TIME Education

How to Write a Successful College Essay

Write with pen and paper or type on computer
Getty Images

Former Harvard admissions interviewer Anna Redmond offers advice

Answer by Anna Redmond, former Harvard admissions interviewer, on Quora.

The best advice I could give you is not to write an essay.

Write ten. Preferably all about different topics. About your pet that died because your parents couldn’t afford a vet, your grandmother’s pile of World War II letters in the attic, how you felt the time your algebra teacher sent you to the principal’s office for wearing the same shirt your friend was wearing but only you got in trouble because you had bigger breasts.

When you’re done, put them in a folder and ignore them for a week. Then sit down and reread them in one sitting.

What you will see when you do this is themes. They will start to poke their noses out of the woodwork. If you’ve done this honestly, these are gold you have been mining for. They should talk about who you think you are. Who you are trying to be. Hold on to the themes, particularly the ones that are the most honest and the most identifying. Remember, as you write, the essay is not about what you have done. The essay is about who you are. If you get to this point, you will know what essay you want to write without having to ask for prompts.

For further inspiration, don’t read other college essays. Pull out the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, or Rolling Stone. Read their profile pieces. You will start to notice that even though these pieces are all about things and events — political campaigns, selling designer jewelry, escaping from rebels — they leave you with a specific opinion about the person. A certain actress may be successful in spite of her demons. A politician calculating but capable of acting with passion and spontaneity. Pay attention to the way these things come out in the types of stories. This is the hallmark of good, impactful writing. Some of the best examples of “show not tell” are to be found here.

Above all, be honest. Believe in yourself — believe that you have something special to bring to the table, and you are telling a story that deserves to be heard.

Good luck!

Oh, and P.S. Since you asked for prompts, here are a few to start you off. These are my own, not pulled from a book. I don’t recommend using them for your entire essay. But if you take my advice and truly begin to explore yourself, these should be a good place to jump in.

  1. Write about something unfair that happened to you and how you dealt with it.
  2. Write about the first time you saw your parents fail at something and how that made you feel.
  3. What is one thing that means a lot to you but other people don’t care about?
  4. Do your teachers express their political opinions when teaching class? How does that make you feel?
  5. What relationship is the most meaningful in your life?
  6. Write about something you’ve done that has made an impact in someone else’s life.
  7. What are some things your school does well? What could they do better?
  8. Who is your favorite author and why?
  9. What accomplishment are you most proud of?
  10. If you could not go to college, what would you do instead?

This question originally appeared on Quora: What should I write my college essay about?

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY College

This “Smart” Way to Pay for College Could End Up Costing You an Extra 3%

A senior at Western Kentucky University walks past flowering cherry trees on WKU's campus on his way home from class.
Western Kentucky University has one of the highest credit card surcharges. Alex Slitz—AP

A new study from CreditCards.com finds that colleges are increasingly adding surcharges for charging tuition. And these fees typically exceed any potential miles or cash back earned from your card.

It’s getting harder to turn junior’s college tuition bills into free vacations for Mom and Dad.

Wealthy parents have long tried to lessen the pain of paying their kids’ tuition bills by charging the costs to a credit card that pays rewards, with the hope of getting a bit of cash back or a roundtrip flight to Rome out of the deal.

But colleges are now making this strategy less profitable by adding fees for charging tuition, according to a study released Tuesday by Creditcards.com.

The survey of the largest public, private, and community colleges found that 90% of the 100 biggest public universities that accept credit cards charge convenience fees, and almost 70% of the 100 biggest private colleges. (Only 12% of the largest community colleges add credit card surcharges, but community colleges tuition tends to be quite low.)

In most cases, the fees now exceed the value of frequent flier miles or cash back that the parents can earn on a rewards card.

The average reward mile or point is worth less than 2¢, says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com. Meanwhile, the average big college now charges 2.62% for processing tuition through a credit card, according to the survey.

And some schools charge much more. According to the CreditCards.com survey, the big colleges charging the highest fees are:

School State Type Convenience fee rate
Western Kentucky University KY Public 2.99%
Saint Joseph’s University PA Private 2.99%
Roger Williams University RI Private 2.99%
Kansas State University KS Public 2.90%
Ohio University-Main Campus OH Public 2.90%
Kent State University at Kent OH Public 2.90%
University of Akron Main Campus OH Public 2.90%
Bowling Green State University-Main Campus OH Public 2.90%

The Impetus for the Fees

Such fees have become increasingly common in the last decade. A separate survey last year by the National Association of College and University Business Officers had found that 44% of colleges charged a fee for using a credit card, up from 14% in 2003.

