How Can the Department of Education Increase Innovation, Transparency and Access to Data?

Despite the growing amount of information about higher education, many students and families still need access to clear, helpful resources to make informed decisions about going to – and paying for – college.  President Obama has called for innovation in college access, including by making sure all students have easy-to-understand information.

Now, the U.S. Department of Education needs your input on specific ways that we can increase innovation, transparency, and access to data.  In particular, we are interested in how APIs (application programming interfaces) could make our data and processes more open and efficient.

APIs are set of software instructions and standards that allow machine-to-machine communication.  APIs could allow developers from inside and outside government to build apps, widgets, websites, and other tools based on government information and services to let consumers access government-owned data and participate in government-run processes from more places on the Web, even beyond .gov websites. Well-designed government APIs help make data and processes freely available for use within agencies, between agencies, in the private sector, or by citizens, including students and families.

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President Obama Announces New FAFSA Completion Initiative

Earlier today at Coral Reef High School in Miami, President Obama announced the launch of an exciting initiative to help ensure that more of America’s students take the first step towards college success: completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

FAFSA GraphicThe FAFSA Completion Initiative helps states, districts and schools give students the support they need to complete the form which serves as the gateway to accessing financial aid for college, career school, or graduate school.

The FAFSA not only gives students access to the nearly $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.

FAFSA Completion Initiative:

  • We will be partnering with states to enable them to provide to schools and districts limited, yet valuable information on student progress in completing the FAFSA  beginning in the 2014-15 school year.
  • Additionally, the Office of Federal Student Aid has updated the existing FAFSA completion tool with FAFSA completion numbers for the 2014 high school graduating class at over 25,000 high schools across the nation.
  • These new resources can help increase FAFSA completion rates, and by extension, promote college access and success.

Resources:

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education

5 Things To Do After Filing Your FAFSA

Congratulations! You finished filling out the 2014-2015 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)! Now what?

1. Look Out For Your Student Aid Report

FAFSA LOGOAfter you submit your FAFSA, you’ll get a Student Aid Report (SAR). Your SAR is a paper or electronic document that gives you some basic information about your eligibility for federal student aid as well as listing your answers to the questions on your FAFSA.

Any student with a Federal Student Aid PIN can view and print his or her SAR by logging in to www.fafsa.gov and clicking on the appropriate school year. This is also where you can check the status of your application if you have not received your SAR yet. Once you get your SAR, you should review it carefully to make sure it’s correct and complete. If you made a mistake, make sure you go in and correct or update your FAFSA.

2. Locate Your EFC

Found your SAR? Awesome! You may want to start by looking for your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC can be found in the box at the top of the first page of your SAR, under your social security number.

Your EFC is a measure of your family’s financial strength and is calculated according to a formula established by law. Its formula considers your family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security) as well as your family size and the number of family members who will attend college during the year.

Schools use your EFC to determine your federal student aid eligibility and your financial aid award. However, it’s important to remember that your EFC is not the amount of money your family will have to pay for college nor is it the amount of federal student aid you will receive. It is a number used by your school to calculate how much financial aid you are eligible to receive. Contact your school’s financial aid office if you have any questions about how they calculate financial aid.

3. Make Corrections If You Need To

It’s important to make sure that everything on your FAFSA is correct and complete, as your school may ask you to verify some of the information.

Did you fill out FAFSA before your 2013 tax information was complete? Do you need to update any information? Did you find a mistake? Don’t worry! It’s easy to make corrections online at www.fafsa.gov. Log in and click “Make FAFSA Corrections.” You’ll need to enter your Federal Student Aid PIN to make any corrections. Corrections should be processed in 3-5 days and you should receive a revised SAR.

4. Review Your Financial Aid History Information

The last page of your SAR includes information about your financial aid history, specifically the loans you have taken out. It can be complicated and confusing to keep track of all of your loans and interest rates, but it is very important. Reviewing the financial aid history in your SAR will help you be aware of how much you are borrowing and how much you’ll owe later.

Remember: You can access your financial aid history information anytime by logging into www.nslds.ed.gov with your Federal Student Aid PIN.

