Archive for August, 2009

The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan program is a federal student loan program that allows students to borrow money for college from the U.S. Department of Education rather than from a private bank or commercial lender. If you’re eligible for a federal direct loan:

  • Your school will administer your loan
  • Your loan money will come from the U.S. Treasury via the Department of Education
  • You’ll handle your loan repayment through one point of contact, the Direct Loan Servicing Center

Supporters of the direct loan program firmly believe that it offers students a more reliable, less complicated, and less expensive loan option. Reliability and the availability of loans became an issue in 2008 when the credit crisis caused many private banks and financial institutions to stop offering student loans. And the subsidies that would otherwise go to financial institutions in the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) could be used instead to pay for more and larger Pell Grants. The Direct Loan program also helps to cut down on corruption in the student loan industry, proponents say.

FFELP supporters are not convinced that the subsidy savings outweighs the customer service that private banks and commercial lenders provide. Still, the U.S. Treasury had money for student loans when many private banks didn’t, and that’s a tough point for supporters of the bank-based FFELP to get around.

Not all schools participate in the Direct Loan program. In general, all qualifying schools that participate in the federal financial aid program sign up for either the Direct Loan program or the FFELP, and until recently, a large majority chose the FFELP.

But between the 2006-2007 student loan scandal, the 2008 credit collapse, and the proposal by the Obama administration to shut down the FFEL program and finance all federal student loans through the Direct Loan program, dozens of schools have been switching over in the last year. Ask your school which program it belongs to (and maybe recommend the Direct Loan Program, if they’re not already on the ball on that).

Direct Loan Program Advantages

  • Reliable source of funding
  • No middleman
  • Lower interest rates and fees
  • Choice of repayment plans
  • Website,, where you check on your loan account 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

You must be in school at least half-time to get a federal Direct Loan.

Federal Direct Loan Amounts

The loan amount you can apply for depends on several factors, including:

  • whether you’re an undergrad or graduate student
  • what year of school you’re in
  • whether you are still claimed as a dependent on your parents’ taxes
  • whether your parents tried to get a Parent PLUS loan

Based on these factors and financial need, the amount of your Direct Loan can range from $5,500 (undergraduate freshman) to $20,500 (graduate or professional student per year), in a combination of subsidized and subsidized loans.

Federal Direct Loan Interest Rates

Interest rates for new Direct Loans (first paid out between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010):

  • Subsidized Stafford Loans for Undergraduates: fixed at 5.6%
  • Subsidized Stafford Loans for Graduate students: fixed at 6.8%
  • Unsubsidized Stafford Loans for ALL students: fixed at 6.8%
  • PLUS loans for Grads and parents: 7.9%

How to Apply for a Federal Direct Loan

  1. File a FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid
  2. Complete a Master Promissory Note

Don’t assume you won’t qualify for a direct loan program student loan. It turns out that nearly half the number of college students who would have qualified for federal student loans didn’t even apply, losing out on thousands of dollars in financial aid.

“So education is the key. It is the key to all the important progress this Nation is going to make in the future.” —Senator Edward M. Kennedy, U.S. Senate speech, July 2007, supporting the College Cost Reduction and Access Act

Ted_KennedyBorn into easy wealth and privilege, Senator Ted Kennedy dedicated his long career to working on behalf of the underdog and the common man. The goal of each piece of legislation he wrote or cosponsored was to level the playing field for those at a disadvantage, whether it was societal, physical, or financial. Securing federal funding so that non-wealthy students could get money for college tuition was just one element of an education policy he promoted and sustained for more than 45 years.

Senator Kennedy repeatedly identified education as “the pathway to progress and prosperity” and essential to the achievement of the “American Dream” — but he also saw how the high cost of college put earning a degree out of reach for many Americans. From the Higher Education Act of 1965 onwards, he worked relentlessly to make federal money for college tuition available to anyone who needed assistance. Millions of students have achieved college degrees with the help of the financial aid programs created and preserved by the senator and his like-minded legislative colleagues.

One of Senator Kennedy’s contributions to financial aid development will sound familiar to many students: in 1972, he supported Senator Claiborne Pell’s creation of today’s best known education grant for college, the Pell Grant.

