Student Loan Forgiveness (and Other Ways the Government Can Help You Repay Your Loans)

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Here’s a question a lot of people may be wondering … Is it really possible to have my federal student loans forgiven or to get help repaying them?

The answer is: Yes! However, there are very specific eligibility requirements for each situation in which you can apply for loan forgiveness or receive help with repayment. Loan forgiveness means that you don’t have to pay back some or all of your loan. You never know what you may be eligible for, so take a look at the options we have listed below. The first two options focus on loan forgiveness programs. The next two options are government programs that may provide based on your service.

  1. Teacher Loan Forgiveness

If you teach full-time for five complete and consecutive academic years in certain elementary and secondary schools and educational service agencies that serve low-income families, and meet other qualifications, you may be eligible for forgiveness of up to a combined total of $17,500 on certain federal student loans. Get the details about Teacher Loan Forgiveness here.

  1. Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

If you work full-time for a government or not-for-profit organization you may qualify for forgiveness of the entire remaining balance of your Direct Loans after you’ve made 120 qualifying payments—that is, 10 years of payments. Learn more about PSLF now! To benefit from PSLF, you should repay your federal student loans under an income-driven repayment plan.

  1. Military Service

In acknowledgement of your service to our country, there are special benefits and repayment options for your student loans available from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Defense, such as interest rate caps under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, other interest rate relief, and student loan repayment programs. Learn more about federal student loan benefits for members of the U.S. armed forces.

  1. AmeriCorps

The Segal AmeriCorps Education Award is a post-service benefit received by participants who complete a term of national service in an approved AmeriCorps program—AmeriCorps VISTA, AmeriCorps NCCC, or AmeriCorps State and National. Upon successful completion of the service, members are eligible to receive a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award which can be used to repay qualified student loans.

If the options listed above don’t apply to you, but you need help making your federal student loan payments, contact your loan servicer about the option to

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

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

How to Qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness

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Everyone wants their student loans forgiven. The perception is that very few qualify. But did you know that there is one broad, employment-based forgiveness program for federal student loans? Let me break down some key points of PSLF to help you figure out if you could qualify.

[ 1 ] Work in Qualifying Employment

First, you need to work for the right employer—a public service employer. What does that mean? Everyone has a different definition. Ours is based on who employs you, not what you do at work. Here’s what qualifies:

  • Governmental organizations – Federal, state, local, Tribal
  • 501(c)(3) organizations
  • A not-for-profit organization that provides specific public services, such as public education or public health

Here’s what doesn’t qualify:

  • Labor unions
  • Partisan political organizations
  • For-profit organizations

[ 2 ] Qualifying Employment Status

If you work at one of these types of organizations—great! Next, you need to work in a qualifying employment status, which means that you must be a full-time employee. For us, full-time means that you meet your employer’s definition or work at least 30 hours per week, whichever is greater.

[ 3 ] Have a Qualifying Loan

A qualifying loan is a Direct Loan. It’s that simple. Of course, it’s the government, so nothing is actually that simple. There are (or were) three big federal student loan programs:

If you’re not sure which loan program, I can’t blame you—I had 20 loans when I finished graduate school! You can log in to My Federal Student Aid to determine which program you borrowed from. Here’s a tip: if you see “Direct” in the name, it’s a Direct Loan. Otherwise, it’s not.

Don’t have a Direct Loan? Don’t despair! You can consolidate your federal student loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan and qualify for PSLF. Not having a Direct Loan is the biggest reason that borrowers aren’t on track for PSLF, so do your homework. If you need to consolidate, check the box in the application that says that you’re consolidating for the purposes of loan forgiveness. It will make your life easier.

[ 4 ] Have a Qualifying Repayment Plan

Next, you need a qualifying repayment plan. All of the “income-driven repayment plans” qualify. So does the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan, but if you’re on that plan, you should switch to an income-driven repayment plan right now, or you will have little or nothing to forgive after you meet all of the criteria.

If you’re consolidating, be sure to apply for an income-driven repayment plan because the Standard Repayment Plan for Direct Consolidation Loans almost never qualifies.

You can apply for an income-driven repayment plan on StudentLoans.gov.