5. Double-Check With Your Schools

Lastly, make sure that you double-check with the financial aid offices at the schools you applied to.  Sometimes schools need additional paperwork or have other deadlines. You never want to leave money on the table!

Rachel Connolly is freshman at The University of Michigan and virtual intern in ED’s office of Federal Student Aid.

Fill Out Your FAFSA, Get Help Paying for College

First Lady

First Lady Michelle Obama delivers remarks during a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) workshop at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., Feb. 5, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Cross-posted from the White House Blog. Read more about AmeriCorps member Margaret Montague who advises students at T.C. Williams.

On Wednesday, during her visit to T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, First Lady Michelle Obama asked students a good question: Why would the First Lady of the United States come to a school and spend time with students “just to watch you fill out a computer form?”

The answer is that filling out one particular form – the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid – is one of the most important things students and families can do in planning for college success.

“You don’t have to be the valedictorian. You don’t have to major in a certain subject,” the First Lady said in her remarks. “You don’t even have to be at the bottom of the income ladder to receive the money.”

There is no income cutoff to qualify for financial aid, and most federal student aid programs don’t take grades into consideration when you apply.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who joined the First Lady at the event, pointed out in his remarks that recent changes have made filling out the FAFSA much easier.

“For too long, applying for financial aid and securing the best aid package has been much more complicated, and much less transparent, than it should have been,” Secretary Duncan said.

Duncan and FLOTUS

First Lady Michelle Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan talk with students working on FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms during a workshop at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., Feb. 5, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

The FAFSA, Secretary Duncan said, now uses “skip logic” so students need only to answer questions relevant to them. Improvements to the web-based form – now used by 98 percent of applicants – makes the form faster and easier to fill out, less than 30 minutes on average.

Federal Student Aid, a part of the U.S. Department of Education, provides more than $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds each year to more than 15 million students paying for college or career school.

“Almost everyone is eligible for some kind of financial aid, and all you have to do to access that aid is fill out this one little form,” said the First Lady. “It’s so simple.”

Talking with Students

First Lady Michelle Obama talks with students working on FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms during a workshop at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., Feb. 5, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Later, Secretary Duncan and the First Lady visited with parents and students, discussing plans for college and how the FAFSA is a key step to achieving their post-secondary dreams. They also talked with school counselors about their work with students.

You can take action by filling out the FAFSA today.

In case you missed it:
To learn more about how the federal government can help you attend college, check out http://studentaid.gov/
Jennifer Simon is Senior Policy Advisor to the First Lady.

Parents: Tips To Help Your Child Complete the FAFSA

Parent Blog Image

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 we provide over $150 billion in financial aid each year, the federal student aid programs are based on the assumption that it is primarily your and your child’s responsibility to pay for college.  If your child was born after January 1, 1991 then most likely he or she is considered a dependent student and you’ll need to include your information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSASM).

Who’s considered a parent when completing the FAFSA?

If you need to report parent information, here are some guidelines to help you:

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

More information on who’s considered the parent can be found here: http://1.usa.gov/1fdcCy2

Who’s considered part of the household?

When completing your child’s FAFSA, you should include parents, any dependent student(s) and any other child who lives at home and receives more than half of their support from you in the household size.  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 I need to wait until I file my income taxes?

In some states there are deadlines for additional monies so you’ll want to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1st.  You do not need to wait until you file your federal tax return.  If you haven’t done your taxes by the time you complete 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.

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

Need Advice About Your Student Loans? Your Loan Servicer Can Help!

pay your loan servicerLet’s face it, repaying your student loans can be quite overwhelming, especially if you’re new at it. I may have spent my senior year of college interning at Federal Student Aid, but when my first student loan bill came in the mail, I’ll admit, I had no idea where to begin.

One of my first questions was, “Who do I pay?” I knew I had only federal student loans, but I kept getting letters and e-mails from Sallie Mae.* Why was that? If you asked yourself a similar question, this may help.

*Sallie Mae is my federal student loan servicer, but may not be yours. Here is a complete list of the federal student loan servicers.

Why am I receiving federal student loan bills from a company rather than the U.S. Department of Education?

Those bills you get in the mail are coming from one of the U.S. Department of Education’s federal student loan servicers. These loan servicers are companies that work on behalf of the Department of Education to help you understand your student loans and to facilitate payments.

