Friday, January 30, 2009

Just Too Darn Complicated and Too Darn Expensive! Time for Change!

January 30, 2009- I’ve always prided myself on using technology to keep me a more organized and efficient individual. The alarm automatically resets itself each day, the coffee machine goes off at the same time every morning ensuring a warm cup of coffee, and the TV turns off on its own when I leave each morning. And, at work I am equally focused on using technology to make my life more efficient and easier. Perhaps it’s a generation thing.

But imagine with me that you are a guidance counselor. You are responsible for helping 474 students with their curriculum plans, life plans, bad days, good days, testing schedules, and on and on. Now add in the college application process and start counting the hundreds of forms, documents and pieces of paper that clutter your desk and eventually build a wall between you and your students – 755,000,000 documents (pieces of paper) are produced in the college admissions process in this country.

It’s time for the college admission process to change- to utilize technology to make it easier, more efficient… to allow counselors to spend more time counseling and less time processing, to free up budgets from paying for processing to providing scholarships and paying for more counselors and advisors. Unfortunately, in this process some things are changing for counselors–but not for the better. We’ve spotted a new trend in college admissions where students are adding more schools to their college lists, now at an average of 7.43 per student, according to our data, up from 5.24 last year. Take a look why.

Students are better informed about financial aid and are getting aggressive about learning how they can afford schools they may not have considered before. We learned that first-hand when attendance at our financial aid webinars exploded by 800% and web hits to our financial aid info pages increased by 500%. Just look how Harvard set a record number of applicants by announcing a new financial aid policy. Families are getting smart about financial aid as the industry gets more transparent.

And, our students are also applying to more public universities and “financial safeties” to ensure that if financial aid doesn’t work out, they have a plan. This has resulted in more college applications and more materials for counselors and colleges to process. Now, glance at the census to find more students of college age this year and then consider the predictions that more kids will apply to college, and you have more piles of paper than you’d know what to do with.

Have you asked your high school how much it costs to process (just move the paper) an application? We did and it’s anywhere from $2 to $12 per application. That means a typical expense of $14 - $24 per student - approximately $3,500 to $21,000 per high school. Where is the money coming from if every student adds just one more college to their application list? Who will find the time to organize and process them in the counseling office with budget cuts looming? Perhaps this bad economy is pointing out one good thing… that we need a better, more efficient, more cost-effective way for students to apply to college!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Time for Change

January 23, 2009- Not the timeless 34-word oath. Not the chilly parade route. Not even the late-night ball hopping. Some moves remained steeped in tradition in Washington this week, others represented a time for change. The messages we all heard, whether it were from the mall, from our TV’s or streaming on the web, were a poignant indication of a new focus for the country.

With eyes on the capital, the nation ushered in a new era of change.

A changed economy; changed health care; changed educational system… change is in the air!

At ConnectEDU, we’ve been dedicated to “change” in the education space since our doors opened in 2002. Helping schools modernize and improve their methods of operation has been our mission and deploying technology to achieve this task has been our passion. This week has been particularly significant as the nation shifts its attention to our schools, and what we need to do collectively to help our students prosper, including investment in technology.

Education Week recently reported that “cash-strapped school districts could see an unprecedented $100 billion infusion of federal aid under a massive economic-stimulus package unveiled by House Democrats this week.” In those proposals, technology will play a major role in helping schools change the manner in which they service students and educate the next generation.

Schools in our network have already recognized the power of technology as an agent of change, cost-savings and efficiencies improvement. In fact, an eSchool News supplement, Money Matters, recently featured ConnectEDU as the #1 solution, out of ten featured, for school districts to pursue in an effort to save $. In the wake of a budget crisis, schools in our network are updating the way they help students map their high school and future plans. As the government looks to ensure accountability of our leaders and evaluate effectiveness of our programs, the schools choosing our technology are leading the way. They’ve learned that making even the simplest changes will help them do more with less. They’re cutting costs, streamlining inefficiencies, and making things better for our students.

Our schools are proud to have recognized that doing “business as usual” is no longer acceptable as they lead the wave of change!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Numbers Don't Always Add Up

January 16, 2009 - I admit it. I know I once use to fly around putting financial models together or doing regression analysis for economics professors, but these days math isn’t something that I spend a lot of time doing outside of some basic algebra every now and then … heck, our own developers won’t let me touch the algorithms anymore. But one thing is for sure, as this financial aid season opens I’m doing the math, and something is not adding up.

Prior to the economic crisis, the most recent Department of Education studies reported that over 12 million undergraduates receive financial aid each year; never mind the fact that the number of students pursuing a college degree is also growing year after year. Now, start estimating the number of college-bound families affected by a bad economy; parents that have lost their jobs, home values that have diminished, personal investments depleted… and the reality is that students who might have traditionally been able to afford college will struggle to do so with empty savings accounts and depleted equity lines.