[ 5 ] Make 120 Qualifying Payments

Lastly, you need to make qualifying payments—120 of them. A qualifying payment is exactly what you think it is. You get a bill. It has an “amount due” and a “due date”. Make your full payment by the due date (or up to 15 days later), and the payment qualifies. If you make a payment when you’re not required to—say, because, you’re in a deferment or you paid your student loan well in advance—then it doesn’t count. The best way to set yourself up for success is to sign up for automatic payments with your servicer.

Your payments do not need to be consecutive. So, if you make qualifying payments, stop, and then start again, you don’t start over.

I’m sorry to have to mention a random date, but a payment only qualifies if it was made after October 1, 2007, so nobody can qualify until 2017 at the earliest.

Okay, so do I qualify?

Now, let’s put it all together. For any payment to count toward PSLF, you need to meet all of the criteria when you make each payment. That means you need to be working for a qualifying employer on a full-time basis when you make a qualifying payment under a qualifying repayment plan on a Direct Loan.

I know all of you are still thinking—“that’s great, but do I qualify?” Here’s how you find out. Download this form. Fill it out. Have your employer certify it. Send it to FedLoan Servicing (one of our federal student loan servicers). FedLoan Servicing will figure this all out and let you know whether your employment qualifies, and how many qualifying payments you’ve made.

Submit the form early and often. We recommend once per year or when you change jobs. Why? Because it means that you won’t have to submit 10 years’ worth of forms when you ultimately want to apply for forgiveness. It also means that you can apply for forgiveness with confidence.

One more piece of good news: PSLF is tax-free.

Ian Foss has worked as a program specialist for the Department of Education since 2010. He’s scheduled to be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness on October 6, 2021, if all goes according to plan.

5 Common Student Loan Mistakes

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1) Not figuring out how much you’ll need to pay each month

As you’re trying to plan your life after graduation, it’s important that you know how much you’ll need to pay each month toward your student loans so you can budget your other expenses accordingly. To estimate what you’ll need to pay based on your income and loan debt, use the repayment estimator.

2) Choosing the wrong repayment plan

The repayment plan you choose is a major factor in determining how much your monthly student loan payment will be and how long it will take you to pay back your loans. The Department of Education offers several different repayment plans. To compare these plans based on your student loan debt and income, use the repayment estimator.

Make sure you’re enrolled in a plan that you can afford. If you’re struggling to make your monthly payment, consider switching to an income-driven repayment plan, such as our “Income-Based” or “Pay As You Earn” plans. If you have questions, need advice, or would like to switch your repayment plan, contact your loan servicer.

3) Not paying extra when you can

If you are paying interest on your federal student loan, that interest accrues each day. An easy way to save money on your student loans is to pay more than what’s required whenever you can. Here are some ideas:

  • Make interest payments while you’re still in school and/or during your grace period
  • Use your tax refund to make an additional loan payment
  • Tack a few extra dollars onto your payment each month

4) Missing payments

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or don’t think you’ll be able to afford your next student loan payment, don’t just stop paying. Instead, contact your loan servicer as soon as possible. Not making your student loan payments is a big deal. It can result in default, which negatively impacts your credit score, and may affect your ability to borrow for things like a car or a home. Your loan servicer can recommend options to reduce or postpone your payment and keep your loan in good standing.

5) Paying for student loan help

There are countless ads online from companies offering to help you manage your student loan debt…for a fee, of course. But, did you know that you can get help with your student loans for free? The U.S. Department of Education provides FREE student loan help through our servicers.

Your loan servicer is the company hired by the U.S. Department of Education to help you manage, understand, and pay back your loans. They are there to help guide you through the loan repayment process, answering any questions you have along the way.

Their services are provided free of charge, but they can only help you if they can reach you. Graduating and moving away from campus? Changing your cell phone number or e-mail address? Make sure you let your loan servicer know.

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

Beware! You Don’t Have to Pay for Help with Your Student Loans

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There are countless ads online from companies offering to help you manage your student loan debt…for a fee, of course. But, did you know that you can get help with your student loans for free?

