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More Public Colleges Start Tuition-Free Programs

The constant narrative of the high cost of college in the news and the idea of free higher education has driven some schools to offer tuition-free programs to low-income students.
Most of these tuition-free programs, usually referred to as “promise” programs, cover tuition and fees – but generally not the full cost of attendance.
The majority of these programs are implemented at community colleges, but there are a handful of four-year institutions across the U.S. that offer these tuition-free or guarantee programs to financially needy students.
“These programs are becoming increasingly popular. A lot of it depends nationally on what the state contributes,” says Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at the University of Minnesota, which has offered a promise scholarship for nearly 10 years.
Policy analysts say tuition-free programs exist in patches across the U.S. either at the state, local or institutional level.
“It’s really a roll of the dice to where the student lives and what institutions they get into,” says Iris Palmer, senior policy analyst for education at New America, a think tank based in the District of Columbia. “For almost all these programs, you have to be a resident of the state.”
Some of the four-year public universities that offer a promise or tuition-free guarantee program to low-income students include Arizona State University, West Texas A&M University, Purdue University—West Lafayette, the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill and all campuses for the University of Minnesota and the University of Nebraska.
Many of these programs also require the student to be Pell-Grant-eligible, a federal grant for undergraduate students with demonstrated financial need. The maximum Pell Grant award is $5,815 for the 2016-2017 school year.
“Pell Grants and state grants will cover a large share of the tuition costs, therefore allowing institutions to make this guarantee because the remaining amount isn’t too expensive,” says Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analyst at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, on the remaining portion that is covered by institutional funds through “last dollar programs.”
Higher education experts say it’s easy to brand these programs for low-income students, but the details of each program varies.
For prospective students and families interested in a tuition-free education at a four-year public college, here are a few facts about these programs.
• There are more of these programs coming for fall 2017. Palmer from New America says the movement for expanding tuition-free programs has “devolved down to the state, local and institutional level.”
This February, Florida International University and the University of New Hampshire announced that they will offer tuition-free programs to needy students who are entering their first year of college this fall. Both programs require these students to be in-state residents.
• Pell Grant eligibility is often used to determine if a student qualifies. Many tuition-free programs use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to determine eligibility. The federal form establishes whether a student qualifies for a Pell Grant and the estimated family contribution, a figure as to what the student and his or her family can pay toward education.
Each school’s terms for eligibility vary. While the UNH’s Granite Guarantee program offers incoming freshmen tuition-free education if they qualify for any Pell Grant amount, the FIU Golden Promise scholarship only awards this benefit to Pell Grant recipients who have a “zero” estimated family contribution.
At FIU, only half of Pell grant recipients are zero EFC, says Francisco Valines, director of financial aid at FIU.
“We’re expecting about 1,200 for fall 2017,” says Valines, as the program only applies to incoming freshmen.
In contrast, a UNH spokesperson says that the school’s tuition guarantee will probably support nearly 300 freshmen for the 2017-2018 year.
• Most of these programs only cover tuition and fees, not the full cost of attendance. There are only two four-year public institutions – UNC—Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia – that report meeting full financial need, according to data submitted to U.S. News in an annual survey.
So these other programs at four-year public colleges only cover tuition and fees, and in some cases, a few hundred or thousand dollars over the amount.
“We’re exceeding full tuition and fees for need by $2,000,” says McMaster from the University of Minnesota on covering in-state Pell Grant students with a zero EFC under its U Promise program. “We’re short on the full cost of attendance.”
Harnisch from AASCU says these programs don’t cover living expenses, which can sometimes be more than tuition and fees.
But he says: “Having the institution as the messenger for these programs is important because the students will be receiving their tuition bill from them.”

