4 Mistakes I Made With My Student Loans and How You Can Avoid Them

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It’s been tough for me to come to terms with, but, unfortunately for me, I am not in college anymore. In fact, this spring marks three years since I graduated from college and went into repayment on my student loans. I know, not the most exciting thing in the world, but important. So while I don’t claim to be a student loan expert, I have learned a lot of lessons along the way, mostly through trial and error. In hopes that you won’t make the same mistakes I did, here are some things I wish I had known when I was graduating and getting ready to start repaying my student loans:

  1. I should have kept track of what I was borrowing

Let’s be real. When you take out student loans to help pay for college, it’s easy to forget that the money will eventually have to be paid back … with interest. The money just doesn’t seem real when you’re in college, and I didn’t do a good job of keeping track of what I was borrowing and how it was building up. When it was time to start repaying my loans, I was quite overwhelmed. I had different types of loans and different interest rates. When I did eventually see my loan balance, I was pretty shocked.

You can avoid this problem. Had I known there was a super easy way to keep track of how much I’d borrowed in federal student loans, I would have been much better off. Just go to www.nslds.ed.gov, select “Financial Aid Review,” log in, and you can view all of your federal student loans in one place! How did I miss that?

  1. I should have made interest payments while I was still in school

If you’re anything like me, you probably consumed your fair share of instant noodles while trying to survive on a college student’s budget. Trust me, I get it. But one thing I really regret when it comes to my student loans was not paying interest while I was in school or during my grace period. Like I said, I was far from rich, but when I was in college, I did have a work-study job and waited tables on the side. I probably could have spared a few dollars each month to pay down some student loan interest. Remember, student loans are borrowed money that you have to repay with interest and more importantly, that interest may capitalize, or be added to your total balance. My advice: Even though you don’t have to, do yourself a favor and consider paying at least some of your student loan interest while you’re in school. It will save you money in the long run.

  1. I should have kept my loan servicer in the loop

If you’re getting ready to graduate or have graduated recently and haven’t heard from your loan servicer, make sure you check that your loan servicer has up-to-date contact info for you. When I graduated and moved into my first big-girl apartment, I forgot to change my address with my loan servicer. I found out that all of my student loan correspondence was going to my mom’s address. I hadn’t even thought to update my loan servicer with my new contact information. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Keep your servicer informed of address, email, and phone changes.

  1. I should have figured out what my monthly loan payments were going to be BEFORE I went into repayment

By the time my grace period was over, I had a decent idea of how much I had borrowed in total, but I had no idea what my monthly payments would be. I thought I was fine. I had started my new job and been paying rent and other bills for about six months. Then my grace period ended, and I got my first bill from my loan servicer. It was definitely an expense I hadn’t fully taken into account.

Don’t make the same mistake. Federal Student Aid has an awesome repayment estimator that allows you to pull in your federal student loan information and compare what your monthly payments would be under the different repayment plans that are offered. That way, you can choose the right repayment plan for you, know how much you can expect to pay monthly, and budget accordingly … unlike me.

I’ll be the first to admit that this whole process can be a little overwhelming, especially when you’re new at it. But just remember, your loan servicer is there to help you. If you have questions or need advice, don’t hesitate to contact them.

Nicole Callahan is a digital engagement strategist at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

6 Things You Must Know About Repaying Your Student Loans

When it comes to repaying your federal student loans, there’s a lot to consider. But, by taking the time to understand the details of repayment, you can save yourself time and money. This should help you get started.

When do I begin repaying my federal student loans?

You don’t have to begin repaying most federal student loans until after you leave college or drop below half-time enrollment. Many federal student loans will even have a grace period. The grace period gives you time to get financially settled and to select your repayment plan. Note that for most loans, interest will accrue during your grace period.

Your loan servicer or lender will provide you with a loan repayment schedule that states when your first payment is due, the number and frequency of payments, and the amount of each payment.

Whom do I pay?

