MONEY College

The Problem With Obama’s “Free Community College” Proposal

US President Barack Obama speaks on new proposals for higher education accessibility at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee on January 9, 2015. Looking on are US Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden.
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images US President Barack Obama speaks on new proposals for higher education accessibility at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee on January 9, 2015. Looking on are US Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden.

President Obama's free college plan won't actually raise the number of college graduates without improvements in the way community colleges help students succeed, say two education researchers.

President Obama’s ambitious proposal to make community college tuition free would certainly make enrolling in college more affordable. It may also induce students to stay there longer.

However, reducing costs for students on its own is unlikely to significantly increase the number of students who finish degrees. Consider: Of all of the students who enrolled in public community college for the first time in the fall of 2003, only one-quarter earned any kind of certificate or associate’s degree within six years. Another 12% earned a bachelor’s degree within that six-year period.

If we want to significantly improve educational outcomes, we need to both make college more affordable so more students can enroll, and make the reforms needed to ensure community college students can succeed in their courses, complete their programs, and graduate within a reasonable amount of time.

President Obama’s plan would certainly make community college more affordable. Even for the 40% of community college students whose tuition is already covered by federal and state aid, other expenses (food, transportation, books, etc.) often present insurmountable hurdles. If grants are awarded to eligible students on top of free tuition, as President Obama proposes, then many of these affordability issues would be addressed.

But the Tennessee and Chicago free tuition policies that inspired President Obama also address the broader barriers to success. The affordability improvements in those communities are one part of larger reforms designed to dramatically boost the success of community college students by providing close monitoring of student progress, careful alignment of courses to transfer and job requirements, clearer and more coherent programs of study, and help for students to make better choices about what to study.

Such reforms, many features of which have also been enacted in the City University of New York’s Accelerated Studies in Associate Programs (ASAP), have doubled the graduation rate for participants. But at a cost: ASAP costs 60% more per student than the standard CUNY program.

Laudably, President Obama’s proposal does try to address quality. It includes requirements that community colleges “adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.” But his plan does not provide colleges with additional resources to help them in these efforts.

In fact, it is possible that his plan could reduce the money community colleges are able to spend on improving outcomes.

The White House estimates that the free tuition program would cost $6 billion a year. But that money would simply replace the tuition students were already paying, not increase colleges’ revenue. States would be required to pay for one-quarter of this tuition subsidy. Some may raise that money by decreasing the direct subsidies they give colleges now, which currently cover approximately two-thirds of the cost of educating each student.

Despite these obstacles, the president’s proposal opens the door to a broader discussion of a comprehensive strategy for community colleges that emphasizes both affordability and performance.

Community colleges are the launchpad for opportunity for all Americans, enrolling almost half of the nation’s undergraduates. They are especially crucial for those who have, traditionally, been excluded from other kinds of higher education.

For these millions of students seeking brighter futures at community colleges, we need bold and transformative change and renewed public investment to ensure they have college options that are both affordable and of high quality.

Thomas Bailey is director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University and co-author of the forthcoming Redesigning America’s Community Colleges (Harvard University Press, 2015).

Judith Scott-Clayton is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

MONEY College

5 Ways to Get Free College Education Even If (When?) Obama’s Plan Dies

Congress probably won't approve the free community college plan, but there are lots of ways you can get free or affordable college courses.

Almost as soon as President Obama floated his proposal for free community college on Thursday night, experts began explaining the political, economic, and practical reasons it was unlikely ever to become a reality.

Chances are slim, it was pointed out, that he can persuade a Republican-controlled Congress to approve and fund the expensive plan

And community college leaders worried about their ability to handle a big influx of students attracted by free courses, some noting that insufficient revenues and high demand have forced some community colleges to turn away students in recent years.

But don’t despair: Many other programs are already making college free for thousands of students. And there are other proposals to eliminate up-front tuition that could open the college gates to more students in the future.