Colleges have been adding surcharges in part because they have come under pressure to pare expenses. And credit card companies charge all vendors—including colleges—for processing payments. In 2013, for example, MasterCard’s fees ran from 1.05% to 3.16%.

In addition, schools that do charge fees appear to be encouraging their competitors to follow suit.

“I get a lot of complaints from other schools” that charge fees, says Michael Reynolds, executive director of student financial services at Auburn University, which doesn’t add a surcharge. Reynolds says Auburn absorbs the surcharge—which he estimates at between 1% and 2% of the amount charged—as a cost of doing business.

He estimates that about half Auburn’s tuition bills are put on credit cards. In most cases, he says, it’s just a matter of convenience for the parent or student. But he added that some families do seem to be trying to build up rewards.

The Better Alternative for Most

The fees are just one of many reasons financial experts warn parents away from charging tuition.

Credit card interest rates are usually so high that parents who don’t have enough ready cash to pay off the bill immediately could end up paying thousands of dollars in extra interest, says Kevin Yuann, director of credit cards for NerdWallet.

Anyone who can’t pay cash up front for tuition would really be better off with federal student or parent loans.

Compared to the 15.66% average annual percentage rate on credit cards, federal student loans charge just 4.9% this year, after fees are added in. Parent PLUS loans have a total APR, including fees, of 8.1%.

The federal loans also have much more flexible repayment options, allowing borrowers to stretch out payments for up to 25 years or adjust the payments downwards if their incomes fall. Students working in public service jobs can also get some of their federal loans forgiven.

The Best Reward for the Rest

Absolutely sure you can pay off the big credit card balance quickly? Contact your school to find out whether there’s a fee for swiping.

While the majority have one, there are still several schools that do not charge students or parents extra. For example:

School State Type
Auburn University AL Public
DePaul University IL Private
St John’s University-New York NY Private
The University of Alabama AL Public
University of Nevada-Las Vegas NV Public

And then, assuming there is no charge, make sure you’re getting the most back you can.

Nick Ewen, a frequent business traveler who writes often on rewards at ThePointsGuy.com, says parents with lots of ready cash can turn tuition into valuable goodies.

One British Airways card, for example, offers a free companion ticket to those who spend at least $30,000 a year. And Southwest Airlines offers a year’s worth of free companion tickets to those who earn at least 110,000 points each calendar year.

Or, consider the winners of MONEY’s Best Credit Cards of 2014. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite offers two points per $1 spent and miles can be applied to your credit card bill to offset the costs of any kind of travel. Or if you prefer cash back, Citi Double Cash and Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express each give you 2% on every purchase.

With the latter, you can direct your earnings to a 529 college savings account—thereby reducing the amount you have to charge next semester.

MONEY Millennials

How Millennials Stalled the Housing Market Recovery

Wrecking ball hitting brick wall
Steve Bronstein—Getty Images

Millennials already have to deal with hefty debt from college, an iffy job market, and growing up in an era where MTV no longer plays music videos, but now they’re being blamed for holding back the real estate boom. Homebuilder adviser John Burns Consulting published details from a study earlier this month concluding that student loan payments will cost the housing industry 414,000 transactions this year that would have totaled $83 billion in sales.

Ouch. The ivory tower is crumbling at the foundation.

It’s been widely assumed that mounting student debt is eating away at this otherwise buoyant housing market recovery. John Burns Consulting’s study — boiled down to a free one-pager for those that aren’t paying customers that got the more thorough report — attempts to quantify the impact.

How did the adviser arrive at $83 billion? Well, we start with the 5.9 million households under the age of 40 that are paying at least $250 in student loan debt, nearly triple the 2.2 million leveraged college grads in the same predicament back in 2005. We then get to the assumption that $250 earmarked for student loan debt every month reduces the buying power of a potential homebuyer by $44,000. That’s bad, and it’s naturally worse depending on how much more than $250 a month some of these indebted students have taken on to pay back. That’s less money they can commit to a mortgage. John Burns Consulting offers up that most households paying at least $750 a month in student loan have priced themselves out of the housing market entirely.