You will make your federal student loan payments to your loan servicer*, not the U.S. Department of Education directly. The Department uses several loan servicers to handle the billing and other services on federal student loans. Your loan servicer can work with you to choose a repayment plan and can answer any questions you have about your federal student loans. It’s important to maintain contact with your loan servicer and keep your servicer informed of any changes to your address, e-mail, or phone number so they know where to send correspondence and how to contact you.

How much do I need to pay?

Your bill will tell you how much to pay. Your payment (usually made monthly) depends on

  • the type of loan you received,
  • how much money you borrowed,
  • the interest rate on your loan, and
  • the repayment plan you choose.

You can use our repayment estimator to estimate your monthly payments under different repayment plans to determine which option is right for you. Just remember, if you would like to switch repayment plans, you must contact your loan servicer.

How do I make my student loan payments?

There are several ways you can submit payments to your loan servicer, including options to submit your payment online through your loan servicer’s website.

TIP: Your servicer may offer the option to have your payments automatically withdrawn from your bank account each month. You may want to consider this option so you don’t forget to make your payments.

What should I do if I’m having trouble making my student loan payments?

Contact your loan servicer as soon as possible. You may be able to change your repayment plan to one that will allow you to have a longer repayment period or to one that is based on your income. Also, ask your loan servicer about your options for a deferment or forbearance or loan consolidation.

Note: Several third-party companies offer student loan assistance for a fee. Most of these services can be obtained for free from your loan servicer.

What happens if I don’t make my payments?

Not making your student loan payments can result in default, which negatively impacts your credit score. This may affect your ability to borrow for things like buying a car or purchasing a home. Your tax refunds may also be withheld and applied to your outstanding student loan debt. There is never a reason to default. The Department of Education offers several options to ensure that you can successfully manage your student loans. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or having difficulty making payments, contact your loan servicer for help.

*If you are repaying federal student loans made by a private lender (before July 1, 2010), you may be required to make payments directly to that lender. 

Nicole Callahan is a digital engagement strategist at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid

April is both National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month

School staff, teachers, and administrators all play important roles in preventing and responding to child sexual abuse and promoting the social and emotional well-being of children and families in our communities.

Each year thousands of young boys and girls are sexually abused and exploited across the nation.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention cites that one in four girls and one in six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before they turn 18. Children and adolescents of all races, cultures, and backgrounds are all equally susceptible to sexual abuse.

The U.S Departments of Education (ED), Justice,  Health and Human Services (HHS) and other federal agencies are working together to end child abuse and sexual assault among school-aged youth.

ED’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students’ (OSHS) mission prioritizes safe and supportive schools, health and mental health, and violence prevention to improve conditions for learning. OSHS recognizes and supports the important roles that school staff play in identifying, preventing, and responding to sexual assault and child abuse by providing resources, technical assistance, and a comprehensive approach to improving conditions for learning.

Whether you are a parent, teacher, coach, neighbor, or family member, you can help. Caring adults can support the healthy growth and development of children who have experienced abuse by trusting them and helping them recognize it’s not their fault. The American Psychological Association cites that children who are able to confide in a trusted adult and feel they are believed by that adult experience less trauma.

The Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime outlines strategies for how to respond if a child tells you that he or she has been abused. One of the most important things you can do is stay calm. You should also—

  • Listen to the child’s words and expressed emotions. Believe the child and stress that his or her safety is important.
  • Not press the child for more information.
  • Reassure the child that he or she has done nothing wrong. Abuse is never a child’s fault.
  • Remember that the people who harm children are often people whom children love.
  • Avoid negative comments. Encourage the child, saying that he or she did the right thing by telling and that it was brave to tell.”

In support of these efforts, HHS, the FRIENDS National Resource Center for Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy – Strengthening Families have created Making Meaningful Connections 2014 Resource Guide. The guide is designed for service providers who work in their communities to strengthen families.