Here are five ways you can find free or very affordable college courses right now:

1) Some states and cities already have free or low-cost community college tuition. The Tennessee Promise, which is the model for President Obama’s plan, waives tuition not covered by other aid programs for students who file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), donate eight hours of community service each semester, and earn a C grade point average. Similar programs are being debated in Oregon, Texas, Mississippi, and Chicago. Community colleges in California, the most affordable in the country, charge less than $1,500 a year in tuition and fees.

2) Financial aid and tax benefits already cover most community college tuition. The average community college charges about $3,350 a year in tuition and fees. By taking advantage of the $2,500 federal tuition tax credits, as well as financial aid such as the federal Pell Grant, the average community college student gets enough aid to cover tuition and the approximately $1,000 book bill, according to research by the College Board.

3) Alternative free college proposals. Several states are considering “Pay It Forward” proposals that would allow students to attend college without paying any tuition right away and instead repaying a percentage of their income over time. And other “free college” plans have also gained traction.

4) Established free college programs: The military, work colleges, and many generous colleges offer ways to get free college educations.

5) Free online courses: There are hundreds of free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Many, for a nominal fee, will award you college credits.

MONEY financial aid

7 Legal Ways to Squeeze More College Aid From the FAFSA

vice squeezing dollar bill
Steven Puetzer—Getty Images

Smart timing, cash management and college application strategies can mean thousands of dollars in extra financial aid.

Correction appended: January 8

Filling out the 10 eye-crossing pages of the 2015-16 Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the most important application for need-based college financial aid, may not seem like a fun adventure in Super Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom. But hidden among its 103 questions are hints that, if followed correctly, can dramatically increase your need-based aid and possibly rescue your dreams of an affordable college education.

Before you spend a lot of time on this, though, use a few college Net Price Calculators, the federal government’s FAFSA Forecaster, or the College Board’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) calculator to see whether you’re likely to receive any need-based aid. If you’re planning to attend an in-state public college, and your family has an Expected Family Contribution (or EFC) above about $25,000 (which general means the family income is above $125,000) the odds of getting need-based grants are very low, says Paula Bishop, an independent financial aid counselor in Bellevue, Wash. For students planning on private colleges, the need-based aid EFC cutoff is generally about $65,000, she says (which typically means the family has an income greater than $200,000).

If you’re above those cutoffs, it still pays to fill out the FAFSA to qualify yourself for low-cost student loans, and merit programs that require the form, but your focus should be on maximizing merit aid – which is money awarded based on the student’s grades or other accomplishments without regard to family income.

If you’re below those cutoffs, use this “not-cheating” (since all these strategies are legal) FAFSA cheat sheet:

1. Go online. You can print out a PDF and fill out the FAFSA on paper. But the online version uses skip logic, which makes it easier and faster. Also, for later filers, the online version will import your tax information, which speeds things up even more.

2. Time it right. Fill out the 2015-16 form right now if you live in one of the nine states with “first-come, first-served” financial aid programs: Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington. These states often run out of money quickly, so act fast, even if you don’t have your 2014 tax information. You can fill out the 2015-16 form using estimates based on your 2013 tax forms. Then, when you do your taxes, you can go back into your FAFSA and make any updates or corrections.

Everybody else has more time—but not a lot. Those who file the FAFSA by March 30 receive, on average, twice the grant money as later filers, calculates Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the financial aid website Edvisors.com. Many colleges and states have early deadlines for state aid: The deadline for filing for state financial aid in Connecticut is Feb. 15; Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and West Virginia cut off their state aid after March 1. California’s deadline is March 2. You can check your state’s aid deadline here, but you’ll have to call, or check the websites of, the colleges you’re applying to for their aid deadlines.

Don’t despair if you still haven’t filled out last year’s FAFSA. You can still qualify for federal aid for the 2014-15 academic year by filling out last year’s FAFSA, even as late as June 30 of this year

3. Clarify your relationships. Questions 16 and 59 ask about the students’ and parents’ marital status as of the day you file the form, to see if both parents’ income should be counted as financial resources for the student. Rules adopted in 2014 eliminated a loophole that allowed parents who were cohabiting but didn’t happen to be married to report only one parent’s income (which usually increased the student’s eligibility for need-based aid). Divorced or separated parents may report one parent’s income (the parent with whom the student spends the most time) only if the other parent does not live in the same house. In other words, if you’re in the process of getting divorced or separated anyway, one spouse should move out before you finish the FAFSA.