Note: Even though you make your monthly payments to your loan servicer, your loans are still federal student loans and are owned by the Department of Education.

What can a loan servicer help me with?

Loan servicers do more than just collect payments from you. Your loan servicer is there to ensure that you, as a federal student loan borrower, get the customer service and repayment support you need to successfully repay your student loan.

Your loan servicer can help you:

How do I find out how many loans I have and who my loan servicer is?

To view information about all of the federal student loans you have received and to find contact information for your loan servicer, visit www.nslds.ed.gov and select “Financial Aid Review.” You will then be prompted to log in using your Federal Student Aid PIN, so make sure you have that handy.

Note: If you have multiple federal student loans, you may have more than one loan servicer, so make sure you click through each loan individually for information specific to that loan.

If you also have private student loans, I recommend getting a free copy of your credit report from www.annualcreditreport.com to identify them.

Not sure what kind of loans you have? It’s best to look at nslds.ed.gov and get a free credit report too. Then you’ll know about all of your loans right away.

Moral of the story: Your loan servicer is here to help.  

Trust me, as a recent college graduate, I know how difficult it can be to make these payments every month. Truthfully, I still get anxious every time that payment comes out of my bank account. But that’s all the more reason to stay in touch with your loan servicer. Whether you’re having trouble making your payments or you just want advice about which repayment option is best for you, they can help.

Nicole Callahan is a new media analyst at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

Answers to Your Questions on Student Loan Interest

A college degree is a vital part of helping students have a successful future and a place in the middle class, and making college affordable is a major priority for the Obama Administration.

Federal Aid LogoAs of July 1, 2013, the interest rate on new subsidized Stafford Loans rose to 6.8% from the previous rate of 3.4%. Our Administration is actively working with Congress to bring rates back down for new loans. In addition, the Administration has advocated that any plan passed by Congress apply to all loans first disbursed after June 30, even loans already disbursed.

If the law is changed, the Department and its servicers will adjust rates for all affected borrowers, including those who had already received their first subsidized loan disbursement, without any further action on the part of the borrower or the school.

We know some borrowers and families may have some questions about what the rate change means and we’ve answered some of the most common questions below. If you do have specific questions about your loan please visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/ or contact 1-800-4-FED-AID for more information.

Q: Should I still apply for federal student aid given the interest rate hike?

A: Students and families who wish to obtain financial aid should complete should complete a 2013-2014 FAFSA if they have not already done so. Schools should continue to award and process Direct Subsidized Loans with estimated disbursement dates. The Administration is working with Congress to bring rates back down for new loans.

Q: What is the current rate of federal subsidized loan?

A: Absent further Congressional action, the interest rate for all Direct Subsidized Loans with a first disbursement date on or after July 1, 2013, is 6.8%. This is the same interest rate that applies to Direct Unsubsidized Loans.

Q: Is the 6.8% rate permanent for the lifetime of my loan?

A: The Obama Administration continues to work with Congress to reach agreement on a plan to reverse the doubling of those interest rates.  Further, the Administration has urged that any plan passed by Congress apply to all loans first disbursed after June 30, even loans already disbursed. If the law is changed, the Department and its servicers will adjust rates for all affected borrowers, including those who had already received their first subsidized loan disbursement, without any further action on the part of the borrower or the school.

What if I already have a loan? Does the interest rate change?

A: No change in interest rates on a loan where the first disbursement was before July 1, 2013

What Is a Student Loan Servicer and Why Should I Care?

repayment plan imageSo you took out a federal student loan and now it’s time to pay it back. I was in your exact position 2 years ago and even though I was working at Federal Student Aid, the student loan repayment process had me overwhelmed.

One of my first questions was: Why am I receiving federal student loan bills from a company rather than the U.S. Department of Education? If you have asked yourself a similar question, this may help:

What is a loan servicer?

A loan servicer is a company that handles the billing and other services on your federal student loans. So those bills you get in the mail? There is a good chance they are coming from a loan servicer on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education.

How do I find out who my loan servicer is?