OSHS’s Safe and Supportive Schools TA Center  provides resources and support to help schools and communities develop rigorous measurement systems that assess school climate and implement and evaluate programmatic interventions. We welcome you to explore and discover, ask questions, and share your perspectives.

Karissa Schafer is an education program specialist in the Office of Safe and Healthy Students

Class of 2014: What’s Next for Your Student Loans?

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I’m not afraid to admit that being a college senior was a little frightening (okay, slight understatement  it was extremely frightening!). As you, the Class of 2014, prepare to say goodbye to the comforts of your college community and say hello to the real world, you’re faced with many realities. Where will I live? How am I going to find a job? Will I make ends meet? Will I be happy?

And with all these new exciting challenges, one of the last things on most of your minds is repaying your student loans. Yet it’s one of our responsibilities and you need to be prepared for when the first bill arrives in the mail.

I will be honest in saying the repayment process is a little intimidating, and before writing this post I was at a loss on where to begin. Luckily, the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) has tools available to walk soon-to-be grads through the loan repayment process:

  • Exit Counseling: Redesigned to be more interactive, Exit Counseling provides important information to student borrowers who are preparing to begin student loan repayment. Exit counseling is required when you graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment, so talk to the financial aid office at your school about completing it.
  • Federal Loan Repayment Plans: Understanding the details of repayment can save you time and money. Find out when repayment starts, how to make your payment, repayment plan options, what to do if you have trouble making payments, and more!
  • Repayment Estimator: Federal Student Aid recently launched a Repayment Estimator that allows you to compare your monthly student loan payment under different repayment plans to help you figure out which option is right for you. You can either enter your average loan amount or log-in to have your current federal student loan information automatically pulled in so you can compare repayment plans based on your specific situation.

So with all of these great resources, I’ve found that things were clearer, and not quite as scary. Class of 2014 you are about to embark on a new adventure. Best of luck to each and every one of you!

For additional information and tips, visit Federal Student Aid on Twitter , Facebook, and YouTube.

Kelsey Donohue is a 2013 graduate of Marist College (N.Y.)

5 Things To Consider When Taking Out Student Loans

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Federal student loans can be a great way to help pay for college or career school. While you shouldn’t be afraid to take out federal student loans, you should be smart about it. Before you take out a loan, it’s important to understand that a loan is a legal obligation that you will be responsible for repaying with interest.

Here are some tips to help you become a responsible borrower.

  1. Research starting salaries in your field. Ask your school for starting salaries of recent graduates in your field of study to get an idea of how much you are likely to earn after you graduate. You can use the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook to estimate salaries for different careers or use a career search tool to research careers and view the average annual salary for each career.
  2. Keep track of how much you’re borrowing. Don’t wait till right before you graduate to figure this out. Think about how the amount of your loans will affect your future finances, and how much you can afford to repay. Your student loan payments should be only a small percentage of your salary after you graduate (8% is a good rule of thumb!), so it’s important not to borrow more than you need. If you’ve already borrowed for your education, you can view all of your federal student loan information in one place. Go  to nslds.ed.gov, select Financial Aid Review, and log in. You can also use our Repayment Estimator to calculate what your monthly payments might be based on your current loan balance.
  3. Understand the terms of your loan and keep copies of your loan documents. When you sign your promissory note, you are agreeing to repay the loan according to the terms of the note even if you don’t complete your education, can’t get a job after you complete the program, or didn’t like the education you received.
  4. Keep in touch with your loan servicer. Your loan servicer is the company that handles the billing and other services on your federal student loan on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education. When you begin paying back your loan, you will work directly with your loan servicer. Also, make sure you notify your loan servicer if you change your name, address, or Social Security number or when you graduate, withdraw from school, drop below half-time status, or transfer to another school. Staying in contact with your servicer will make it easier for you to successfully repay your student loans once you’ve left college.
  5. Stay ahead of your student loan payments. Once your loan enters repayment, you are required to make your scheduled loan payment as determined by your repayment plan.  If you’ve done your homework, your scheduled monthly payment amount won’t be a surprise and you’ll be prepared to begin making payments. But, if you do find yourself having trouble making your scheduled loan payments, take advantage of our flexible repayment options. Contact your servicer immediately to discuss ways to keep your loan in good standing.