If you’re a federal student loan borrower, the U.S. Department of Education provides free assistance to help:

  • Lower Your Monthly Payment;
  • Consolidate Your Loans;
  • See If You Qualify For Loan Forgiveness; and
  • Get Out of Default

Lower Your Monthly Payment

Are you out of a job or not earning very much? The federal government makes it easy for you to switch to a more affordable repayment plan at any time at no cost.

Your loan servicer – the company that collects your payments, responds to your customer service inquiries, and does other tasks related to your federal student loan – can help you decide which repayment plan best suits you. Click here for a list of servicers’ contact information and to find out how to look up your servicer.

Before you contact your servicer, check out the Repayment Estimator to get an idea of plans that may be available to you and to see estimates for your monthly payments.

Consolidate Your Loans

If you have multiple loans that you want to combine, you can apply for loan consolidation through StudentLoans.gov. The application is free, and there are no extra processing fees.

Some people find it simpler to group all their student loans into a single loan with one interest rate and one monthly payment. If you choose to consolidate your federal student loans with the U.S. Department of Education, you, too, may be able to take advantage of flexible repayment plans, including ones that base your payments on your income and family size.

See If You Qualify For Loan Forgiveness

Loan forgiveness is the process by which a borrower is released from their obligation to repay all or a portion of the principal and interest on a student loan. This also is known as discharge or cancellation. Loan forgiveness programs were created to encourage people to take certain types of jobs, to help borrowers with lower income jobs, and to compensate for permanent disabilities.

Many student loan companies advertise that they can help you get your loans forgiven. And sometimes, they simply are using the Department of Education’s free resources to help you, but are charging you to do so.

In fact, your loan servicer can help you determine if you qualify for loan forgiveness … for free.

Get Out of Default

If your loan is already in default, the debt relief companies know it and may target you with online and mobile ads, phone calls, and maybe even letters to your home address. By being in default, you’ve already incurred added interest, and you’re subject to collection fees. There’s no reason to add additional fees by signing up with a debt relief company.

Even if your loan is in default, loan consolidation is free and so is getting on a loan rehabilitation plan. Find out how to get out of default.

Protecting Your Log-In and Account Information

When student loan debt relief companies offer to manage your loan account, to do so, they will ask you to provide them with your federal student aid log-in information, or sign a Power of Attorney. Think about it: your log-in information is the equivalent of your signature on documents related to your student loan. If you share this information or sign a Power of Attorney, you are giving that person the power, literally, to take actions on your student loan on your behalf.

And if the debt relief company collects fees from you, but never actually makes any payments on your loan for you, you still will be responsible for those outstanding payments and late fees. You should protect your federal student aid log-in and account information as securely as you guard your ATM PIN.

Do You Think You’ve Been Scammed or Need a Resolution?

If you’ve already signed a contract with a debt relief company, and you think they have cheated you, call the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) at 1-855-411-2372, or submit a complaint online. Under “What type of service is your complaint about?” select Debt Settlement. Then, choose I have a problem with a company that I hired to help reduce or settle my debt.

Also, many state governments have an Office of Consumer Affairs or Consumer Protection either within or affiliated with the office of the state’s Attorney General.

If you’ve tried to work out your student loan debt issues with your servicer without success, you can contact the Federal Student Aid Ombudsman Group, which helps resolve disputes related to Direct Loans, Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program loans, Guaranteed Student Loans, and Perkins Loans.

Remember, there are no student loan companies affiliated with the Department of Education that charge fees to help you manage your loan repayment. With the resources available to you through the Department of Education, you can successfully manage your loan repayment for free.

April Jordan is a senior communications specialist at Federal Student Aid.

6 Things You MUST Know About Repaying Your Student Loans

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If you’re already repaying your student loans or about to begin making payments for the first time, it’s easy to get intimidated. Although you have lots of options to consider, there’s no reason to be alarmed. In just a few minutes, you can get a good handle on your student loans and who knows, you may even save yourself some time and money in the long run.

And REMEMBER: If you ever need any one-on-one help understanding your repayment options, you can get it (for FREE!) through your loan servicer. You should never have to pay for help with your federal student loans.

Here are six things you should know about your student loans.

1. When to start making payments

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. If you are able, you might want to consider making interest payments during your grace period so your principal balance doesn’t increase.