It gets worse

The study only looked at folks between the ages of 20-40. That’s a pretty sizable lot, especially since 35% of all households in that age bracket have at least $250 a month in student debt. However, even John Burns Consulting concedes that there’s “a big chunk of households over age 40 who have student debt” as well. It’s not likely to be as bad, naturally, but it’s all incremental at this point.

This report also happens to come at a time when the housing industry is starting to flinch after a couple of years of boom and bounce. Right now everything seems great. New home sales data released this past week showed the industry’s highest monthly growth rate in more than six years. However, the near-term outlook is starting to get hazy.

Shares of KB Home KB HOME KBH 1.2027% shed more than 5% of their value on Wednesday after reporting uninspiring quarterly results. Revenue and earnings fell short of expectations, and the same can be said about its number of closings and order growth. Earlier this month it was luxury bellwether Toll Brothers TOLL BROTHERS TOL 1.9293% setting an uneasy tone after posting a year-over-year decline in the number of contracts it signed during the period and an uptick in the cancellation rate for existing home orders.

It gets better

The student debt crisis is real, and the skyrocketing costs of obtaining a postsecondary education naturally open up the debate of its necessity. However, it’s also important to remember that university grads are earning far more than those that don’t attend college.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). The Condition of Education 2014 (NCES 2014-083), Annual Earnings of Young Adults.

The median of annual earnings for young adults in 2012 was $46,900 for those with a bachelor’s degree, $30,000 for those with just a high school degree or credential and $22,900 for those who did not complete high school. Those going on to grad school for advanced degrees — and that’s where student loans can really start to pile up — are at $59,600 a year.

In other words, most college grads, and especially grad school graduates, are typically better off than those that didn’t pursue higher education, even with the student loan albatross around their white-collared necks. The housing industry would be better off if colleges were cheaper or if student debt levels were lower, but the same can be said about purchasing power in general. At the end of the day, debt-saddled or not, the housing industry needs its college graduates.

TIME Web

How to Take Free Courses from Top Universities

Online Courses
Getty Images

You can continue your education with some amazing and free online resources available from top universities. These institutions offer many of their courses in the form of video lectures, audio transcripts and online quizzes. And some universities give you access to the professor and let you interact with other students taking the class.

Want to give these free online courses a try? Here are the online education offerings from the top U.S. universities that we think are worth checking out.

Stanford Free Courses

Stanford University, located in Stanford, California, offers an especially rich bounty of material for its amateur online learners. Classes are offered on multiple platforms, letting you watch videos lectures, participate in discussion forums and chats, complete quizzes and even participate in group projects. A wide range of courses are available, from Cryptography to Game Theory to Writing in the Sciences. There are courses on stock market investing and running your own business, too – stuff that you can actually use to benefit your family. Self-paced courses are also available, including the popular Computer Science 101. You can check out Stanford’s collection of online courses by visiting online.stanford.edu/courses.

Webcast.Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley is one of America’s most esteemed public universities. So, as you might expect, its online course catalog is one of the most serious of the bunch. You’ll find multiple webcasts on biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, history, health, political science, sociology and statistics. You won’t be able to take tests or raise your hand in class, but you can audit every lecture in HD on YouTube. UC Berkeley’s catalog of webcast courses is available for review and viewing at webcast.berkeley.edu.

MIT OpenCourseWare

Looking to live out your Good Will Hunting fantasies? Then check out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) OpenCourseWare system. There, you’ll find video and audio lectures from the top-ranked engineering school. You’ll also be able to access notes, digital assessments and even free online textbooks. Not every class at MIT offers these materials, but the Course Finder tool will let you easily sort the catalog to find those that do. You can view MIT’s searchable wealth of online course materials and lectures at ocw.mit.edu.

Duke University

North Carolina’s Duke University offers a number of interactive, free online courses through the Coursera platform. Lectures in subjects like English Composition and Genetics are offered, with videos broken up into easily digestible YouTube clips; some courses offer online assessments as well. Online learners get to interact with other students and teachers via online message boards and discussion groups, furthering your understanding of the material. To take a look at Duke’s free online course offerings and register for classes, visit coursera.org/duke. You can find plenty of other universities and classes available on Coursera as well.