College students studying in lounge

Avoid 3 Mistakes When Applying for Summer Financial Aid

As winter melts into spring, some college students are already looking further ahead – toward summer. That’s because if you plan to enroll in a summer session, now is the time to prepare. And that means studying up on your school’s financial aid rules.
You may be an expert in English, calculus and other academic subjects, but funding an education can be an advanced-level topic all by itself – one that stumps many students. If you want to make the grade and do some successful summer studying, avoid making the following financial aid and student loan mistakes.
1. Filing the wrong FAFSA: The first step to getting financial aid for college – no matter which session you plan to enroll in – is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If you’re currently in college, you likely not only know this, but you’ve also probably already completed this year’s FAFSA.
But this year’s FAFSA may not be the one you actually use for summer financial aid. Each FAFSA lasts an entire academic year, spanning from July 1 through the end of the next June.
We’re currently in the 2016-2017 award year. July 1 marks the beginning of the 2017-2018 academic year. Since summer classes would likely occur during or after July, it makes sense that you’d complete the 2017-2018 FAFSA to receive aid for those classes. That may not be the case, though.
Colleges can divide their academic year differently from the federal student aid definition. Be sure to contact your school’s financial aid office to find out which FAFSA to complete for summer aid – and when the school’s priority filing deadline for summer session is. Finding that out will help you maximize the amount of federal and institutional aid you’re able to receive – including student loans.
2. Not knowing the rules: While asking the financial aid office about these FAFSA dates, check and see what additional rules they have for receiving summer financial aid. Schools may require you to submit other applications or documentation in addition to the FAFSA.
They may also require you to take a minimum number of credits or units to be eligible for summer aid. At many schools, that number equals at least two courses. So, if you’re planning on making up a single course or taking a class that was full during the semester, you may need to find an alternative way to fund it.
Of course, regular rules for receiving federal financial aid apply for summer sessions as well. Among the requirements: You must be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, not have any existing federal student loans in default and be maintaining satisfactory academic progress per your school’s definition. Talk to your school if you have questions about your eligibility.
3. Not planning ahead: Students take summer classes for a number of reasons, including keeping their studies on schedule – for instance, if they’re double majors or changed majors – and trying to get ahead of the game and graduate early.
If you’re aiming for the latter, you may be doing so to cut your tuition costs. Enrolling in summer classes can be a smart way to achieve this. Schools may charge less for classes during the summer, and you may be able to take them at a less expensive community college, too – just make sure your primary institution will accept those credits.
And while saving money on college surely sounds great, summer sessions can cost you if you don’t plan ahead. Each year, students can receive only a set amount of federal financial aid. If you’ve used up your allotment by the time summer rolls around, you may need to use more expensive funding options, like borrowing student loans from a private lender.
Your school may offer its own loans for such a shortfall, sometimes called emergency loans, but these likely also won’t have the same repayment benefits as federal loan options do. Be sure to scrutinize the details of any loan before you sign for it. While borrowing more than you planned can keep you on track for a summer session, it may end up derailing you financially in the future.

Cropped shot of college students on campushttp://

Determine Whether to Apply Early Decision to Medical School

Having already completed the undergraduate admissions process, you may be familiar with the concept of an early decision application. Certain medical schools offer a similar admissions option, albeit one with more restrictions.
For example, choosing to apply to medical school via early decision means that you can’t have any applications open at other programs until you receive a final admissions decision about your first-choice – that is, early decision – school.If you have decided to explore the early decision admissions process as a potential route to medical school, carefully consider your status as an applicant, as well as the caveats of such an admissions process before you submit your application. Take the time to research prospective medical schools in the following ways before applying early decision.
1. Gather and compare admissions data: Medical schools seek applicants who ideally suit their programs – both in the early decision and regular admissions pools.
Before applying early decision to any medical school, gather admissions data on what the school is looking for in applicants and assess how you compare to the typical admitted student in that program.
Do you possess the average GPA and MCAT scores, at minimum? Is your research and volunteer experience comparable to other successful applicants at that school? If you intend to apply to an American or Canadian medical school, the Medical School Admissions Requirements database contains a wealth of data for your perusal.
Applying early decision does not exempt you from meeting your chosen medical school’s standards, and it is crucial that you evaluate where you stand in comparison to those requirements before you apply.
Early decision acceptance rates vary from program to program, and the American Medical College Application Service still opens at the same time. Prepare as you would for a typical admissions cycle but remember that competition may be stiffer and your application deadline will be sooner.
2. Speak to successful early decision applicants: Though you may find it difficult to gain a personal perspective on the early decision application process, since fewer individuals may choose this route, seek out former early decision applicants when at all possible.
Some programs may be willing to connect you to current students who applied via early decision. But if they cannot or will not, the internet is another option – medical school discussion boards often host rich discussions on a variety of topics.
Ask what attracted these students to this admissions option, how they selected their early decision program and what they believe went well or was stressful during the application process. In addition to admissions statistics, first-person accounts may help you decide whether early decision is the right choice for you.
3. Visit and evaluate the program’s suitability: It is understandably difficult to commit to being in a certain environment for four years without first experiencing the environment.
As you search for the ideal early decision medical school, be sure to visit and engage with current students and faculty members at those institutions that most interest you. Can you picture yourself in that environment? Do you relate to the students, and are their goals similar to yours?
Do any faculty members have research that is particularly appealing to you, and would they allow you to assist in that research?
Before you apply to any program early decision, try to envision yourself at the school. Then, ask yourself if the program will best serve your educational, personal and professional goals.

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