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.

2. Who to pay

You will make your federal student loan payments to your loan servicer*, not the U.S. Department of Education (ED) directly. ED 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 mailing address, e-mail, or phone number so they know where to send correspondence and how to contact you.

3. How much 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. To switch repayment plans, contact your loan servicer.

4. How to Make Your 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. And if you choose to enroll in automatic debit, you may even qualify for a special interest rate reduction.

5. What to do if you can’t make your payment

Contact your loan servicer as soon as possible if you are confused or can’t afford your monthly payment. You do have options to lower your payment, such as changing your repayment plan to one that will allow you to have a longer repayment period or to one that is based on your income. If switching repayment plans isn’t a good option for you, ask your loan servicer about loan consolidation or postponing your payments.

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.

6. What could happen if you don’t make your payments

Not making your student loan payments is a big deal. It can result in default, which negatively impacts your credit score, and 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.

Tara Marini is a communications specialist at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

4 Must-DOs Before Repaying Your Student Loans

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Congratulations, Class of 2015! Your hard work paid off. You did it! There’s a lot to think about as you begin the next chapter. Let me help you with the student loan part.

Here are four things you should do now, before you make that first student loan payment:

  1. Find out what you owe

Start by tracking down all of your student loans. Just go to StudentAid.gov/login and log in to view your federal student loan balances, interest rate, loan servicer contact information, and more.

Note: Don’t forget to check your personal records to see if you have private student loans as well.

Login

  1. Enroll in a repayment plan that you can afford

If you take no action after you graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment, you will be automatically enrolled in the 10-Year Standard Repayment Plan. Find out what your monthly payment amount is going to be if you stick with this plan. If you don’t think you can afford that amount, consider switching to an income-driven repayment plan instead.

Income-driven repayment plans are designed to make your student loan debt more manageable by reducing your monthly payment amount to an affordable amount based on your income.

The easiest way to compare the different repayment plans based on your loan amount and income is to use our repayment calculator. Once you log in, the calculator pulls in information about your federal student loans, such as your loan balance and your interest rates, and allows you to estimate what your monthly payment would be under each of our different repayment plans. It also allows you to compare the total amount you will pay for your loan over time and can tell you the amount of loan forgiveness you’re expected to qualify for if you choose one of our income-driven repayment plans:

repayment

Estimate

Once you select a plan, contact your servicer to apply or enroll.

  1. Figure out how to pay

If you have federal student loans, you won’t pay the U.S. Department of Education directly. You will make payments to your loan servicer. Your loan servicer is a company that works on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education to process and manage student loan payments. To find out who your loan servicer is, log in to StudentAid.gov. You may have more than one loan servicer, so it is important that you look at each loan individually.

Automatic Debit: The easiest way to pay

If you want to make repaying your student loans as easy as possible, sign up for automatic debit through your loan servicer. If you choose this option, your loan payments will be automatically deducted from your bank account each month, ensuring that your payments are made on time. If that isn’t good enough, you may also qualify for a 0.25% interest rate reduction when you enroll in automatic debit. To enroll in automatic debit, go to your servicer’s website.

Servicer-Website

  1. Know who to contact if you need help

If you ever have questions or need help with your student loans contact your loan servicer. Your loan servicer can help you choose a repayment plan, understand loan consolidation, apply for an income-driven repayment plan, and complete other tasks related to your federal student loan. It’s important to remember that you NEVER have to pay for help with your student loans. That’s what your loan servicer is there for. Their help is FREE.

It’s important to maintain contact with your loan servicer. If your circumstances change at any time during your repayment period, your loan servicer will be able to help.

Contact-Servicer

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

How to Update Your FAFSA After Filing Your Taxes

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Did you submit your 2015-16 FAFSA ® before you (or your parents, if you are a dependent student) filed your 2014 taxes? If so, don’t forget you are required to return to your application to update the information you originally estimated with the updated numbers from your 2014 tax return. And, you should update your information as soon as possible.

The easiest way to update your tax information is by using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT). It allows you to transfer your tax information directly into your FAFSA! Check to see if your tax return is available and if you are eligible to use the tool, but keep in mind, you generally have to wait a few weeks after filing your taxes before you can use the IRS DRT.