4. Parents: Don’t brag. Some states and colleges offer extra aid to children of parents who haven’t earned college degrees. Questions 24 and 25 ask about the highest level of education your parents completed. So if one or both of your parents, attended community college, or even are just one credit away from a bachelor’s degree, make sure to fill in the dot only for “high school,” Bishop advises.

5. Pay your bills first. Questions 41 and 90 ask about how much cash students and parents have in savings and checking accounts at the moment you are filling out the FAFSA. But notice that there are no questions on the FAFSA about your debts or bills. So if you’ve got a sufficient emergency cash reserve, use any extra cash to pay down credit card, car loan, or other bills before you finish filling out the form, and report the newly lower cash amount on the FAFSA.

6. Shield your investments. Questions 42, 43, 91 and 92 ask about the student’s and the parents’ investments. But many filers don’t realize that the value of any retirement accounts, as well as the home you live in, should not be included in these boxes. So if you’ve got a lot of money in non-retirement accounts, prepay your mortgage or plow some into Roth IRAs. One big advantage of Roth IRAs: You can take out your contributions (but not any earnings) tax-free to pay college bills.

7. Strategize your college list. A growing number of colleges are analyzing the order in which students list colleges on FAFSA question #103 to determine how likely the student is to attend. Colleges assume that students list colleges in their order of preference, and some will award more aid to those who list their college second or third, say, in an effort to woo students away from their first choice. So make sure the top three colleges in your list are schools you really want to attend, and, if possible, are schools that compete with one another, in the hopes of encouraging them to raise your aid offer.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the scenario in tip No. 6. The time to take these steps is when you have a lot of money in non-retirement accounts.

Read next: Best Colleges You Can Still Apply To For Fall 2015

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

MONEY College

3 Ways to Get More College Merit Aid

STEPHEN ALLEN, COURTESY OF PRESBYTERIAN COLLEGE At Presbyterian College in South Carolina, 46% of students get scholarships, averaging $16,000 a year.

Use these tips to score a merit award big enough to put a real dent in tuition bills.

Maybe your kids aren’t exactly Einsteins, but they can do math well enough to figure out that even upper-middle-class families can’t easily afford the $100,000 average sticker price for a degree from a public college, let alone $200,000 for a private school. And you know that’s a pretty tough equation too.

One way to help close the gap between your savings and any need-based aid your student is likely to get: Set your sights on merit aid awarded by colleges based on grades, test scores, or other accomplishments. Nabbing a merit award is getting easier, says Frank Palmasani, author of Right College, Right Price, as more schools use scholarships as a marketing tool to attract quality students. Indeed, the percentage of undergraduates getting merit aid has more than tripled in the past 20 years, the government reports, and it’s not just “A” students who qualify. Palmasani, a counselor at Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Ill., says, “Never anticipate that your child’s test scores and GPA are too low to be considered for merit aid.”

The stakes can be substantial. An analysis of the merit aid budgets of the 665 colleges in MONEY’s Best Colleges rankings—schools that meet basic criteria for value and educational quality—found that last year about 17% of students got scholarships at private colleges. The average award: $12,500. And at the most generous schools, at least a third of students get merit grants, typically covering at least half of tuition.

The downside of the uptick in merit awards is that they often take dollars away from grants based on financial need. Recently net college prices for low- and moderate-income households have been rising faster than for more affluent ones. That makes it imperative for families of all income levels to seek out every merit dollar available.

These strategies should help.

Go Where the Money Is

The most selective schools are the least likely to be liberal with merit money. At colleges in the MONEY rankings that accept 20% or less of applicants, only 7% of students receive merit aid. At schools where at least a third of students get merit scholarships, the average acceptance rate is 61%. The best odds are at lesser-known private schools such as Furman University in South Carolina, which accepts about two-thirds of applicants. It awards almost half the students merit scholarships.