To view information about all of the federal student loans you have received and to find contact information for your loan servicer, visit www.nslds.ed.gov and select “Financial Aid Review.” You will then be prompted to log in using your Federal Student Aid PIN, so make sure you have that handy.

Note: If you have multiple federal student loans, you may have more than one loan servicer, so make sure you click through each loan individually for information specific to that loan.

Why should I care?

There are lots of reasons you should care!  Among many other things, your loan servicer

Moral of the story: Keep in contact with your loan servicer.

The student loan repayment process can be confusing, especially if you’re new at it, but your loan servicer is there to help. Make sure you stay in touch with them and use the resources they have available for you.

Nicole Callahan is a new media analyst at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

Class of 2013: What’s Next for Your Student Loans?

choose a repayment plan imageI’m not afraid to admit that being a college senior is a little frightening (okay, slight understatement-it’s extremely frightening!) As the Class of 2013 prepares to say goodbye to the comforts of our college community and say hello to the real world, we are 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 and responsibilities, one of the last things on most of our minds is repaying our student loans. Yet it’s one of our responsibilities and we should be prepared for when the first bill arrives in the mail.

I will be honest in saying that this repayment process is a little intimidating, and before writing this post I was at a loss of 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: Recently 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 compare your monthly student loan payment under different repayment plans to help you figure out which option is right for you.  Once you log-in, it will automatically pull in all of your federal student loan information so you can compare repayment plans based on your specific situation.

So with all of these great resources, I’ve found that things are clearer, and not quite as scary. Class of 2013 we 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 senior at Marist College (N.Y.), and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

Finding the Right College For You – Tools & Resources from ED

If you are a high school senior who has yet to decide where you’re going to college this fall, you are most likely not alone. May 1st marks the National College Decision Day where the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities require students to notify them of their decision to attend.

As you navigate the college decision process, the U.S. Department of Education provides tools for you and your family to make it easy to compare important information such as college costs, average student loan debt, and graduation rates across different institutions.

If you are a student or the parent of a college-bound teen struggling with this decision, here are a few tools that can help:

Federal Student Aid The College Scorecard

The College Scorecard includes essential information about a particular college’s cost, its graduation rates and the average amount its students borrow, all in an easy-to-read format. It is designed to help you compare colleges and choose one that is well-suited to your individual needs.

Net Price Calculator Center

Federal Student Aid

The Net Price Calculator Center provides an easy tool to explore the net price of any given college- that is, the price after subtracting the scholarships and grants you are likely to receive. Then, you can easily compare estimated net prices across the institutions that you are considering.

Financial Aid Shopping Sheet

Many colleges and universities have adapted a Shopping Sheet which will be included in your financial aid package. The Shopping Sheet provides personalized information on financial aid and net costs as well as general information on institutional outcomes- all in a standardized format. This tool provides an easy way to make clear comparisons among financial aid offers that you may receive.

FSA2

College Navigator

College Navigator is an interactive website that allows you to explore and compare features of different institutions, including programs and majors, admissions considerations, campus crime statistics and more.

For additional tips visit Federal Student Aid’s Choosing a School resources and follow @USEDGOV & @FAFSA on Twitter.

Now that you have the resources and the tools to pick the right college, you can let out a sigh of relief and show your campus pride with that coveted university sweatshirt. Congratulations!

Kelsey Donohue is a senior at Marist College (N.Y.), and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

Youth Succeed with Great Educators, Help from ED

Think back to that moment when you decided to pursue your dream. Who influenced your decision? A mentor? A parent? Or maybe a friend? For many people, their moment was sparked by an educator.

Earlier this month, the Department of Education (ED) welcomed four individuals to participate in an ‘ED Youth Voices’ panel discussion that introduced students, teachers, and communities to the policies and programs that the four youth credit with helping them succeed.

Let us introduce you to these inspiring individuals:

Student speaking

Linda Moktoi, senior at Trinity Washington University

Meet Linda Moktoi. As a current senior at Trinity Washington University, Moktoi is proud to say she’ll be achieving her dream of graduating college in just a few short weeks.  “I chose to pursue knowledge over ignorance,” she said. Moktoi did so with the financial support provided by Pell Grants from ED’s Office of Federal Student Aid. Moktoi’s grace, confidence, and determination shined through and will no doubt lead her to succeeding her next dream of becoming a news broadcaster.