Now, factor into the equation lenders leaving the federal student loan marketplace, budget cuts at schools, college endowments that have shrunk, an alternative student loan marketplace that is non-existent, and the fact is that there are fewer financing options than only a year ago. And, so, you are left with an unbalanced equation. On the right hand side, steady increases in college costs since the early 1990’s + a federal lending program that hasn’t grown at the same rate of public/private tuition increases. On the left hand side, shrinking savings accounts, home values, personal investments and alternative financing options.

Perhaps there is help on the way? But in the meantime, students who play it smart and get started early can get ahead. Families with more information and a better understanding of the complexity of financial aid will gain an advantage in a process that awards students on a first-come, first-serve basis. ConnectEDU is making sure our families have the tools and guidance to get to the front of the line.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators confirms that the majority of college students received financial aid last year and, some sources have reported that large dollars of scholarships and aid went unclaimed. In the shadow of this year’s aid crunch, I participated this week in a Mississippi Public Broadcasting discussion (mp3 audio file) on the general trends swirling in the marketplace. Now more than ever, students are being more pragmatic in their approach to their education. They are considering all their options, including a search for schools that are more aligned with their budget. We see it within our network of high schools … figures such as the number of students logging into our finance tools, the allocation of public universities and two-year college options on student’s college lists by comparison to a year ago, as well as the average tuition of this year’s group of students vs. last year. It’s evident that the financial crisis is having an impact.

On the college side, higher education is taking a closer look at the “business as usual” approach; they are actively exploring creative options. Community Colleges are bracing for increased enrollments and working to develop programs to move the best and brightest forward. Private four-year schools are evaluating their institutional aid policies to reach the most deserving candidates. Public colleges are pursuing cost cutting exercises such as solutions like electronic transcript programs, in an effort to cut operational costs and free up funds.

As far as the help that is on the way, the current economic bailout plan, “The American Recovery & Reinvestment Act” – the incoming administration's $850B stimulus package – does appear to be poised for passage. And the plan does include some welcome news for college-bound families:

  • Increase in the Pell Grant by $500 per recipient (from $4,850 to $5,350)

  • Increase of $490M to be made available to students via college work-study programs

  • Federal student loan limit increase on unsubsidized Stafford loans by $2,000

  • A $50M investment into the Department of Education to improve and simplify the student loan and financial aid process

The reality is that this is new territory for all involved – colleges, families, even the federal government. We don’t have a formula to follow or an equation to plug into. We must, however, remain focused on the best interests of our students, and making the efficiency changes necessary to help our institutions succeed. We can continue to provide higher education to the next generation, but it will require – as the Obama plan aptly names it – a “21st Century” update to the very dated process that we use today. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure that out.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Money Doesn't Grow On Trees

January 10, 2009 - I remember growing up listening to my father tell me, “Money doesn’t grow on trees you know!” And I don’t mean just once. I heard it the year my birthday wish list included a new state of the art Atari system. I heard it when he bought me a beat-up, lime green "farm truck" for $500 to drive when I was in high school. And I heard it when I signed up for summer wrestling camps. Like every kid that grows up, I’ve learned once again Dad was right – in most cases, money just doesn’t grow on trees.

Except seemingly this time of year when students across the U.S. are searching for scholarships, grants and loans. Welcome to the college financial aid season - a time of gathering financials, hunting for records, filling in forms, and hopefully, in the end, getting help paying for college. I never said it would be easy as tugging on a low branch, but the results of managing this process correctly can be very rewarding... almost, like money off a mythical tree.

At ConnectEDU, we’re making sure our families are well-versed and prepared for the opportunities that may be available to them through the financial aid application process. In addition to colleges attracting students with scholarships, the federal government makes funds available using a needs analysis. But one of the biggest challenges is identifying who needs help. Did you know that 20% of those students eligible for financial aid – don’t receive it because they simply don’t apply or don’t know about the process? This does not take into consideration the countless mistakes (like up to 43% of all applications) that families make on their first try. We’re bringing families the technology to reduce or eliminate these mistakes, at no cost to them.

We feel one of, perhaps in this economy, the most important steps in the going to college process is maximizing financial aid. The first thing that families must do to secure any available grants (free money) or loans (borrowed money) is to file a FAFSA – the free application for federal student aid. This allows the government an opportunity to evaluate how much a family can afford to pay and (the EFC or estimated family contribution) how much need must be met.

We also tell our families there is no better time to file a FAFSA and get the process started than now. Because many schools and to some extent the federal government determine their allocations on a first-come, first-serve basis, being early and having the FAFSA completed correctly is IMPORTANT! The best bet is to not procrastinate.

Don’t just take our word for it, read about what others like us are recommending:

We’ve made sure that our technologies are designed to empower families with the resources and information they need to make good financial decisions. We provide the tools, technology and timetables to help them succeed in the process and most importantly to find those money trees – they’re out there, my dad wasn't right about everything!