Harvard Open Courses

World-famous Harvard University teamed up with nearby MIT to create the edX learning platform, which currently offers 42 of its classes for free online. Many of these classes on edX, like Introduction to Computer Science, are self-guided and ready to start anytime you’re are. Others, like AnatomyX, run on a fixed schedule. Some even offer college credit through the Harvard Extension School for a fee; otherwise, completion earns you a nifty free “Honor Code” certificate. You can browse Harvard’s online course listing at edx.org/school/harvardx. (Don’t forget to check out what other schools are offering on the free platform, as well.)

UCLA Free Lecture Webcasts

The University of California, Los Angeles, like UC Berkeley, offers a wealth of class experiences for free online on YouTube. Courses are organized into playlists, so you can watch lectures from courses like Sustainable Living, Modern Civilization 1750 – Present and Probability for Math Science on your own schedule. You should also keep an eye on the UCLA Extension School, which periodically offers free (albeit brief) online classes complete with discussion boards.

Open Yale Courses

Yale, one of the our nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning, offers a limited-albeit-highbrow selection of courses for free online auditing. You can challenge yourself by taking Philosophy and Science of Human Nature, expand your horizons with Listening to Music, or try to get a better understanding of your 401(k) by taking Financial Markets. Courses are available on Coursera, through YouTube and on iTunes through Apple’s iTunes U free learning platform.

Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative

Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon currently offers 21 open and free courses via its Open Learning Initiative (OLI) platform. You can take scientific courses like Biochemistry and Modern Biology if that’s your thing, or plan your vacation to Paris while taking Elementary French I and II. OLI makes it easy to track your progress (with sign-in), while “targeted feedback” and online assignments give you an idea of how well you’re absorbing the material. You can browse what Carnegie Mellon’s OLI has to offer at oli.cmu.edu.

iTunes U

Okay, so maybe this one isn’t an actual college. Still, if your hunger for knowledge knows no bounds, you’ll definitely need to check out Apple’s iTunes U application. Inside, you’ll be connected to thousands of free course offerings from schools all around the globe. iTunes U offers tools to start discussions and ask questions of teachers and students. And since everything is rated on a five-star system, you’ll be able to easily hunt down the best courses in the subjects most interesting to you. You can download iTunes U onto your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch through the Apple App Store.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

More from Techlicious:

MONEY College

Choosing a College Major by Age 16 Pays Off. Here’s Why

Forget the old thinking that kids could wait until college to decide a major. Today, they really ought to be making this decision before their junior year of high school.

I know what you’re thinking: How can I suggest such a thing? Why would we put that kind of pressure on high school students? Shouldn’t they be allowed to explore their interests in college first before having to declare a major?

But what’s the alternative?

By the time most students lock down their major, they’re halfway through their college career or nearly out the door. By some estimates, 80% will change their course of study at least once before graduation. And, we’re telling them not to worry about it. Just take your time, explore your interests and get your diploma.

But with students’ future financial health on the line, discussions around major choice and career path are just happening too late.

Delaying these important decisions could leave a student needing more than four years to complete the class requirements necessary to get a degree, and additional semesters or years add to the already burdensome cost of an education. For bachelor’s degree grads in the class of 2013, average education debt was almost $38,000, according to a report by Edvisors.com.

Additionally, what if a student ultimately ends up choosing a major that leads them into a low-paying field after they’ve already decided on a high-cost school and taken on substantial amounts of student loan debt?

Income-driven repayment plans from the federal government may offer some help for those that choose less lucrative career paths, but these plans do extend the repayment period from the typical 10 years to 20 to 25 years. This could mean that in the years when your children should be thinking about saving for retirement or for their own kids’ education, they’ll still be paying off their student loans. And, these plans won’t apply to any private loans used to fund college.

Major choice, and ultimately career path, should help guide your child’s choices around where to attend college and how much education debt they can afford in the long run. These choices have far-reaching implications. Here at PayScale, we just released data on salary potential for 121 associate degree majors and 207 bachelor degree majors as part of our annual College Salary Report. Understanding earning potential should be a pre-requisite to signing any student loan documents.

Big life decisions are scary, but mountains of debt (and the prospect of your college grad moving into your basement) are much scarier. Twenty-eight percent of Millennials have had to move home with their parents after college due to financial hardship. You’re not doing your son or daughter any favors by advising him or her to delay the decision on a major.

It’s not all on you as the parent either. High school curriculum should be helping students understand real-world applications for what they’re learning and guiding them into career paths for which they’re well-suited. “Career day” doesn’t cut it anymore.

