Sally Jewell/ (Photo credit: Paul Wood/U.S. Department of Education)

Blog author Seanna Pieper-Jordan (far right) joined fourteen other current and former foster care youth representing American Indian and Alaska Native nations from across the United States in a discussion with Secretaries Arne Duncan and Sally Jewell. (Photo credit: Paul Wood/U.S. Department of Education)

Fifteen current and former foster care youth representing American Indian and Alaska Native nations from across the United States sat down with Secretaries Arne Duncan and Sally Jewell at the event to discuss the unique struggles that Native youth face.

They all courageously shared stories of survival before entering foster care and of a heartbreaking desire to remain connected to their tribes when placed in foster homes far from their tribal communities. For me, their stories and my own share a key message — take us away from our homes and our culture, and you take us away from our identity and our drive to achieve.

After the meeting, Secretary Duncan asked how ED could help improve academic achievement and the well-being of Native youth in the foster care system.

With 566 federally recognized tribes—each with its own history, language and customs—no one curriculum plan or program can adequately provide the needed emotional, cultural and academic support for all Native youth. Fortunately, numerous tribes and tribal organizations desire a chance to partner with the government to improve the situation. My hope is that new tribal partnerships – specifically for American Indian and Alaska native foster youth – could make schools a safe and trusted alternative to the turmoil these students often encounter outside the school environment.

For me, school was my only haven, allowing me a few hours each day to forget the abuse and neglect I suffered in my most formative years. But, unfortunately, my educational experience is not the norm. My teachers did not address my behavioral problems, frequent absences from school, and lack of foundational skills, such as phonics, because I was always the brightest student in class. I also had thick skin to the racism I experienced in public school. Being Native Hawaiian, as well as American Indian, enabled me to attend Kamehameha Schools, a K-12 boarding-and-day institution that immerses students in Native Hawaiian culture. Kamehameha became my advocate, protector and family. Eventually, my school counselor became my foster mother.

I know firsthand that educational institutions can be not only a source of academic and emotional support for all students with unfortunate circumstances at home, but also a place of cultural opportunity for American Indian and Alaska Native youth disconnected from their tribal communities. So, I am happy to say that my time at the White House and with Secretaries Duncan and Jewell has shown me that the Administration is searching for new ways to improve the lives of Native foster youth. And, more personally, it showed me that people do care about what happens to the invisible.

Seanna Pieper-Jordan is a former foster care youth of Native Hawaiian and American Indian (Blackfeet) descent. She graduated from Yale University with a Bachelors of Arts degree in Sociology in 2013 and Kamehameha High School with honors in 2008. She currently works as a public policy specialist in Washington, D.C.

Improving Education One Classroom at a Time

Elise Patterson faces challenges in her classroom every day, but there’s nothing else she’d rather be doing than teaching. Patterson is an English teacher who, like so many educators across the country, is tackling challenges and making a difference in her classroom and in her students’ lives.

Now is a time of profound change in education, perhaps the greatest change in decades. Teachers are leading the change, taking on the hard work of implementing higher standards in their own classrooms, and, like Patterson, discovering that they can do what they love with even greater results for their students.

See what it’s like to teach today through Patterson’s eyes in the first installment of a new video series that takes viewers behind the scenes with teachers and other educators who are doing the hard work to lead change, innovation, and improvement in classrooms throughout the country.

Improving Education: The View from Ms. Patterson’s Classroom, shows how a teacher at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C., is helping her students to excel.

“I’m passionate about teaching because I get to interact with so many people in such a meaningful way,” she says. “The reason I decided to make this my career is because I think there’s such a need for good teaching … [and] because I see how much of a change you can make on a day-to-day basis with individual students.”

Her tips include more collaboration with other teachers and between departments, and really challenging students to improve upon their leadership and critical-thinking skills. Her passion has helped her successfully implement higher standards in her classroom. Learn more about Patterson’s story below:

As we continue to highlight extraordinary educators doing remarkable things in classrooms nationwide we want to hear from teachers. Get in touch with us, and help us share your inspiring stories.

To learn more about Patterson and her classroom tips, visit our Partners in Progress page.

Celebrate Diversity During the Holidays

The holiday season can be a great time for families to celebrate diversity!

Parents and caregivers, you can choose to use this time to teach your children about customs that are different from your own and you can help children to understand and embrace other cultures.

Children learn best by seeing, doing, and being a part of a new experience.

Engage a child through reading.

Engage children through reading.

Engage your child by reading to him or her about how other cultures celebrate holidays during this time of year. The Library of Congress is a great resource for stories about Christmas and Hanukkah. You can choose to search online for resources about observances such as and the way that people in different countries mark the arrival of the New Year. You also can find information about celebrations that happen on or around the winter solstice. Once you’ve read together, encourage your child to create something – like a painting, a drawing, a mask or a sculpture – representing some festival or tradition that interests him or her.

You also can head into the kitchen! Try making a special dish that is served during the holidays in a culture other than your own. Plum pudding or candied yams are just two dishes that come to mind.

Encourage your child to join you in the kitchen!

Encourage your child to join you in the kitchen!

Parents and families can use this time to teach children about the importance of volunteering in the community as well. A visit to a senior facility is one way children can learn about other cultures; the importance of community; and the incredible wealth of wisdom, values, and history that the elder members of any neighborhood have to share with the next generation.

Another fun activity could be exploring how other people and countries celebrate and then creating a list of places to visit.

A trip to your local library is always a fantastic way to find new information and fun activities that will allow your child to discover how wonderful other cultures are. Learning about humanity’s diversity and richness gives us all so much more to celebrate – during the holidays and throughout the year!

Carrie Jasper is director of outreach to parents and families at the U.S. Department of Education.