Don’t assume a high acceptance rate means the school has lower-quality students: The typical undergrad at Millsaps, which accepts 47% of applicants and is ranked No. 1 for merit aid on our list, had SAT scores of about 1140; at No. 2, Hendrix, which accepts 80%, the typical freshman scored 1200. The SAT national average: 1010.

Look Beyond Home

Public universities generally don’t hand out a lot of merit awards; only 9% of students at the state schools we ranked received scholarships, averaging $4,500. A few exceptions include public schools in Alabama, North Dakota, and South Carolina, and many non-flagships in other states, which are making a concerted effort to woo out-of-state students. The University of South Carolina, for example, last year offered scholarships worth about $8,500 a year to out-of-state students with A-minus grades and SAT scores averaging 1245. Among the public schools in our rankings, Truman State in Missouri and the New College of Florida also offer at least 25% of their students merit aid. Call the admissions office—not the financial aid office—at public schools to find out whether they offer merit awards to out-of-state students.

Play a Little Hard to Get

Encourage your child to apply to several schools where his grades and test scores put him in the top quarter of the applicant pool. Then he should designate his favorites by putting them at the top of school lists requested on FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid), the SAT or ACT forms, and college-search sites. Schools tend to offer the most aid to prospects who would improve their student profile and have several college options. But some don’t bother making offers to students they believe, realistically, probably won’t choose their institution.

At Beloit, in Wisconsin, where about a quarter of students get merit aid, the best offers go to applicants with the highest grades and test scores who have also indicated the school is one of their top picks, says Beloit president Scott Bierman. “We have a decent sense of what other schools offer families” and want to make offers that compete favorably, he says. “But if we’re not in your top three, we know you’re not really a serious candidate.”

Related: See our list of the Top 20 private colleges that offer the most merit aid.

More Rankings from MONEY’s Best Colleges:
The 25 Most Affordable Colleges
The 25 Colleges That Add the Most Value
The 25 Best Colleges That You Can Actually Get Into

MONEY College

Why It’s So Tough To Find Out the True Cost of College

calculator missing keys
Larry Washburn—Getty Images/fStop Good luck finding your college's net price calculator.

Schools are supposed to help prospective students figure out the real price in advance. Actually finding the calculator is another matter.

U.S. colleges have started, however reluctantly, to share more information about what students might actually pay to attend—the so-called net price. But the calculators that Congress has forced schools to provide since 2011 are often hard to find, vary widely in quality, and should be used with some caution.

The idea behind the law was to give families a rough, individualized estimate of what college might cost them once scholarships and grants are deducted from the sticker price. (Loans are not supposed to be included in the net price figure since borrowing increases rather than decreases the cost of education.)

A realistic estimate of costs would give families much better information before a child applies. Previously they only got true cost information after the student was accepted and had been offered financial aid.

But many people, including parents and even high school counselors, are not aware the calculators exist, said college consultant Lynn O’Shaughnessy, who runs TheCollegeSolution.com website.

Some colleges do not seem eager to enlighten them, even though the U.S. Department of Education last year urged schools to post the tools prominently in logical places.

One quarter of the 50 colleges randomly selected by the Institute for College Access and Success did not have links to their calculators on the financial aid or costs sections of their sites. Even when the calculator was on a relevant page, it was rarely posted prominently, the survey found.

Five of the 50 schools confused matters further by using some other name for the tool, such as “education cost calculator” or “tuition calculator.”

The survey was conducted in 2012, but not much has changed, TICAS president Lauren Asher said last week.

To find New York University’s calculator, for instance, users must click on three tabs—”Admissions,” “Financial Aid and Scholarships,” and finally “Financial Aid at NYU.” At University of Pennsylvania, it takes four clicks to find the net price calculator, which is highlighted in a small blue box.

Harvard College, by contrast, posts its calculator on its financial aid home page, under the headline “You Can Afford Harvard.”

Families often can find the elusive tools by entering the college’s name and “net price calculator” into a search engine.

Another place to find links to net price calculators is on each college’s information page on the College Board’s Big Future site. This provides other critical aid information, such as the percentage of financial need each college meets.