And, I bet if you asked the average 10th grader which careers will have to use algebra on a regular basis, they couldn’t tell you. We need to be showing them why the subjects they’re studying matter and how they apply to careers they may be interested in pursuing. We need to expose them to careers they might not even realize exist.

Even if your kid doesn’t definitively choose a major by the time they graduate high school, starting these conversations early can only benefit them.

Lydia Frank is editorial director at PayScale.com, a site that provides on-demand compensation data and software to employees and employers.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 30

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. China’s real battle is for the hearts and minds of Hong Kong. And China is losing.

By Rachel Lu in Foreign Policy

2. California’s new ‘Yes means yes’ consent law is an important first step toward ending America’s campus sexual assault epidemic.

By Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education

3. The English language makes it harder for students to learn math.

By Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal

4. Long lines at polling places dampen turnout and disproportionately hit poor and minority communities. States must devote the resources to making voting work.

By Chris Kromm in Facing South

5. To direct financial aid where it is most needed, colleges should focus on first-generation students.

By Tomiko Brown-Nagin in TIME

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY College

5 Quick College Diplomas That Can Lead to Good-Paying Jobs

140929_FF_HighPayingDegrees
Blend Images—Getty Images

You don't have to spend four years on a bachelor's degree to get a job that pays at least $40,000 a year. New research from one state identifies several shorter college programs that can lead to lucrative jobs.

Over the long run, people with four-year college degrees and graduate educations earn more on average than workers who spend just a few years in school. But you don’t necessarily have to invest a lot of time and money in a four-year degree to get ahead. In some cases, new research confirms, a quicker education can lead to a good-paying job.

“There are many paths to the middle class, including two-year technical degrees from community colleges,” says Mark Schneider, president of College Measures, who authored a study of recent graduates of Tennessee colleges that was released today.

The findings are based on College Measures’ analysis of earnings data for millions of workers collected from state unemployment insurance offices. So far six states, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, have allowed researchers to track government-reported earnings after students leave school.

For the latest state report, College Measures tracked five years worth of earnings for all Tennessee workers who earned any kind of college certificate, diploma, or degree in 2006, drilling down to which majors, and which schools, produce the highest earners. The results, says Schneider, “confirms other findings from other states.”

Only a few types of two-year degrees consistently lead to high-paying jobs, however, and there is a wide variation in earnings by college, some of which may have to do with the local labor market. “You do have to be really careful about which degree you get,” Schneider says.

Those with associate’s degrees in electrical engineering earned annual salaries of about $42,000 within a year of leaving school. They typically progressed to more than $61,000 after five years. Those who earned certificates in heavy equipment maintenance made about $35,000 within a year on average and about $42,000 after five years.

Similarly, a 2011 report by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce found that 28% of people with associate’s degrees earned more than the average salary reported by those with bachelor’s degrees.

This new data from states is helpful because it identifies exactly which community college and which majors produce students most likely to earn bigger paychecks, says Jeff Strohl, research director for the Georgetown center. “If you are going to roll the dice on a particular school or major,” says Strohl, “the new data will give you an idea of how people end up, earnings-wise.”

According to College Measures’s new report on Tennessee workers, these five programs that don’t take four years can lead to good-paying jobs.

Degree type Subject Avg. earnings in 1st year Avg. earnings in 5th year
1-2 year certificate Precision metal working $33,100 $41,900
1-2 year certificate Heavy equipment maintenance $34,800 $42,600
Associate’s Industrial production $41,400 $46,200
Associate’s Nursing $47,300 $54,300
Associate’s Electrical Engineering $42,000 $61,500

The earnings reports, however, are sobering for those who get associate’s degree in other fields. The average starting salary for Tennesseans with an associate’s in liberal arts was about $28,000. Five years out those folks were earning about $35,000, roughly equal to the pay of those who earned an associate’s in business but less than most workers with technical degrees.

What’s more, students shouldn’t assume they will earn the average earnings published in these kinds of reports, warns Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. “A lot of this depends on other factors, such as the local labor market and the student.” In other words, your coursework and workplace performance matters too.

To find four-year colleges that are likely to help you find a good-paying job, you can search Money’s rankings of the best value colleges – colleges across the country with the best combination of net price and high-earning alumni. (College Measures advised Money on the development of the rankings, which used earnings estimates from a 2010 to 2013 national survey of 1.4 million Americans by Payscale.com.)