Remember, federal student loans are an investment in your future so invest wisely and borrow only what you need. Find out more about student loan repayment, including when repayment starts, how to make your payment, repayment plan options, and more!

Tara Marini is a communication analyst at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid

Early Screening is Vital to Children and their Families

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The Unity Sunshine Program of Unity House of Troy in Troy, New York, offers an inclusive early learning program.

How a child plays, learns, speaks, moves, and behaves all offer important clues about a child’s development. A delay in any of these developmental milestones could be a sign of developmental challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Early intervention services, like those services that help a child learn to speak, walk, or interact with others, can really make a difference and enhance a child’s learning and development. Unfortunately, too many young children do not have access to the early screening that can help detect developmental delays.

Additionally, the CDC states that an estimated one in every 68 children in the United States has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Unfortunately, most children identified with ASD were not diagnosed until after age four, even though children can be diagnosed as early as age two or younger.

While it is imperative that all young children have access to screening and appropriate services, research highlights the need to ensure developmental screening in low-income, racially diverse urban populations, where the risk of delay is greater and access to services can be more difficult. Studies found that by 24 months of age, black children were almost five times less likely than white children to receive early intervention services, and that a lack of receipt of services appeared more consistently among black children who qualified based on developmental delay alone compared to children with a diagnosed condition. The research suggests that children of color are disproportionately underrepresented in early intervention services and less likely than white children to be diagnosed with developmental delays.

Statistics such as these can help us raise the awareness about the importance of early screening. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children receive developmental screenings with a standardized developmental screening tool at 9, 18, and either 24 or 30 months of age. Children who are screened and identified as having, or at risk for, a developmental delay can be referred to their local early intervention service program (if they are under 3 years of age), or their local public school (if they are 3 years of age or older), for additional evaluation to determine whether they are eligible for IDEA Part C or Part B 619 services. Further, screening young children early may help families to better access other federal and State-funded early learning and development services, such as home visiting, Early Head Start, Head Start, preschool, and child care.

Last month, I was pleased to announce that the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services worked together to launch Birth to 5: Watch Me Thrive! This initiative encourages early developmental and behavioral screening and follow-up with support for children and families by providing a compendium of research-based screening tools and “how to” guides for a variety of audiences, including parents, doctors, teachers, and child care providers. Research shows that early identification can lead to greater access to supports and services, helping children develop and learn.

I’ve seen first-hand how States and local providers are working to ensure that some of our most at risk children get the supports and services they need…early. I’ve met with providers of early childhood services from Las Cruces, New Mexico to East Boston, Massachusetts. The Unity Sunshine Program of Unity House of Troy in Troy, New York offers a fully integrated and inclusive early learning setting for young children with disabilities to learn alongside their typically developing peers. I’ve also learned how critical it is for States and local providers to engage, support, and empower families of young children with disabilities.

Early screening and identification are critically important steps towards giving young children with disabilities a strong start in life. Check out Birth to Five: Watch Me Thrive! and learn how you can support some of our most vulnerable children and their families.

Michael Yudin is Acting Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education

 

Teen Dating Violence and Sexual Assault in Schools: Resources and a Call to Action

Every year, about 1 in 10 American teenagers experiences physical violence at the hands of a boyfriend or girlfriend, and many others are sexually and emotionally abused. Dating violence can inflict long‑lasting pain, putting survivors at increased risk of substance abuse, depression, poor academic performance, suicidal ideation, and future violence. The U.S. Department of Education is dedicated to working with students, families, educators, and communities to prevent abuse and support survivors.