One other potentially helpful tool is average net prices by income, or what other people actually paid. It can be found at the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Wide Range of Results

The relevance and accuracy of all this information can be questionable, though.

The difference between calculator estimates and actual costs for many families will be as little as $500, but for some, the gap could be as wide as $5,000, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of education resource website Edvisors.com.

The TICAS report said many colleges used outdated cost information in their net price calculators. In addition, 40% included estimates of “self-help,” including work study and loans, and most made this lower “estimated remaining cost” figure more prominent than the federally required net price.

The calculators also vary dramatically in their design and the amount of information they require. The number of questions range from eight to 70, as some schools want the calculator to be as easy to use as possible, while others try for the most accurate results.

College access advocates such as TICAS worry that fewer families will complete the calculator if it is too complex or requires information that can only be gleaned from tax returns.

On the other side, consultants like O’Shaughnessy say the simplified versions’ estimates can be far off base.

“Generally, the more questions asked by a net price calculator, the more accurate the results,” Kantrowitz says. But he cautioned families against relying too heavily on the result of any calculator.

“Net price calculators provide a ballpark estimate of the real cost of the college,” Kantrowitz says. “They tell you whether the college is inside or outside the ballpark of affordability but do not distinguish between home plate and center field.”

More on college costs:

 

MONEY College

Don’t Bother Appealing a Financial Aid Award if…

Rich woman crying
iStock Crying poor doesn't always work wonders with the financial aid office.

Sometimes it doesn't make any sense to ask a college for more money. An expert explains what those times are.

I’m often approached by families who want me to help them request more money from a particular college. About a third of the time, I turn them down.

So what is it about these families that has me refusing to take their business — and their money?

It’s their unrealistic hopes. These families want a strategy. They’ve read that if you show a college a competing award, the college will match it. Or they’ve heard that you can negotiate a better award by telling the college how much the student wants to attend the school.

If these are the only reasons they want more money, I tell them they can appeal themselves. These parents will probably be unsuccessful if the award they want a college to match is in a different category of selectivity. A highly competitive college that does not give merit awards will not match a school that has awarded a student an academic scholarship. That selective college will award only need-based aid, based on the family’s income and assets; the other college uses merit awards to entice students to attend, regardless of their financial situation.

Financial-aid appeal letters are difficult for colleges to respond positively to, since a decision to change an award is limited by a college’s policies and requires consensus of the financial aid committee. There are no cut-and-dry rules of what will be accepted and what won’t. The committee can use what they term “professional judgment” and override entries on financial aid forms.

I try to put myself in the college’s shoes. I will assist a family, for example, whose primary wage earner is out of work because of an incapacitating illness that struck after the student submitted his or her financial aid forms. I’ll help a family forced to maintain two households because the family can’t move and the only job a family member can get is too far away for a commute. I’m also sympathetic to families forced to draw upon retirement funds to pay for medical bills.

In these cases, I will calculate the decrease in income available for college expenses and ask the college to lower the family’s income by this amount in their financial-aid calculation.

On the other hand, what if the parents want to appeal due to high living expenses, such as a $7,000-a-month mortgage, three $600 monthly car payments on their new SUVs, and private basketball coaching for their children? In such a case — and I really did hear from such a family — I pull out my “World’s Smallest Violin” and play a tune. I tell them their letter will be posted on the bulletin board in the financial aid office’s lunchroom, so that the financial aid officers get a quick laugh from it each time they take a break from their demanding jobs.

I get no pleasure out of helping with these types of appeals. For me to work with them, they need to pass my personal litmus test: They have to make me shed a tear after hearing what’s going on with the family — not make me run for my World’s Smallest Violin.

———

Paula Bishop is a Certified Public Accountant and an adviser on financial aid for college. She holds a BS in economics with a major in finance from the Wharton School and an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley. She is a member of the National College Advocacy Group, whose mission is to provide education and resources for college planning professionals, students and families. Her website is www.paulabishop.com.