To update your FAFSA:

  1. Log on to gov.
  2. Click Make FAFSA Corrections.
  3. Navigate to the “Finances section.”
  4. Change your answer from “Will file” to “Already completed.”

At this point, if you are eligible to use the IRS DRT, you will see a Link to IRS button. If you are not eligible to use the IRS DRT, you can manually enter the data from your completed tax return.

  1. Click Link to IRS and log in with the IRS to retrieve your tax information.
  • Enter the requested information exactly as it appears on your tax return.
  • Review your information to see what tax data will be transferred into your FAFSA.
  • Check Transfer My Tax Information into the FAFSA, and click Transfer Now to return to the FAFSA.
  1. Review the data that was transferred to your FAFSA and click Next.
  2. Sign and submit your updated FAFSA.

Once you’ve made updates at fafsa.gov, your changes will be processed in three to five days. You’ll receive a revised Student Aid Report (SAR) indicating the changes made to your application. Each school you listed on your FAFSA can access the revised information one day after it’s processed.

The University of California at Santa Barbara put together a video that walks you through this process. Check it out:

Well, what are you waiting for? Let the updating begin!

April Jordan is a senior communications specialist at Federal Student Aid.

¡Estudia, Hay Dinero! There’s Money to Study!

First Lady Michelle Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan participate in an interview with Don Francisco of UNIVISION at Northwestern High School in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

First Lady Michelle Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan participate in an interview with Don Francisco of UNIVISION at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, MD, Feb. 12, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan sat down recently with Don Francisco, the renowned host of Univision’s longest-running TV show, Sábado Gigante, to discuss the importance of filling out the FAFSA. The message is simple: ¡Estudia, Hay Dinero! or, There’s Money to Study!

Students and parents filled a classroom at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, to hear the First Lady tell her story of achieving her dreams by going to college. The First Lady spoke of her experience as a first-generation college student whose parents offered lots of moral support and encouragement even though they had not gone to college themselves. She told the students, “I’m actually just like you. There’s no magic. It requires hard work”.

After the interview, parents and seniors gathered in the school’s computer lab to complete the FAFSA with the help of school counselors and staff from Federal Student Aid.

When talking to the students about their future goals, many were honest about their experience and even admitted that they messed up at the beginning of high school. They explained that they realized the importance of going to college because it’s key to a better future. One of those students said she wants to pursue a dream of becoming a fashion designer. She understands that in order to have a promising future, she needs to get a degree. With the support of her family and friends, she will graduate this spring and attend community college in the fall.

Both the First Lady and Secretary Duncan understand that parents may be nervous about their kids leaving home or may be apprehensive about completing the form. But they urged all the parents to encourage their kids to reach higher, to complete their educations, and to own their futures.

The Department has simplified the FAFSA, making it easier now for students and families to complete. It’s no secret that going to college is expensive, but like Secretary Duncan said, “It’s the best investment you could make.” In only twenty-five minutes a student and family can have access to the billions of dollars in federal aid the government offers towards education. It costs absolutely nothing to fill out the form, but can be the factor that helps a student achieve his or her dreams.

Remember: There’s money to study! If you or a student you know has not yet filled out the FAFSA, visit www.studentaid.gov to answer your questions and link you to the FAFSA. Congratulations to all of the students making the choice to Reach Higher!

Rahje Branch is the Reach Higher intern in the Office of the First Lady. She is a sophomore studying at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA.

A Guide to Reporting Parent Info on your FAFSA

If you’re planning on going to college this fall, you will definitely want to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). The FAFSA not only gives you access to grants and loans from the federal government, but many states and schools also use information from the FAFSA to award their financial aid.

If you are considered a dependent student for the purposes of the FAFSA, you are required to provide information about your parent(s) on the application. (Note: The dependency guidelines for the FAFSA are set by Congress and are different than those used on your tax return.) You might be wondering which parent’s information to report or what you should do if your parents are divorced, remarried, or if you live with another family member.

Don’t worry; we can help you figure out whose information to include. For a quick visual reference, check out our infographic, Who’s My Parent When I Fill Out the FAFSA?