In one Texas high school, a student was raped in the band room. After reporting it to her teacher, she was told to confront her attacker to discuss what happened. The school district then accused the teenager of “public lewdness” and then removed her from her high school. She – and the rapist – were sent to the same disciplinary school.

Rather than supporting her, she was punished by the people charged with protecting her.  The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigated and found that the school had violated Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education. As part of the settlement, the district agreed to, among other things, revise its policies and procedures, provide mandatory annual training for staff, and designate a counselor at each school as “on call” for students reporting sexual harassment.

The Department of Education, our federal partners, and countless schools and colleges nationwide are committed to preventing incidents like this. We are working together to raise awareness, develop effective prevention strategies, and educate young people about healthy relationships. We recognize that the real work of preventing teen dating violence and sexual assault happens at the local level, in schools, in homes, and in community centers across the nation. Schools must clearly communicate that they will not tolerate violence of any kind, will respond to any students who report it, and will hold offenders accountable. It is also critical that we support those students who have experienced violence, which may include providing access to academic support or counseling.

The Department is vigorously enforcing compliance with Title IX and the Clery Act—laws that help make our schools safer. The following resources provide more information to support schools and communities in their efforts to create safe, healthy learning environments and identify, investigate, and remedy teen dating violence and sexual assault:

If you, a friend, or a loved one, is in an abusive relationship, the National Dating Abuse Helpline will offer immediate and confidential support.  To contact the Helpline, call 1‑866‑331‑9474, text “loveis” to 22522, or visit www.LoveIsRespect.org.

Community College Students Talk Transitions with Secretary Duncan

When someone says, “I want to go to college,” a traditional four-year college or university often comes to mind.

Many don’t think of community colleges as an option, even though they are the single largest sector of the U.S. higher education system, enrolling nearly half of all undergraduates each year.

Community colleges provide opportunity and access to millions of students, helping them prepare for a degree at a four-year institution, obtain an associate’s degree, or retrain and retool for the 21st century global economy.

On March 18, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan met with student leaders from the American Student Association of Community Colleges to discuss the importance of community colleges. The student leaders were in Wastington for their annual national Student Advocacy Conference.

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Are You Ready to Pay for College?

On April 1st President Obama announced April as National Financial Capability Month with a focus on ensuring all Americans have the tools they need to navigate the financial world and gain economic freedom. In today’s economy, financial capability is essential for managing through some of life’s biggest transitions, including paying for college. A solid understanding of money management basics makes it easier to avoid scams, spot misleading information, and make sound financial decisions on financing your education and avoiding unmanageable debt when you graduate.

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The first step in paying for college is to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) at www.fafsa.gov. Federal Student Aid has over $150 billion in financial aid available for college and it all starts with the FAFSA. The FAFSA is FREE, so you should never have to pay to have someone submit it for you. In addition, many states also have state aid available to help finance your education. You’ll want to make sure to complete your FAFSA by the priority deadline for your state to be eligible for those additional funds.  You should also spend time looking for scholarships. Many are based on your interests, community service, organization affiliations, etc. and not just your grades. StudentAid.gov has lots of great information and resources on planning and paying for college including how to search for scholarships.

Once you’ve completed your FAFSA, you won’t get a check in the mail from the government. There’s a little more to it than that. Once you’ve been accepted to the school of your choice, they will send you a financial aid award letter listing all the financial aid you are eligible for. The timing of the aid offer varies from school to school, and you could receive an aid offer as early as spring (awarding for the fall). You’ll want to be an informed consumer and make sure to closely review your aid offer. You can also compare offers from different schools to see which might be best for you. And you don’t have to accept everything that’s offered.  The rule is free money first (scholarships and grants), then earned money (work-study), and then borrowed money (federal student loans). Check out this handy chart that illustrates the order in which you should accept financial aid.