MONEY Student Loans

Why Refinancing Your Federal Student Loans Could Cost You

When you consolidate with a private lender, you can lower your interest rate. But in exchange you lose valuable consumer protections.

People with federal student loan debt now have a few options to lower their rates with private consolidation loans, but consumer advocates warn they could be giving up vital protections in doing so.

Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc’s Citizens Financial Group recently expanded its student loan refinancing program to include federal as well as private student loans. The bank joins two much smaller, peer-to-peer lenders, SoFi and CommonBond.

All three lenders say they counsel potential customers about the consumer protections lost when federal debt is refinanced into private loans. Those protections include access to federal income-based repayment and forgiveness programs as well as generous forbearance and deferral options.

“Those are very important rights,” says Persis Yu, staff attorney for the Student Loan Borrowers Assistance site run by the National Consumer Law Center.

Yu questions whether the borrowers targeted by these lenders understand how vulnerable they are to financial setbacks such as job losses.

“A lot of people think they’re not ever going to default,” Yu says, “but there are very high delinquency rates on student loans.”

Who’s getting loans

So far the lenders are wooing the lowest-risk borrowers: graduates with steady jobs, good credit and enough income to pay down their loans.

CommonBond, which has refinanced about $100 million in student loans so far, restricts its prospective clients even further to those with business, law, medical, or engineering degrees, says Chief Executive Officer David Klein.

The lenders tout variable rates that start at less than 3%. Fixed rates can be as low as 3.6% at SoFi and Common Bond, while Citizens’ lowest is 4.74%.

By contrast, current interest rates for new fixed-rate federal Stafford loans are 4.66% for undergraduates and 6.21% for graduate and professional students. Borrowers with older federal debt may have rates as high as 8.5%.

While the best rates on consolidation loans are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers, Citizens has been able to lower its typical customer’s rate by 1.5 percentage points when refinancing private loans, says Brendan Coughlin, the company’s president of auto and education lending.

A one-percentage-point decrease corresponds to annual savings of about $50 per year on each $10,000 of debt, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a college finance education site. The savings generally are not enough to make it worth giving up income-based repayment and forgiveness options, he says.

Borrowers who struggle to pay their debt are typically locked out of refinancing due to lenders’ high underwriting standards.

“We’re approached by people who are having a really difficult time with their payments,” says Mike Cagney, CEO of SoFi, which so far has refinanced about $1 billion in federal and private loan debt. “We’re not a good option for them.”

Parents may benefit

Parents who have federal PLUS loans, however, might consider refinancing into a private loan if they can win a large-enough interest rate reduction, Kantrowitz says.

Parent PLUS loans are not eligible for income-based repayment options or forgiveness, although they still offer up to three years of forbearance and deferral options. Private consolidation loans typically offer up to one year of forbearance.

“Generally, refinancing federal parent PLUS loans into a private consolidation loan might be financially beneficial if the interest rate will decrease by at least two percentage points and the borrower has at least $20,000 in [such] loans,” Kantrowitz says.

“Students, on the other hand, should still not refinance their federal student loans into a private consolidation loan.”

Parents with the high credit scores and solid incomes necessary for a private loan consolidation presumably would be able to make informed decisions about the necessary trade-offs between a lower interest rate and the loss of federal education loan benefits, Kantrowitz says.

A proposal to lower rates on existing federal student loan debt died this summer when Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, failed to get the 60 votes needed to advance her bill. The legislation, which would have allowed people with federal and private loans issued before 2010 to refinance at 3.86 percent, received 56 votes for and 38 votes against it.

TIME Education

Why Women’s Colleges Are Opening the Door for Men

Student working at desk in library
Getty Images

An effort to stop declining enrollment

Wilson College, a small women’s school in Pennsylvania, came close to shutting down once before. But a swell of opposition from staff and students in 1979 and a fundraising effort that raised $1.1 million in less than three months kept the college in business. Facing a similarly dire falloff in enrolled students and tuition revenue this year, the school turned to what it said is the only option for survival—admitting men.

One of a few dozen remaining women’s colleges in the U.S., Wilson said it can no longer afford to serve only half the population. While overall college enrollment has gone up by about 32% since 2000, enrollment at women-only colleges has fallen during that time by 29%. As a result, more women’s colleges are going co-ed. There were as many as 200 women’s colleges in 1960, according to the National Institute on Postsecondary Education. Today that number hovers around 44, as schools facing sluggish enrollment are forced to find ways to survive.