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

3 Mistakes That Will Cost You a College Scholarship

Student in library late at night
Sam Edwards—Getty Images

A grant or scholarship can be the decisive factor in where you go school. But holding on to it for four years isn't always easy

College campuses are springing to life again as students gear up to start a new academic year. For many freshmen, the school they’ll be getting to know in the next few months will be the one that not only agreed to let them in but also offered to help pay the tuition bill. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 59% of the 23 million undergraduate students in the United States receive some form of grant or scholarship.

But the pride of winning a scholarship obscures for many students a tough reality: Getting that scholarship renewed for your whole college career isn’t a sure thing. Every year, tens of thousands of rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors lose scholarships they had counted on.

A MONEY analysis of financial aid reports for the 2012-2013 academic year found that colleges, on average, award merit-based scholarships to 25% of their freshmen. However, only 20% of sophomores, juniors, and seniors get similar grants. At some schools, the scholarship dropoff is much more significant.

So how do you make sure you keep your scholarship for all four years of college? It might seem like the rules are obvious: don’t break the law, get kicked out of school, or do something else stupid. Those are definitely good guidelines. But there’s a little more to keeping college aid than simply steering clear of a contemporary Animal House remake. For example:

Grades

Most schools set grade point average (GPA) minimums to keep the financial aid flowing—even for “need-based” grants awarded based on family income.

Colleges typically require students to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, the equivalent of a C average, to qualify for almost any kind of financial aid. Even students receiving Pell grants, which are federally funded need-based aid, will lose their assistance if they don’t meet standards of “satisfactory academic progress.” At most schools, that means earning a GPA of 2.0 on at least 12 credits per semester, though many schools will give freshmen a bit of a break.

Good grades are even more important to recipients of merit scholarships, which are awarded based on a student’s grades or talents. Most merit scholarships set higher GPA bars for renewal. The merit-based HOPE scholarship programs in Georgia and Tennessee, for example, are only renewed for students who maintain GPAs of 3.0.

And some schools have big merit scholarships that are only renewed if students maintain a GPA of 3.5, such as Baylor’s $38,500-per-year Regent’s Gold Scholarship.

But you were a good student in high school, so keeping up your grades will be no sweat, right? Newsflash: Most college classes are harder than high school classes, so students’ grades tend to take a significant dip when they make the transition to higher education. A study of the transcripts of more than 122,000 students by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, for example, found that the average student’s grade point average declined by .47, or half a letter grade, from high school to college.

That means even students with a 3.4 high school GPA—a high B+—face a real risk of losing merit aid that requires a 3.0 for renewal. No wonder that about half of Georgia HOPE recipients, and more than 40 percent of Tennessee HOPE recipients, lose funding before their senior year.

To make sure bad grades don’t cost you your scholarship, students and parents should be crystal clear about the GPA renewal requirements for any grant or scholarship. If you’re worried, ask professors for interim grade reports; if you’re in danger of slipping below the required minimum, you can get help from campus tutoring services (often free of charge), or in some cases take the class pass-fail without adversely affecting your GPA.

Besides buckling down at the library, students should also be realistic about their class schedules and their likelihood of success in a tough major. According to a study from the Southern Economic Journal, “students whose major course of study is in engineering, computing, or the natural sciences are 21 percent to 51 percent more likely to lose their (grade-based) HOPE Scholarships than students in other disciplines.” Of course, those majors also tend to lead to much more lucrative careers. So it may be worth risking a few scholarships for a lifetime of good jobs and big paychecks.

Discipline

Keeping your financial aid generally means also keeping your nose clean of any legal or academic violations. Getting incarcerated is obviously a no-no. It’s especially essential that Pell grant recipients avoid any kind of drug-related trouble. Those who’ve been busted for buying or selling drugs can be banned from the Pell program for years, depending on the number of offenses.

You’ll also want to give your college’s student handbook a close read. Breaking school rules can result in anything from expulsion to a temporary suspension. And it can also be extremely expensive.

Harvard is a cautionary tale for would be rule-breakers. The New York Times reports that students at the college found guilty of “misusing sources” (also known as plagiarism) will likely be forced to withdraw from the college for “at least” two semesters and lose credit for that term’s coursework. (Readmission is also not guaranteed.) According to Harvard’s website, a student leaving school while a semester is in progress can still be charged over $25,000 in fees depending on their withdrawal date.