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Or, if you want to more information, here are some guidelines. Unless noted, “parent” means your legal (biological or adoptive) parent.

  • If your parents are living and legally married to each other, answer the questions about both of them.
  • If your parents are living together and are not married, answer the questions about both of them.
  • If your parents are divorced or separated and don’t live together, answer the questions about the parent with whom you lived more during the past 12 months. If you lived the same amount of time with each parent, give answers about the parent who provided more financial support during the past 12 months or during the most recent year that you actually received support from a parent. If you have a stepparent who is married to the legal parent whose information you’re reporting, you must provide information about that stepparent as well.

The following people are not considered your parents on your FAFSA unless they have adopted you: grandparents, foster parents, legal guardians, older brothers or sisters, and uncles or aunts.

If you still have questions or are unsure what to do if your parents are unable or unwilling to provide their information for your FAFSA, you can get more information at StudentAid.ed.gov/fafsa/filling-out/parent-info.

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

Gaithersburg’s “Blue Crew” Goes for the Green During FAFSA Fill-in Day

The media center at GHS was packed for “FAFSA Fill-in Day”. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The media center at GHS was packed for “FAFSA Fill-in Day”. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

I wish all my mornings could be like this – visiting schools filled with excited students, as they explore their options and take action to turn their college dreams into realities.

Students, teachers and administrators packed the Media Center at Gaithersburg High School (GHS) in Gaithersburg, Maryland as they prepared for their “FAFSA Fill-in Day” to encourage seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at school, and find out more information regarding other financial aid options, and scholarships. They’d been kind enough to ask a team of us from the Department to join them – and there was no way I was going to miss out on the experience!

School spirit filled the room. A sea of blue Gaithersburg apparel adorned the crowd in the Media Center, with the phrase “Blue Crew” emblazoned on shirts and sweaters. Multiple flags from around the world hung from the ceiling, celebrating the diversity of the Gaithersburg High School community.

In the crowd, a familiar face stood out to our Department of Education (ED) staff. GHS English Resource Teacher and former Teacher Ambassador Fellow, Ms. Jennifer Bado-Aleman, welcomed attendees and announced that Federal Student Aid representatives were on hand to answer questions about the application. As seniors began filling out their forms, I was invited to a roundtable where students described their experiences in using the FAFSA, shared their college and career aspirations, and even opened up about some higher education fears.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college. Unfortunately, I didn’t look into it until last year,” one senior explained. “We need to start a plan by our freshman year,” interjected another. When I asked about the college information they needed, some mentioned: information about which majors specific colleges offer, guidance on how much to emphasize extra-curricular activities on their college applications, and how much their average SAT scores would count in how colleges considered candidates. Others said they took a step further and first looked at careers they wanted to pursue, before narrowing down their list of schools with a strong focus in that field.

They were pleased to learn that ED had released our College Ratings framework. President Obama asked our Department to design a ratings system that will give parents and students more information about their college choices by recognizing institutions that focus on accessibility, affordability and completion. The students also offered their opinions on how and by which measures colleges should be rated, including the quality of their majors, their graduation rates, and the employment rates of their graduates. Others chimed in on ratings options as the conversation continued:

“Financial aid to students,” Blake volunteered.

“Internship placements,” added Joanne.

“Tuition rates,” said Hakeem.

Parker thought colleges should be rated on “freshman retention, and the employment of their graduates. [Colleges] need to consistently be living up to their expectation.”

Chatting about the FAFSA. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Chatting about the FAFSA. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

I was glad to be able to share the many ED resources and tools that help students guide and focus their college search, like the College Navigator, which allows students to search for colleges based on majors, institution type and geography, and the College Scorecard, which gives students access to more information about a school’s affordability and value.

Paying for college was another important theme; and several students expressed fears about student debt. “My siblings all went to college and now struggle to pay their loans,” DJ noted. Blake told me he’d been considering out-of-state schools, but didn’t want to be saddled with years of loans to repay.