If you do have to take out student loans make sure to borrow only what you need and try and limit borrowing to federal student loans. Federal student loans typically have lower interest rates and more flexibility when it comes time to pay them back. Federal Student Aid also has a Repayment Estimator which can help you get an idea of what your monthly student loan payment may be when you graduate. This tool will help you see what impact the loans you are about to get can have on your future finances. Don’t wait until you’re ready to graduate to find out what those student loan payments might be and wonder if you can afford them!

Education is an important step in getting a good paying job and can lay the foundation for your financial future. Plan ahead and make smart decisions about how you finance it.

Susan Thares is the digital engagement lead at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid

Washington State Teachers Bring Real-World Problems to the Classroom

Cross-posted from the OII blog.

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Teachers at Sammamish High School meet for collaborative PBL curriculum planning. (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Miller/Edutopia)

Changing a high school curriculum — such as moving it from traditional pedagogy and assessment to problem-based learning (PBL) — is a huge challenge, and one that the faculty and students at Sammamish High School in Washington state’s Bellevue School District know well. They’re three years into a five-year transition to PBL with support from an Investing in Innovation (i3) Development grant.

Since the inception of their i3 project in 2010, teachers and administrators at Sammamish High School have collaborated and redesigned 30 courses to incorporate PBL. They believe it will better prepare their students for college and careers by making content across the curriculum more engaging and relevant to the world students will encounter after high school. “Turning the school inside out,” is how Suzanne Reeve, a Sammamish High teacher leader, describes it.

Collaboration has been key for teachers and students as they make the transition from Sammamish’s traditional curriculum to problem-based learning. Seventy-five teachers so far have worked in subject-area teams to create rigorous coursework that engages all students. It’s a “really challenging mental shift” for the teachers, according to Adrienne Curtis Dickinson, another of the PBL teacher leaders, but the course redesign process is giving teachers a voice and the ability to decide where best to integrate problems or projects into the curriculum.

Dickinson, who is social studies teacher at Sammamish, is reporting on her school’s journey in Edutopia™, part of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, that is collaborating with the Bellevue schools on the implementation of its i3 project. Click here to read her latest report and watch a companion video in “Case Study: Reinventing a Public High School with Problem-Based Learning.”

Restructuring the core subjects of math and English were especially challenging. But with thoughtful planning, student-designed games enhanced a unit on probability by increasing the engagement of students who struggled with math. In English classes, students are engaging with literature texts in different ways, such as writing about how the big ideas in classic works are relevant to their lives and society today. Across the curriculum, students find themselves more engaged in the coursework and collaborating with each other for projects as they take ownership of their own learning.

Holly Clark is a management and program analyst in the Office of Innovation and Improvement and the program officer for the Bellevue School District i3 grant.

Kids: Time to Get Cooking!

Kids – it’s time to get cookin’! Entries are now being accepted for the third annual Healthy Lunchtime Challenge & Kids’ State Dinner.

This nationwide recipe challenge aims to promote healthy eating among America’s youth. Children and their parents are encouraged to create original lunchtime recipes that are healthy, affordable and — above all else — delicious.

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Fifty-six children (one from each state, DC, Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories) and their parent or guardian will be flown to Washington D.C., and have the opportunity  to attend a Kids’ “State Dinner” at the White House, hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. A selection of the winning healthy recipes will be served.

Let’s Move! has teamed up with Epicurious, the Department of Education and USDA to sponsor this gastronomic challenge and encourage healthy eating habits.

The rules are simple: the recipe must be healthy, delicious, original, affordable, and meaningful. Details and past examples are available here. All entrants are encouraged to reference the MyPlate nutritional guidelines to ensure recipes meet the primary criterion of being healthier.

Recipe submissions will be accepted through April 5th … so head on into the kitchen soon!

Learn more:

Dorothy Amatucci is a new media analyst in the Office of Communications and Outreach

Student Leaders Speak About Preparing for 21st Century Careers

Everyone wants a fast track to a job they’ll love.  And, what student wouldn’t enjoy the chance to develop leadership skills and explore a field of interest – before they enter college and the workplace?