 

 

Student speaking about GEAR UP program

Nicholas Robinson, junior at Potomac High School

Meet Nicholas Robinson. An enthusiastic junior at Potomac High School (Oxon Hill, Md.), spoke of how the early awareness college prep program GEAR UP, changed his “mind & heart” in 8th grade about whether to go to college. “Before I got involved in GEAR UP, I didn’t think I was going to college, but they were always asking me what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go and who I wanted to be.” That extra support and guidance has helped Nicholas stay on track to graduate and focus on his future goals.

 

Educator speaking about IDEA Act

Scott Wilburn, teacher at Pulley Career Center

Meet Scott Wilbur. As a current teacher and former student that struggled with learning disabilities, Wilbur shed light on how programs funded by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) helped him as a student and continues to help him serve others with disabilities as a teacher at the Pulley Career Center in Alexandria, Va. “IDEA provided me with access to support, helped me graduate college,” Wilbur said. Each year the IDEA Act helps thousands of students with disabilities receive support to assure success in the classroom and that they have the tools needed for employment and independent living in the future.

Student speaking about School Improvement Grants

Carl Mitchell, senior at Frederick Douglass High School

Meet Carl Mitchell. Carl is just one of the many students that have benefited from the recent changes at Frederick Douglass High School spurred in part by an ED School Improvement Grant (SIG) which has helped turnaround their school and provide a better learning environment for students. Mitchell, a bright college bound senior who also doubles as the school mascot (Go Mighty Ducks!), attested to the sense of community that is fostered at Frederick Douglass. When asked what motivates him, he responded by saying “It’s not just about getting the degree for me, it’s for all the people that helped me. I owe them and don’t want to let them down.” An aspiring graphic designer, Mitchell will be the first in his family to attend college. His support team, including his principal, teachers, and peers joined him at ED as he proudly represented the Douglass community.

Linda, Nicholas, Scott, and Carl are just four of the millions of students and educators that are able to achieve their dreams with the help of great educators and federal programs from the Department of Education. Little do these individuals know though, that by sharing their story they are following in the footsteps of those who inspired them, and are inspiring us.

Kelsey Donohue is a senior at Marist College (N.Y.), and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

Our next ED Youth Voices Policy Briefing Session will include students reforming education at the local level: teacher evaluations, DREAM act, school safety and more. Watch the session live on June 27th from 10-11:30am at edstream.ed.gov. 

Focus on Financial Empowerment This Month

President Obama has proclaimed April to be Financial Capability Month, and what better time to focus on the range of tools available to students and their families to make smart financial decisions around postsecondary education?

Piggy Bank ImageIn his proclamation, President Obama noted the new tools released by the Department of Education that give students and families clear, transparent information on college costs so they can make good choices when they invest in higher education. One of these tools—the College Scorecard—is part of President Obama’s continued efforts to hold colleges accountable for cost, value and quality. The Scorecard highlights key indicators about the cost and value of institutions across the country, helping students choose a school that is well-suited to meet their needs, is priced affordably, and is consistent with their educational and career goals.

The Obama administration has also simplified the FAFSA, the free application for federal student aid, which is the first step in determining eligibility for federal grants and loans. In addition, ED is empowering high school counselors and local leaders through the FAFSA Completion Project to help ensure that students get all of the aid for which they qualify by giving them a resource to monitor FAFSA completion rates of their students.

Furthermore, ED recently released a suite of new tools to help students and families make informed and wise decisions around college financial decisions.  The Financial Aid Shopping Sheet is an individualized financial aid award letter in a standardized format that helps students understand their costs and compare financial aid packages from different institutions so they can make smart decisions on investing in higher education. ED has also improved the financial education tools available to students, and within the last year we have revamped entrance and exit loan counseling and introduced a financial education tool for students in college.

President Obama has set a goal that the United States will once again lead the world in college completion. We will reach this goal only if we ensure that all students have the opportunity to access and complete postsecondary education—and are equipped to make the important financial decisions that will lead to a strong middle class. The US Department of Education stands committed to providing ladders of opportunity to make this a reality for all students, starting with sound financial knowledge and tools.

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education