I’ve heard from many students who worry about how they will manage their student debt. That is why President Obama outlined a set of actions that can help borrowers better manage their student loan debt, including expanding his Pay As You Earn plan so more borrowers can cap monthly payments at 10 percent of their income. In addition, those that enter public service full-time may have their loans forgiven through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Since President Obama took office, our Department has made key investment in federal student aid such as creating the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit, raising the maximum Pell Grant award by $1,000, and bringing millions of dollars back into the hands of students by eliminating billions of dollars of subsidies to banks.

The first step in receiving federal student aid is filling out the FAFSA, just like so many of the students I visited in Gaithersburg did. Getting help to pay for college is the best investment any student can make in their future. So, go for the green! Learn more and help us spread the word by visiting StudentAid.ed.gov.

Ted Mitchell is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education.

FAFSA Completion Numbers Now Available via Updated Tool

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We’ve updated our FAFSA Completion Tool!

Back in March of 2012, ED’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) announced the release of this innovative tool to help guidance professionals, school administrators, and practitioners track and subsequently increase FAFSA completions at high schools across the country.

Over time, we enhanced the Tool to not only provide FAFSA submission and completion totals for high schools during the current year but also totals for the same time the year before and other key benchmark dates.

The 2015 version provides updated information on a weekly basis during the peak FAFSA application period. This means that counselors and administrators will have access to current data so they can more accurately gauge the impact of outreach efforts and identify successful local strategies.

Before we developed the tool, the only source of data on FAFSA completions that high schools had was from self-reported student surveys, which were highly unreliable.

Now, educators have real-time access to reliable data to track FAFSA submission and completion and gauge their progress in increasing FAFSA completion. This is incredibly important because studies have indicated that FAFSA completion correlates strongly with college enrollment, particularly among low-income populations.

We encourage high schools to use this data as one component of a comprehensive college access and completion program within their school. To help educators, counselors, and others with this and other aid awareness and loan repayment efforts, we’ve created the Financial Aid Toolkit.

The Toolkit consolidates financial aid resources and content into a searchable online database, making it easy for individuals to quickly access the information they need to support their students. It also provides counselors with access to valuable resources, such as how to host a FAFSA completion workshop. We’re also encouraging folks to help us get the word out about FAFSA completion on their social media accounts – and we’ve even written some sample posts to help get the conversation started!

The Tool is a critical component of President Obama’s FAFSA Completion Initiative and this year, local completion efforts are getting a boost from Mrs. Obama’s “FAFSA Completion Challenge,” a video competition the First Lady recently launched to encourage more high school students to complete the FAFSA.

FAFSA data isn’t just for determining eligibility for federal student aid. Many states, institutions, and private organizations rely on the FAFSA to determine eligibility for non-federal sources of aid.

Last year, over one million high school seniors did not submit the FAFSA, which made them ineligible for federal grants and loans, as well as most state-based and institutional aid. When students complete the FAFSA, they help themselves and make a positive contribution to their school, communities, and states.

The promise of the FAFSA Completion Tool lies in its simplicity and its use of current data to effectively measure the success of FAFSA completion efforts. Last year, it provided FAFSA submission and completion data for the senior classes at over 25,000 high schools in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and all U.S. territories.

For more information on the Tool and to search updated FAFSA Completion Tool data by high school for the senior class of 2015, visit StudentAid.gov/FAFSA-HS-Data.

Todd May is Federal Student Aid’s Director of Communication Services and Greg Fortelny is the Acting Director of Federal Student Aid’s Customer Analytics Group.

When Should You File Your FAFSA?

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The short answer is … it depends.

There are school deadlines, state deadlines, and a federal deadline. An easy rule of thumb to remember is: You should submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) based on the earliest due date possible.

If you plan to attend college between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, and you want to be considered for financial aid, your deadline could be as early as February!

You don’t have to wait until you or your parents file your taxes to submit your FAFSA; you can estimate your tax information and update your FAFSA later.

For college deadlines, visit the school’s website or contact its financial aid office.

Check out the table below for information about states with first-come, first-served programs and information for states and territories that require checking in with your school’s financial aid office. If your state is not listed in the table below, click here to find your state’s FAFSA deadline.

For more specific deadline information from your state of legal residence, use this easy FAFSA deadlines tool.

April Jordan is a Senior Communications Specialist at Federal Student Aid.