America’s Career and Technical Student Organizations – or CTSOs – have a proud history of helping future professionals gain the skills and experience they’ll need to excel in a wide range of challenging careers, like health care, education, technology, business and finance, management and marketing, agriculture, or manufacturing.  Many CTSOs got their start early in the last century.  But today, these groups are intently focused on helping students to master 21st century realities.

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At the event. Pictured, from left to right: Cole Simmons, Lyndsay Robinson, Devindra Persad, Kyle Clement, Arne Duncan, Carter Christensen, Daria Ferdin, Caleb Gum, Mollie Miller, and Brian Will

In February, to honor Career and Technical Education Month student representatives from nine of the nation’s CTSOs traveled to the Department from as far away as Florida, to meet with Secretary Duncan and Assistant Secretary Brenda Dann-Messier. Some of these students already attend college; others are high school students making plans for postsecondary education.  All of them were eager to explain the ways that CTSOs – from the Future Business Leaders of America and Health Occupations Students of America, to SkillsUSA and the Technology Students Association – help make sure their members can seize the opportunities in today’s competitive economy.

The students discussed their CTSOs’ missions, goals, and recent events.  Secretary Duncan asked how their involvement in these organizations is preparing them for success in college and careers.  Devindra Persad answered, “I think being in a CTSO strengthens our minds and lets us know that when we graduate we will be doing something.”

Devindra should know: over the past seven years, he has served as HOSA’s Regional Secretary, Regional Vice President, and Florida HOSA State Southern Vice President. This involvement has led to real-world experiences at local level, with his neighborhood fire department, all the way to the national level, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Office of the Surgeon General.

The students expressed confidence in the skills their organizations have taught them, and described ways that their participation has allowed them to discover their passions and set a clearer course for the future.  Nearly all of the CTSO groups host state and national competitions, as well as conferences for their members to network together and participate in development workshops.

SkillsUSA representative and New Jersey native Daria Ferdin made it clear that access is open to all interested students. “With joining a CTSO,” she said, “the great thing is that it doesn’t matter what race or religion or economic class you are; everyone is able to do it.”  Many CTSOs provide scholarships and other forms of financial assistance for members with limited resources.  Daria’s organization offers a wide umbrella for students interested in trade, technical and skilled service occupations; she explained that the lessons she’s learned during four years of membership, combined with her cinematic arts classes, have brought her dream of starting a production company within reach.

According to these youth advocates for CTSOs, there’s just one challenge: increasing the general public’s awareness of just how much these organization can help students. Carter Christensen serves as national President for DECA, a student organization focused on equipping emerging leaders and entrepreneurs for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management.  “It’s not just about telling parents how great CTSOs are,” he noted, “but getting schools to recognize it, too.”  Through DECA, Carter has spent the past year traveling and speaking at events across the United States. In addition to public and civic events, he has also served as spokesman on CTSO issues, representing DECA and other groups in meetings with policymakers in the capitol of his home state of South Dakota.

These students came to Washington with a mission: to offer Secretary Duncan and the Obama Administration their perspective on the advantages of CTSO participation.  And, no one who met these articulate and motivated young people could doubt their message: career and technical student organizations provide the information and exposure students need to shape their college and career goals, along with experiences that help them feel confident and able to take charge of their futures.

Last year, in a speech at the FFA National Convention, Secretary Duncan told a cheering crowd of 15,000 CTSO members, “Our nation needs your skills, your passion, your compassion, and your talents to compete and prosper in a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy.”

The students who visited the Department in February made it clear that they were ready to answer the call – and that America’s CTSOs had helped them to get there.

This discussion is part of the ongoing Student Voices Series, where students engage with the Secretary of Education and senior staff to solicit and help develop recommendations on current programs and future policies. 

Sam Ryan is special assistant and youth liaison at the U.S. Department of Education