In Harvard’s case, that money will generally come out of a student’s financial aid. But, like many schools, the Cambridge-based college is loath to offer more than eight semesters of support, and those who withdraw during the school year have essentially wasted one of those terms. A Harvard spokesman says penalized students who withdraw must not only apply to be re-accepted, they must also receive approval for additional aid. If their request is denied, these students would lose funding during their final semester.

Athletics

Athletic scholarships are probably the least dependable form of financial aid. In addition to meeting GPA requirements (which are generally similar to those of Pell recipients) and following university rules, the vast majority of Division I athletic scholarships must be renewed annually. That means students who get injured, stop playing well, or simply don’t fit a new coach’s vision can have their funding dropped after the year is over.

In 2009, players on the University of Kentucky’s basketball team found this out the hard way. The school brought in John Calipari as head coach, and he quickly forced out six players who he felt did not fit his system.

“It hurt because I abided by the rules. I did everything I was supposed to. … Kept up a good GPA, went to class every day, didn’t fail any tests, ” Matt Pilgrim, one of the players asked to depart, told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “I feel like just for following my part of the contract, they should follow theirs.”

As the Post-Gazette reports, some colleges are better than others at awarding longer-term aid packages. Fresno State offers exclusively four-year deals, and the University of Maryland recently announced it would also guarantee athletes the ability to finish their degrees.

Read More About Money’s Best Colleges:
The 25 Most Affordable Colleges
The 25 Colleges That Add the Most Value
The 25 Best Public Colleges

MONEY

How This Weekend’s College Football Rivals Stack Up as College Values

The college football season has kicked off. We looked at which of the schools in this weekend's games are the winners in Money's Best Colleges rankings.

  • Texas A&M v. University of South Carolina

    Left: Reveille cheers on the Texas A&M Aggies. Right: South Carolina Gamecocks mascot Sir Big Spur on his perch during the game.
    Brian Bahr/Getty Images (left)—Joe Robbins/Getty Images (right)

     

    When: Thursday Aug. 28, 6 p.m. EDT

    The Winner: Texas A&M, which came into the game ranked 21st in the AP poll, upset the 9th-ranked Gamecocks.

    MONEY’s pick for college value: Texas A&M.

    Texas A&M is one of the most affordable and highest quality public universities in the country. MONEY estimates that the total cost of a degree for freshmen starting this fall will average $86,000—$14,000 less than a degree from the University of South Carolina. Also, Aggies earn, on average, about $52,000 a year within five years of graduation, according to data from Payscale.com. Gamecocks report earning only about $41,300.

  • Penn State v. University of Central Florida

    When: Saturday, August 30, 8:30 a.m. EDT

    Oddsmakers’ pick to win: UCF is given a slight edge thanks to its returning veteran defensive line.

    MONEY’s pick for college value: Penn State

    True, Penn State is expensive—a degree costs Nittany Lions an average of $142,000, or $41,000 more than Knights pay for their degrees—but Penn Staters are much more likely to graduate and earn healthy salaries. Penn Staters report earning almost $51,000 within five years of graduation, almost $10,000 more than UCF grads.

     

  • Florida State University v. Oklahoma State University

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    Getty Images

     

    When: Saturday, August 30, 8 p.m. EDT

    Oddsmakers’ pick to win: FSU, last year’s national champion, is also the top-ranked team this fall, and has top-notch players at nearly every position.

    MONEY’s pick for college value: It’s a tie.

    Schools within about 30 places in our value rankings are very similar, as shown by the slight differences between Oklahoma State, ranked 194, and FSU, 223. OSU’s graduation rate of 62% is significantly worse than FSUs 75%. But OSU students who do make it through tend to earn more: $44,400 a year within five years, versus FSU’s average of $41,600.

  • University of Miami v. University of Louisville

    When: Monday, Sept. 4, 8 p.m. EDT

    Oddsmakers’ pick to win: Louisville beat the Miami Hurricanes soundly in the 2013 Russell Athletic Bowl. But oddsmakers are giving them only a slight edge in the rematch.