In the last two years, at least three other women’s colleges have gone coed or announced plans to. The first male students at William Peace University in Raleigh matriculated in 2012. Georgian Court University in New Jersey went co-ed last year. And Chatham University in Pittsburgh will admit men starting next fall.

At Wilson, undergraduate enrollment has been chronically low for 40 years, according to school spokesman Brian Speer. At its peak, the college enrolled 732 students, but it hasn’t had more than 338 since 1980. Last year, just under 600 applicants were offered admission—but only 100 chose to attend. That prompted the board of trustees to approve President Barbara Mistick’s plan to admit undergraduate men.

The process began last fall with undergraduate male commuter students. Male students who are living on campus arrived this fall. The shift to co-ed is part of a broader revitalization plan that also includes a 17% tuition reduction and a loan buyback program.

“This college has been trying to implement programs for 30 years to address the stagnant enrollment in the undergraduate college,” Speer said.“Those efforts have not gotten us anywhere near where we need to be.”

Not everyone is on board. Students and alumni have formed two groups to protest the change. One, Wilson College Women, is led by lawyer and 1980 graduate Gretchen Van Ness; it has 465 members on its Facebook page. Another, Wild Wilson Women, has more than 1,400 members.

Van Ness, who sat on the commission that made suggestions to Mistick, said it didn’t support coeducation as a way to boost enrollment. She accused the administration of breaking state Department of Education protocol that requires it to propose amendments to the college’s articles of incorporation and wait for approval before making changes. The college filed an application to change its charter with the state last year but didn’t wait for approval before admitting male commuter students that fall. Instead, Van Ness and others said, the college immediately advertised itself as co-ed, hired coaches for male athletic teams, and started preparing dorms for male residential students. Van Ness said this is illegal but Wilson maintains that changes to its charter in 1993 gave it permission to admit men.

“All of a sudden, Wilson’s identity as a women’s college had just disappeared,” Van Ness said.

In June, the women behind Wilson College Women were granted a hearing at the state Department of Education, where they made the case for state intervention that would block any further undergraduate coed operations at the school. The Department has not said when it will issue a ruling.

At Chatham University, the decision to admit men was much less controversial.

“It’s been a topic of conversation for 20 years. The idea was to keep the undergraduate women’s college and diversify the graduate programs,” said school spokesman Bill Campbell.

In 1992, men were invited to apply to graduate and other programs. Enrollment was temporarily boosted by the move, but it went down again in 2008.

“Less and less women are interested in women’s colleges today,” Campbell said.“Can we feasibly continue to put this much money to this mission decision?”

At Chatham, Campbell said the decision to admit men was proactive—the school relied on a February report from Standard & Poor’s that predicted the next few years to be especially tough for small, narrowly-focused colleges as an indication of trouble to come. Chatham got a low BBB- rating in the report.

Admitting men can be a financial solution for struggling schools, but it’s important for women to have a range of choices when they pick a college, said Marilyn Hammond, president of the Women’s College Coalition.

“What’s at stake is that there will be limits again to the options women have if women’s colleges don’t exist,” she said.

At Wilson, Van Ness and other opponents said they hope the state will protect that option. Van Ness was a junior and president of the student government at Wilson in 1979, when faculty and students protested the school’s closure, which was eventually blocked by a judge.

“We made history once,” Van Ness said. “As tough as it is out there in the constantly changing world of higher education, there is still a place for women’s colleges.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

TIME Education

Most Financial Aid Should Go To First-Generation College Students

College lecture hall
Lisa Klumpp—Getty Images

Schools aren’t helping the students that really need it

Sometimes, vague can be misleading—and harmful. For years, colleges have identified disadvantaged students based primarily on “diversity” and “need.” But those categories are broad and unspecific, and can be gamed by sophisticated applicants and parents. The result? Schools aren’t helping the students that really need it. And higher education is now perpetuating – rather than alleviating – inequality. We can reverse this pattern by learning from our education history and shifting the focus of that aid effort to first-generation college students.

The key here is this: colleges need to get more specific about who they want to help, and why. Universities’ commitment to “diversity” is important, but it’s a poor substitute for a policy of equal access for the disadvantaged because “diverse” students and disadvantaged students are not necessarily one and the same. Several studies have shown that beneficiaries of diversity-based admissions policies typically hail from the most well-educated and economically successful segments of “diverse” communities. That’s why a diversity strategy will not help universities reclaim their mission of fostering socio-economic mobility.