In 1993, the senator helped to establish the Direct Lending program, an alternative to the FFEL student loan program. In the FFEL program, a third party such as a banking institution is the student loan lender. In the Direct Lending program, the U.S. Treasury is the lender. As of 2009, more than 12 million students have paid for college with low-cost direct loans. In 2008, when the credit crisis began to affect private loan availability, the potential advantages of the Direct Lending program became a little more visible.

Always aware that the money required for college tuition was surging upwards with every September, Senator Kennedy defended federal financial aid year after year. In 2007, he shepherded the successful passage of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, authorizing the largest increase in student aid since the original GI Bill in 1944. Among other benefits, the CCRAA increased the maximum Pell grant, halved interest rates on subsidized student loans, and changed student loan debt repayment so that it was based on income rather than remaining debt.

The 2007 CCRAA led the way to more financial aid improvements in 2008, when Senator Kennedy worked with Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming to pass the Higher Education Opportunity Act. The HEOA authorized simplifying the FAFSA, preventing unethical practices in the private student loan industry, and increasing federal money for college tuition for students with the greatest financial need, members of the military, and students with disabilities.

These are just a few of the ways that Senator Kennedy tried to support Americans seeking a college degree. But not everyone agrees with the senator that increasing federal financial aid is the best way to help non-wealthy students find money for college tuition. It often appears that with every increase in federal financial aid, most schools raise their tuition and the effect of the federal assistance is lost. A demand for college accountability is growing — a measure other than the annual “Best Colleges” rankings by which students and families can more realistically determine whether a school is worth its sticker price. Stay tuned for future posts about the subject of controlling tuition growth.

For now, one of education’s greatest legislative champions is gone. There are many other legislators just as dedicated to the education ideal, but none as influential. It will be up to students, families, and all those who believe in the value of a quality education to ensure that college costs and the money for college tuition stay within reach for anyone seeking a degree.

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Can you get more than one Pell Grant per school year? Right now, the answer is still “no,” but if higher education officials still working on some new rules can come to an agreement, the answer may change to “yes.” If that happens, students may become eligible for two Pell Grants in the same school year.

The first couple of eligibility requirements are likely to be:

  • Enrollment in an accredited certificate, associate degree, or bachelor degree program
  • Enrolled at least half-time for more than one academic year, more than two semesters, or the equivalent time during a single award year

What is a “single award year”?

The school year, called an “award year” by the U.S. Department of Education, runs from July 1st through the following June 30th, a little longer than the typical traditional college year of September to May. The award year covers the two traditional college semesters plus summer school.

Some schools, rather than having fall and spring semesters plus summer sessions, may divide their school year into quarters. This type of school year is also covered by the Department of Education award year of July 1st through June 30th.

What’s the part of the new Pell Grant update that the officials can’t agree on?

The purpose of the 2-Pell-Grants-per-year proposal is to help students “accelerate” their degree completion — and it is the definition of “accelerate” that is still being debated (no agreement yet). As far as this specific update is concerned, federal legislators define “accelerate” as helping students complete their degree faster than is normal — that is, ahead of other students in the same program. But non-federal college officials define “accelerate” as helping students complete their degree faster than they would have otherwise, if they had not gotten the extra financial aid.

College authorities do not want part-time students to lose out on qualifying for two Pell Grants per school year just because they are completing their degrees at a slower pace than fulltime students.

Should a second Pell Grant be awarded only to help students finish their degrees sooner than their fellow students who didn’t get Pell Grants? Or should a qualifying student be eligible for a second Pell Grant when the grant becomes the difference between staying in school part-time or being forced to drop out due to lack of money? That seems to be the question.

What would Senator Pell do?

We’ll have to wait a little while longer for the answer. The discussion between federal and college officials is still ongoing, but the official schedule dictates they will have to come to an understanding by the end of the year.

Business is booming at community colleges. Across the country, students are dropping plans to attend more costly 4-year universities in favor of less expensive 2-year community colleges. Since financial aid is available for community college students through the same federal programs, staying local can be an affordable education alternative.

But here’s a surprise: many community college students don’t realize they can get federal financial aid, so they don’t apply for it. A 2008 Department of Education study found that 39% of community college students mistakenly thought they were not eligible for financial aid and 35% thought they wouldn’t need it. (Six percent said the FAFSA was too much work, but what’s too much work if you can get your community college classes paid for?)

In fact, undergraduate students of all ages can qualify for federal grant programs such as the Pell Grant, even if employed. There is no age restriction on federal financial aid, nor is it limited to programs at a 4-year university.

Here are 5 things to know about financial aid for community college students:

1. You apply by filing a FAFSA.

2. The limit on student or family income is $30,000. If your family’s income (or yours) is under $30,000, you won’t be expected to contribute anything to your community college costs.

3. The income protection allowance has gone up in recent years. That is, if you work in addition to going to school, you may still qualify for significant financial aid, allowing you to keep more of your earnings.

4. The amount of the Pell Grant has gone up. For the 2009-2010 school year (July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010), the maximum Pell Grant is $5,350. Pell Grants are for undergraduates only (you can’t already have a bachelor’s degree), and can be used for a range of education-related expenses, not just tuition and fees.

5. If you’ve lost your job this past year, new changes to Department of Labor policies will allow you to hang on to your unemployment benefits even if you’re awarded a Pell Grant. Ask your community college financial aid administrator if your financial circumstances qualify you for this benefit.

If you’re still trying to figure out how to cover all your short-notice college costs, today’s Round-Up pulls together ideas and advice from around the web.

1) An article by Marisa Schultz at The Detroit News provides a terrific chart illustrating what a student’s financial aid package may look like before and after an appeal for more aid:

College aid appeals skyrocket: It’s not too late for hard-hit families to ask for more help

2) Kim Clark at U.S. News & World Report offers basic but essential “Do”s and “Don’t”s for submitting a financial aid appeal to your school:

10 Tips for Getting More Financial Aid

A few recommendations will sound familiar, but there’s also some excellent advice about what NOT do.

3) For The Economy Project at KERA NPR & PBS, news director Shelley Kofler interviews students and financial aid administrators at the University of Texas – Arlington. You can listen to her report here:

Some College Financial Aid Still Available

UT Arlington’s financial aid director indentified the university’s appeal paperwork as a “Consideration of Change of Circumstances” document. Your own school should have something similar, which will allow you to demonstrate that your current financial situation is a much more accurate reflection of your ability to pay for college than your FAFSA from 8 months ago.

4) Sandra Block, author of USAToday’s “Your Money” column, pointed out the possibility of setting up an Extended-payment plan with your school’s financial aid office:

Even as kids pack to go to college, it’s not too late for aid

An Extended-payment plan breaks up the total of your tuition bill into monthly installments so you don’t have to come up with the money all at once. You may have to pay a small fee to set up a payment plan, but if paying your tuition bill in installments prevents you from having to drop out, it could be worth it. Call your financial aid administrator to ask if your school has an extended payment plan.

5) If there’s no more money to be had at your current school and they can’t get you more federal financial aid, consider transferring to a community college or public university close to home. Everybody’s doing it:

USAToday: Economy sending students back home to college

In fact, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that quite a number of flagship state universities do a much better job with general education than the top liberal arts colleges and national universities, while charging much lower tuition and fees.

Take a look at ACTA’s new site,, for some fascinating feedback on college performance and tuition across the country. ranks colleges on the strength of their general education curriculum rather than their reputation. The goal is to indentify schools that provide a strong foundation of knowledge and graduate the most students. There are some surprises.

6) If you haven’t already filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, do it now. Every year the U.S. Department of Education provides around $100 billion in new financial aid to postsecondary students. And if you’re unemployed and going back to school for new job training, you may still be eligible for a Pell Grant without having to give up your unemployment benefits.

Maybe six months ago you didn’t think you would qualify for federal aid.  Maybe now you do.

If you’re facing the prospect of having to drop out of school this fall because your financial aid isn’t enough, you’ll want to hear how the federal government is handling the recession’s impact on students and financial aid availability.

Federal Financial Aid Appeal Process

I spoke with Anthony, a charming and knowledgeable representative at the Federal Student Aid Information Center. I asked him if it was possible for students to get additional federal aid after their FAFSA had already been processed if their financial circumstances had changed since then. I also asked for a quick explanation of how the federal financial aid appeal process works.

Anthony explained that yes, schools ARE allowed to appeal for more federal aid on a student’s behalf when there’s a change in the student’s circumstances. Here’s the inside scoop:

  • Your school has to be willing to consider your financial aid appeal. (Apparently, not all schools are.)
  • If neither the state nor your school has any more financial aid available, then your school can file an appeal with the U.S. Department of Education to increase your federal aid (this is a federal process between the school and the Education Department).
  • The most common appeal scenario is a change in your (or your family’s) financial situation severe enough to justify reassessing your financial aid need based on your current circumstances rather than the information from your FAFSA. Examples of such changes include job loss, divorce, overwhelming and unexpected medical expenses, and other financial losses or obligations that significantly decrease your EFC (Expected Family Contribution).
  • Your school will most likely be willing to file a federal appeal on your behalf if you can document your change in circumstances very clearly, with proof and paperwork.
  • The detailed proof and documentation is essential because schools get audited by the federal government, and have to prove to the U.S. Department of Education that they did not falsely claim a need for more federal funding than they actually needed.

For more information on increasing your federal financial aid eligibility or other FAFSA issues, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-433-3243.

Department of Education Instructions to Financial Aid Administrators

The U.S. Department of Education knew this was going to be a tough year for financial aid offices. Back in April and May, the Department sent letters to financial aid administrators across the country, granting them permission to be flexible with financial aid appeals and eligibility rules.

One letter encouraged financial aid administrators to use their best judgment and “…do more than provide good service to the students who request that you make an adjustment. …[R]each out to your students (and prospective students), particularly those who seem to have hit a rough patch, to make sure that they know there may be ways that you can help.”

The other letter alerted financial aid administrators that students who recently lost their jobs should have their FAFSAs changed to reflect zero income, even if they received unemployment benefits.

The second letter also stated: “Many recently unemployed individuals do not know that they may now be eligible for Federal Pell Grants and other need-based student aid. Most do not know of your ability to adjust financial aid eligibility based on their special circumstances. Because of the severity of the economic recession, the U.S. Department of Labor has been working with the states so that each state will send a letter to all recipients of unemployment insurance benefits to encourage them to consider enrolling in postsecondary education and applying for financial aid.”

The Department of Education appears to understand the need for federal financial aid availability in these hard times. If your state has not had time to divert some of its stimulus bill education funds to replace lost state grants, ask your financial aid office to reconsider your eligibility for increased federal aid.

Financial aid is distributed to millions of college students every year through a well-meaning but complex process. There are a number of decisions made along the way and it doesn’t seem like much of a negotiable deal. This not necessarily true, however, especially at times of great financial hardship. It may be possible to upgrade your award, but it helps to know first exactly how financial aid is calculated and distributed.

How Federal Financial Aid Is Determined

The amount of federal financial aid you can get is based on a pre-set federal formula that factors in your income, assets, employment benefits, household size, number of dependent children, and number of family members in college. The formula is applied to the information you provided in the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The resulting number is called the Estimated Family Contribution, or EFC. The EFC is what the federal government’s formula has calculated that you and/or your family can contribute to paying for your year in school.

A school’s Cost of Attendance is an approximate amount of money that your school estimates it will cost you to attend for one year. The COA usually includes tuition, fees, books and supplies, room and board if you’re going to live on campus, transportation if you’re not, and other personal or living expenses while in school. It may not include all of these items or it may include more than this.

The only pieces of the COA that are paid directly to your school are tuition and fees and on-campus room and board (if applicable) but as you can see, the total COA encompasses more than just school tuition and fees alone.

Your eligibility for financial aid is determined by subtracting your EFC from your school’s Cost of Attendance. The difference between the EFC and the COA is called “Unmet Need.”

$15,000 School’s Cost of Attendance (COA): tuition + fees + expenses

Expected Family Contribution (EFC), from your FAFSA
=$10,000 Unmet Need

How Federal Financial Aid Is Distributed

The amount of financial aid you qualify for is based on your unmet need. But ultimately, how much financial aid you actually get depends on the amount of need-based financial aid is available to you and your school, beginning with federal financial aid. And the final amount of financial aid you get could be different from school to school, depending on each school’s COA and financial aid policies for assessing financial need and awarding financial aid.

Some colleges may fully cover the unmet need of only those students who meet additional criteria, such as academic achievement. Other schools may only be able to offer federal financial aid, but not school grants. Still others may not be able to meet the full unmet need of any students.

A school’s COA plays a big role how financial aid is distributed. Your EFC will be the same for every college, but not all schools have the same COA. Some colleges may include a lab fee or a gym fee in their COA, while others do not. It’s the difference between the two — the amount of the unmet need — that determines how much federal aid you qualify for.

Another factor that affects how much federal financial aid you get is funding from outside sources. If your EFC qualifies you for a Pell Grant but then you win a scholarship covering your entire COA, obviously, you’re not going to get the Pell Grant.

The smaller the difference between your EFC and your COA, the less you will have to rely on financial aid.

The 2009 year is getting off to a shaky start, as state grants that thousands of students were counting on for their last piece of financial aid fell through. Many schools have stepped up to cover the gap. If yours was not one of them, talk to your financial aid office about an appeal for more federal aid.

In a year in which everyone waits with resignation for the latest economic numbers (unemployment, foreclosures, lay-offs) and hundreds of thousands of former workers return to college, it seems fitting to ask what U.S. financial aid statistics look like.

The National Center for Education Statistics has this information, for a big picture view. For the 2007-2008 school year:

  • 66% of all undergraduates received some type of financial aid in 2007-2008
  • For those who received any aid, the total average amount received was $9,100
  • 52% received grants averaging $4,900 (grants typically do not have to be repaid)
  • 16% received an average of $2,500 in state-funded grants
  • 20% received an average of $5,000 in grants from their school
  • 7% received aid through work-study jobs averaging $2,400 in wages
  • 2% received an average of $5,400 in veterans’ benefits
  • 38% took out an average of $7,100 in student loans

The U.S. Department of Education provides around $100 billion a year or so in government student aid for college, according to the Student Aid on the Web site. For the 2007-2008 school year, federal financial aid statistics included:

  • 47% of all undergraduates received federal student aid
  • For those who received federal aid, the average amount was $6,600
  • Federal Pell Grants were awarded to 27% of all undergraduates at an average of $2,600
  • 34% of all undergraduates took out federal Stafford loans averaging a total of $5,000
  • 30% took out Subsidized Stafford loans averaging $3,400
  • 22% took out Unsubsidized Stafford loans averaging $3,200
  • 4% had parents who took out an average of $10,800 in Parent PLUS loans (Parent PLUS loans are for parents of dependent students.)

In 2007-2008, the federal government awarded over $14 billion in Pell Grants to more than 5.4 million undergraduate students. A July 2009 NCES report profiled Pell Grant recipients who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1999-2000. Among the report’s findings were these financial aid statistics:

  • 36% of students had received at least one Pell Grant during their undergraduate education
  • Pell Grants recipients were typically very low-income students at a greater socioeconomic disadvantage than non-recipients
  • 31% were 23-24 years old (23% were 22 or younger; 27% were 25-29; and almost 19% were 30 or older)
  • 34% of Pell Grant recipients delayed their enrollment in college after high school
  • 60% were considered financially independent for financial aid purposes
  • 24% had dependents of their own
  • 11% were single parents
  • 58% left college or career school for 4 or more months and later returned to complete a degree at either the same school or a different one
  • A larger proportion of Pell Grant recipients than non-recipients had characteristics that put them at risk for dropping out
  • When all the many factors differentiating Pell Grant recipients from non-recipients were filtered out, Pell Grant recipients actually graduated in less time than non-recipients did

For more details, you can find reader-friendly charts in Scott Jaschik’s Inside Higher Ed article, “Who Are Pell Grant Recipients?”

In this challenging year of 2009, Pell Grants will be sorely needed. The 2009 Stimulus Bill added enough funding to boost the maximum grant to $5,350 and provide grants for about 800,000 more needy students. (Those are encouraging financial aid statistics.)

Just as important, the Obama administration asked the Department of Labor to punt its “senseless” policy of stopping the unemployment benefits of laid-off workers awarded a Pell Grant. It’s time to go back to school.

With all the recent news about state financial aid cuts — seems like every day there’s a new story about yet another state that had to eliminate its state financial aid for the fall — it was a pleasure to see an encouraging article today, reminding students that scholarships are not as out of reach as they seem, and that there are even a few scholarships with later deadlines:

The Gainesville Sun: Scholarships for non-scholars

A little surfing around the Internet turned up the following 15 scholarships with application deadlines from August through October. By the way, don’t be fooled by the youthful-sounding essay contests. There seem to be quite a few essay contests out there with substantial cash prizes, and at least one of these had a grand prize of $10,000.

  1. College of Lake County Injured Military Service Personnel Scholarship: deadline extended to August 15
  2. Video Game Production Scholarship: August 20
  3. University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Scholarships: August 30
  4. National Science Foundation, Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program: August 25
  5. University of Oklahoma College of Nursing-RN Program (Jack Cohen Family Memorial Scholarship): August 28
  6. In the River They Swim Essay Contest: September 1
  7. Writers of the Future and Illustrators of the Future Contest: September 30 (Illustrators) & October 1 (Writers)
  8. Rare Book School Scholarship: September 1
  9. Tennessee State Lottery Scholarships (Tennessee residents only): September 1
  10. Mississippi Eminent Scholars Program and Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grants: September 15
  11. Ayn Rand “Atlas Shrugged” Essay Contest: September 17
  12. DeVry University Employment Gap Scholarships for Dislocated Workers: September 28
  13. National Opera Association Scholarships: October 15
  14. Fulbright Scholarships: October 19
  15. Claricode Medical Software Essay Contest: October 31

Did you know that you can apply for federal financial aid all year? You haven’t missed the deadline — in fact, you can file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) any time between now and June 30, 2010 for help with covering the cost of accredited higher education courses you complete by that same date.

Every year, the U.S. Department of Education provides more than $100 billion in new financial aid to nearly 14 million higher education students and their families. The application period for each school year (July 1 to the following June 30) is about 18 months long, from January 1st of one year to June 30 of the following year. This 18-month application period ensures that summer school is covered along with the traditional academic year.

Really? I thought that deadline was back in the Spring or something. . . .

It’s true, it’s usually recommended that you file your FAFSA as soon after January 1st as possible because many state financial aid programs, which also require a FAFSA, have February-May deadlines. This may be due to the fact that states have to make sure state financial aid can be accounted for in their budgets, and since most states have some kind of balanced-budget policy, they must have all their ducks in a row in time to plan for each fiscal year.

But even when the application deadlines for state financial aid and private scholarships are long past, the Department of Education disburses federal financial aid on a rolling basis throughout the year. If you haven’t filed a 2009-2010 FAFSA yet and find yourself short of funds or putting together a last-minute plan to enroll in an education program, you still have plenty of time to apply for federal student aid.

Free Financial Aid

The rolling availability of funds is only one nice feature of federal student aid. Another benefit is that a number of federal grant programs offer FREE financial aid to eligible students. Pell Grants and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants provide free financial aid strictly according to financial need, and the maximum Pell Grant took a big jump up to $5,350 this year. (Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants range from $100 to $4,000.)

The amount of Pell Grant funding put into the Education Department’s budget was also increased this year, providing Pell Grants for about 800,000 more students.

The Academic Competitiveness Grant, the National SMART Grant, and the new TEACH Grant also offer free financial aid, although eligibility for these programs is based on a combination of financial need and special qualifications.

Low-cost Student Loans

Even if you are not eligible for a federal grant, you may still want to get your student loan from the Department of Education. There may have been a lot of dark muttering about the vanishing credit market this past year, but federal loans are still available, and you may get a better deal with a Stafford loan than you would with a private loan. Federal student loans carry a low interest rate and low fees, and a new loan repayment program took effect just this July; if you qualify, your monthly payment is based on your income, not on your loan balance.

You Haven’t Missed the FAFSA Deadline

A major advantage of the federal student aid program is its long-term application timeframe and rolling distribution of free and low-cost financial aid. If you haven’t tried applying for federal financial aid, you still have time!

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