    MONEY’s pick for college value: Louisville

    MONEY ranks Louisville No. 382 for value in the country–not great–in part because of its painfully low graduation rate of just 51% (compared with 81% for the University of Miami.) But as a public school, Louisville charges Kentuckians, on average, less than $100,000 for a degree, about half what students at the private Miami typically pay. Those high costs are one reason we ranked Miami 536 out of 665 on our list.

     

  • University of Notre Dame v. Rice University

    When: Saturday, August 30, 3:30 p.m. EDT

    Oddmakers’ pick to win: Notre Dame, even though some its best players have been sidelines by an academic investigation. The Fighting Irish are ranked 17 by the AP poll; Rice is unranked.

    MONEY’s pick for college value: It’s a tie.

    You really can’t lose with either of this schools. MONEY ranks both Notre Dame and Rice equally at 20th place for value. They both have stellar graduation rates of more than 90%. And students go on to earn salaries in the mid $50,000s within five years of graduation, according to Payscale.com. Notre Dame costs more (a degree costs about $185,000, versus $150,000 for Rice), but the higher cost was balanced out by unusually high earnings reported by Notre Dame’s non-science majors.

    See more of Money’s Best Colleges:
    The 25 Most Affordable Colleges
    The 25 Colleges That Add the Most Value
    The 25 Best Colleges That You Can Actually Get Into

MONEY College

How To Get Full Credit When You Swap Colleges

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B.O'Kane—Alamy

Transfers typically lose an entire semester's worth of credit and tuition, a new federal study has found. Here are three ways to avoid missing out on that money and time.

The more than one million Americans who transfer from one college to another each year find that about 13 credits on average—or about a semester’s worth of courses—are refused by their new school, a new analysis by the Department of Education has revealed.

Depending on the college, that means you typically spend anywhere from about $1,300 to more than $13,000 in tuition for classes that don’t get your closer to a degree when you transfer.

The federal study, which examined a large sample of college transcripts dating back to 2003, found great variation in the amount of lost credit. About 40% of transfer students lost all of their credits when they transferred. On the other hand, almost a third got credit for all of their courses. Overall, about 35% of college freshmen ended up transferring, the study found.

“This is pretty disturbing confirmation of problems in our system of higher education,” says David Baime, spokesperson for the American Association of Community Colleges. Other studies show that such wastes of time and money cause many students to give up and drop out, Baime notes.

The good news, Baime and other experts say, is that the new research, along with new laws and new web tools, can help your improve the odds of transferring all of your hard-earned credits.

Choose the Right Starting and Target Schools

More than 80% of students transferring out of for-profit colleges lost all of their credits when they jumped to a public or private non-profit school, the federal study found. (Noah Black, spokesperson for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, says that many schools’ transfer rules have changed recently. he added: “The question should be posed to other institutions as to why they are not accepting of credits from accredited institutions,” such as the for-profit colleges that make up his group.)

But the typical student at a public community college who transferred to a public university paid for 38 credits at the two-year school, and got credit for about 30 at the university, a loss of 21%. The researchers found that private colleges generally gave transfer students from public colleges credit for about two-thirds of their courses.

David Bergeron, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, notes that students who take a community college curriculum that qualifies them for admission to a selective private college also tend to win credit for most of their courses. “So try to go for the most selective college you can,” Bergeron says, adding that a growing number of private colleges are recruiting and awarding aid to community college transfers students. “Families should be exploiting that,” he says.

Check New State Laws

A growing number of states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, are requiring colleges to make credits more transferable among public colleges, Baime notes.

Take Advantage of New Web Tools

While budget cuts have forced some public colleges to cut back on counselors who might help you figure out which courses will transfer, there are a growing number of web tools that you can use to find the courses that will be approved for transfer. One site Baime recommends is CollegeFish.Org, which is sponsored by Phi Theta Kappa, the International Honor Society of Community Colleges. And many colleges, such as the University of Virginia, now have tools that allow you to look up the transferability of each community college course.

 

 

 

 

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