Focusing on first-generation college students, on the other hand, just might. These are the students whose parents never attained a bachelor’s degree from a U.S. college, and they’re a much better proxy group for those who are truly at a disadvantage in education. First-generation students typically attend secondary schools with fewer academic and financial resources. Yet we don’t have to look hard to find examples of students who demonstrate strong academic potential and have the discipline and perseverance to achieve long-term success. Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO; Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College; Colin Powell, former Secretary of State; and Associate Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Supreme Court Justice – all first-generation college students – are just a few examples of tremendous academic potential of these students.

So, how do we unlock all that potential? It’s easy to propose an outreach strategy to first-generation students, but harder to implement one. The 250 or so oversubscribed institutions that admit a fraction of thousands of applicants too often crowd out the smart but poorer students. High-ability students born to poor, uneducated parents have the most to gain from higher education and the most to lose as a result of current inequities. We need to remove some of the roadblocks in the present system, especially at selective institutions of higher learning.

Here’s one such roadblock: Many universities—an overwhelming majority, in fact—practice “need-sensitive” admissions and don’t accept academically able but poor students, at least in part because they cannot pay. And then there’s merit-based financial aid, which also gives wealthier students an edge: schools often use it to climb the infamous U.S News & World Report rankings, as Stephen Burd reports in a recent paper. No one is arguing that merit doesn’t matter, but we need to scrutinize merit aid awards more closely. The metrics most colleges use to define “merit” favor affluent students, whose schools have the resources to support standardized testing prep, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes and exams. And it’s not just colleges that are contributing to this problem: Even lower-income students who receive the maximum Pell award may be left with a significant financial burden because the government isn’t holding colleges accountable for rising costs. Too many students face an untenable choice: financing their college educations with costly student loans or forego higher education altogether.

The cumulative impact of these roadblocks is clear. Students from affluent backgrounds graduate from college at six times the rate of children from low-income households. For lower-income students, merely going to college is an achievement. Fewer than 30 percent enroll in a four-year college. Of those poorer students who do matriculate, fewer than half graduate. The most damning statistics concern high-achieving students from low-income households. Even when students from low-income households outscore higher-income peers, they graduate from college at a lower rate. This data belies the notion, once extolled by universal schooling proponent, Horace Mann, that our institutions of higher education are “great equalizers.”

To make good on the past, we need to discuss how data sometimes drives – and misidentifies – our priorities. The Department of Education mandates that colleges report a massive amount of information about their students, including test scores, graduation rates, average net price paid per student, and demographic information such as race and sex. But it neglects to ask colleges about their students’ first-generation status—sending schools the message that this status isn’t a government priority (an impression compounded by the fact no comprehensive database indicates how many such students are admitted to institutions that receive federal funds).

Even if the government were asking for data about first-generation status, universities aren’t likely to happily fork it over. In response to inquiries I made in connection with a forthcoming research paper on first-generation students’ access to higher education, administrators at numerous selective universities claimed to have no idea whether their students hail from Ph.Ds. or from high school drop outs. The data that I did manage to collect indicates that first-generation students constitute a fraction of the student bodies at selective colleges and universities. In 2011, for instance, only five percent of matriculating freshmen at the University of Michigan, and in 2013 just nine percent of matriculating freshman at the University of Virginia—both taxpayer-supported universities that enroll thousands of students—were first-generation college students.

The best way to address the social and economic inequality embedded in higher education policy is to tackle it at its roots. Admissions officials can start by practicing need-blind admissions, asking students whether their parents graduated from a four-year college, and consciously seeking to admit academically competitive first-generation students during the admissions process. Colleges should provide adequate financial support for low-income first-generation college students and the federal government must replace costly loans with grants for a greater number of needy students. The government can also look to its past for precedent to craft a legislative solution. Both the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (“GI Bill”) and 1965 Higher Education Act (part of The Great Society) offer models for providing educational benefits and access to those who are most in need.

The inclusion of greater numbers of students from the bottom rungs of society in higher education need not be a zero sum game. This isn’t about displacing wealthier students. It’s about enriching the student body, and making college better for everyone with the potential to attend.

Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and a Professor of History at Harvard University, where she is the co-director of the Program in Law and History. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser