About Tom Melecki

40 years experience in the administration of and rule making for postsecondary student financial aid and loan programs. Tom's experience also includes advising students and their parents, providing personal financial management education to college students, research on college students and their finances, and nonprofit management.

During and After College: Check Out SNAP If You Can’t Afford Nutritious, Safe Food

Times are tough. Summer jobs for currently enrolled students are hard to find, and their fall financial aid and student loans are at least 90 days away. For this spring’s graduates, in just three months we’ve gone from the best to worst job market in years. All this makes it difficult to afford a truly basic necessity: food!

Many colleges and universities operate food banks and other services to help their students fulfill this essential need. But if such services can’t do enough for you, or if you’re no longer in school, you may also be eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

What SNAP Is

SNAP a joint federal-state program designed to help financially needy Americans buy healthy, nutritious food with food stamps worth up to $194 per month if you’re single and don’t have children; as much as $646 per month for a family of four.

You may use these stamps at the grocery to buy bread, cereal, dairy products, fish, fruit, meat, poultry, and snack foods. But you can’t use them for beer, food prepared for immediate consumption, liquor, tobacco products, or wine.

SNAP Eligibility

To get SNAP’s food stamps, the federal government requires you to:

  • Register for work;
  • Participate in employment or training programs if your state requires you to do so;
  • Accept employment if it’s offered to you; and
  • Not voluntarily quit your job or reduce your work hours.

To get food stamps for more than three months, you must be working or participating in a work program for 20 or more hours per week if you’re able-bodied and have no dependents.

SNAP Websites

More information on SNAP is available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s SNAP website. State governments administer SNAP, and some have extra SNAP eligibility requirements. To find out about these, and to learn how and where you can apply for SNAP, link to your state’s SNAP website.

Using SNAP is OK

Most students and recent graduates never even consider SNAP. But these are extraordinary times, and you shouldn’t be embarrassed to utilize food stamps. After all, you’re not alone. Over 36 million Americans are unemployed. And even before coronavirus, Temple University’s HOPE Center surveys of over 330,000 students at more than 440 colleges and universities found that 39% of those students had suffered food insecurity — i.e. limited or uncertain access to nutritious, safe food; or the inability to get such food in a socially acceptable and legal manner — during the month before completing their surveys.

Stay safe! Stay healthy! And keep yourself well-nourished so you have the energy to pursue your degree and seek employment. If SNAP can help you do that, apply for it!

Need help making your limited financial resources stretch to cover all your basic needs? Let College Affordability Solutions advise you on managing your money. There’s no charge. Contact us at (512) 366-5354 or collegeafford@gmail.com.

During College: What to Do if Your Financial Aid Eligibility is Jeopardized Because You’re Not Making Satisfactory Academic Progress

College wasn’t easy this spring. Closed campuses. Remote learning. Scrambling for off-campus housing or moving home. Job losses. Illness. Death. The anxiety and depression accompanying social distancing. All this can undermine academic performance.

So once your spring grades are final, we hope you’re not notified that you’ve lost financial aid eligibility because you’re not making Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). But if you are, here’s what you need to know . . .

What Is SAP?

Washington requires postsecondary schools to measure student aid recipients against certain criteria so taxpayers don’t “throw good money after bad” by funding students not able or hardworking enough to graduate. Most states and colleges apply these criteria to their aid programs.

SAP is checked when each academic term finishes in programs of study lasting a year or less. In longer programs, it’s usually assessed when each academic year ends.

For SAP you get evaluated against three criteria:

  1. Quality: Your GPA must be at least a “C” or it’s equivalent;
  2. Quantity: For the clock or credit hours you attempted, you must complete enough to be on pace to graduate within the maximum time frame described below; and
  3. Maximum Timeframe: You must graduate within 150% of your program’s published length in clock or credit hours.

Not Making SAP?

If you’re not making SAP, your school may:

Immediately cut you off from additional financial aid;

  • If your program lasts less than a year, give you a “Financial Aid Warning” under which you’ll become ineligible for aid after one more academic term unless you’re making SAP at that term’s end; or
  • If you’ve finished your Financial Aid Warning term without making SAP, or if you’re program lasts a year or more, put you on “Financial Aid Probation” during which you’re not eligible for aid or loans unless you successfully appeal.

How To Appeal?

Your appeal goes in writing to your financial aid office. Explain how one or more of three situations — illness or injury to you, a relative’s death, or some other special circumstance (which could certainly be coronavirus-related) — interfered with your ability to make SAP. Explain, too, what’s changed so you can reestablish SAP by the next time your school measures it.

Be honest. Be thorough. Don’t omit relevant details. Discuss how your situation affected your academic performance. Submit supporting documentation if necessary to confirm anything in your appeal.

When To Appeal?

Don’t dawdle in composing or submitting your appeal. Processing them is labor-intensive and time-consuming, and coronavirus has caused layoffs or vacancies in many aid offices, limiting their time to review SAP appeals. Therefore, a decision may take several weeks.

After You Appeal?

If your appeal’s granted, you may be put on an academic plan requiring you to meet certain requirements by certain dates. Meet those requirements and you’ll keep getting aid.

If your appeal’s denied, you’ll get no more aid from your school until you get back into compliance with it’s SAP criteria. So, again, take this very seriously!

Are you struggling with your Satisfactory Academic Progress appeal? College Affordability Solutions will advise you on it at no charge. Contact us at (512) 366-5354 or collegeafford@gmail.com.

After College: Make Your Voice Heard on a Hot Issue — Student Loan Forgiveness!

If you’re one of 27.7 million Americans who currently owe on federal student loans, you may like the idea of student loan forgiveness. But many others don’t, so you need to offer persuasive reasons for doing it.

This is a hot issue right now. House Democrats want to forgive $30,000 per borrower, and Senate Democrats tried to include a $10,000 per borrower student loan forgiveness program in the CARES Act. But Republicans vigorously opposed these ideas so they’ve not been implemented.

That means this’ll still be an issue in this fall’s political campaigns. Joe Biden calls for forgiving all undergraduate federal student loan debt related to public 2 and 4-year school tuition for borrowers earning less than $125,000 a year. Donald Trump sayshe wants to forgive whatever undergraduate and graduate college debt that remains after 15 and 30 years of payments, respectively. But the Trump plan is fake, because virtually 100% of student loan debts are fully repaid within those timespans.

If student loan forgiveness would help you, now or in the next few years, let your congressional representatives know it. Here are some arguments to make:

  • It’ll provide much needed economic stimulus: Federal Reserve economists predict 47 million lost jobs due to coronavirus, causing a 32% unemployment rate by June 30 — worse than that of the Great Depression. Lots of consumer spending is going to be needed to put these people back to work, and forgiving tens of thousands in student loan debt for more almost 28 million Americans will free up plenty of money for such spending.
  • It’s the fair thing to do: A recent Student Loan Hero survey found that 46% of Americans feel mass forgiveness would be unfair to students who’ve repaid their college debts. Not surprisingly, 51% of millennials (ages 24 – 39) support student loan forgiveness but only 31% of baby boomers (ages 56 – 74) do. Of course, millennials owe much more than previous generations, largely because their college costs were the highest ever as state taxpayers’ support for higher education fell 50% from 1981 to 2019. Small wonder one baby boomer confesses that his total college expenses in the 1970s were about 10% of what millennials paid in the 21st century.
  • It doesn’t reward the most affluent: Professionals like doctors and lawyers average the highest incomes (and $145,000 to $246,000 in student loan debt). As noted, however, the Biden plan would deny them forgiveness once their incomes reach $125,000, and even the most generous of the congressional Democrats’ plans would eliminate only $30,000 of their six-figure debts.
  • Taxpayers won’t pay off loans you borrowed voluntarily: First, Federal Direct Loans account for 82% of outstanding federal college loan debt and Washington, which made those loans, doesn’t actually pay itself anything to forgive them, it just stops collecting them. Second, as indicated by the college cost data reported above, it’s not like you borrowed voluntarily.

One way to make college more affordable is to influence government policies governing your student debt. So exercise your constitutional right to “lobby” your U.S. Representative and Senators now, and be sure to vote for candidates who support student loan forgiveness in November!

Struggling to pay your student loan debt? Let College Affordability Solutions use its 42 years of experience in working with such debt help you out. Contact us at (512) 366-5354 or collegeafford@gmail.com three for free consultations.

Before College: Changing Your Postsecondary Educational Plans? Be Careful About For-Profit Schools!

At times like this, for-profit postsecondary schools are very effective in marketing themselves to students who might not otherwise consider them. But be careful!

These schools are poorly regulated, weakly supervised and, more than anyplace else you can go to learn after high school, likely to rip students off. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic is going to give them many opportunities to do this.

The National Center for Education Statistics expects almost 3.6 million high school graduates. this year. But one survey done a week before most 4-year college enrollment deposit deadlines found that 40% of them who planned to attend those schools this coming fall hadn’t yet paid such charges, and 12% who had paid no longer intended to enroll in such schools full-time.

Has coronavirus shrunk your ability to pay for college? Have you heard it’ll lead to big cost increases at public and non-profit colleges? Are you wondering if you can afford college at all.

Enter the for-profit schools. They’ll market themselves as faster, less expensive routes to graduation and success. They’ll highlight their flexible and online programs that’ll fit your schedule and keep you healthy. They’ll say their faculty’s real-world experience gives you practical know-how, not just theories.

To be sure, there are good for-profit schools. But others simply lure students into paying way too much for lousy education and training programs leading to unstable, low-paying jobs.

Conduct Research

How do you know if a for-profit (or any) postsecondary school is good or bad? Use the U.S. Education Department’s College Scorecard. For schools offering certificates and degrees you want, it’ll show:

  • Average annual cost after grants and scholarships;
  • Drop out, retention, and graduation rates;
  • Student loan indebtedness, and monthly payment amounts for its graduates; and
  • Typical first-year salaries for graduates.

Use these numbers to compare schools.

Consider Alternatives

Can’t find a good for-profit school? Consider your local community college or nearby public technical institute. They don’t have the money to aggressively market themselves, but they often:

  • Provide flexible and online classes;
  • Charge lower tuition and fees but spend more on instruction than for-profit competitors;
  • Have higher retention and graduation rates than for-profit schools;
  • Teach courses other postsecondary institutions are more likely to accept in transfer; and
  • Don’t close their doors in the middle of the night, leaving customers with nothing but student loan debt — something hundreds of for-profits did over the last three decades.

Determining whether a for-profit postsecondary school is good or bad requires some research, but you’ve got to do it to protect yourself. If you find a bad one, avoid it. You have options. Use them!

A quality education is more likely to be an affordable education. Need help in choosing a school, college, or university? Contact College Affordability Solutions at (512) 366-5354 or collegeafford@gmail.com if a no-charge consultation built on four decades of postsecondary experience might be helpful.

Special Coronavirus Bulletin # 11: Trump Administration Imposes Limits on Federally-Funded Emergency Grants

We recently reported that thousands, if not millions of federal dollars were allocated to your postsecondary school for emergency grants to help students cover certain expenses. But just last week the Trump administration’s Education Department (ED) issued guidance limiting eligibility for these grants. Based on this guidance and the law that made the federal funds available, here are things you need to know.

Student Eligibility

The law is simple and straightforward. It says these federally-funded emergency grants are available to any student. However, ED’s new guidance limits eligibility for these grants to students eligible to participate in the federal student financial aid and loan programs. In general, this means you must be:

1. A U.S. citizen, national, or permanent resident;

2. Eligible to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — if you’ve not yet filed a FAFSA, do so, because that’s the only sure way to prove you’re eligible to file it;

3. Enrolled or accepted for enrollment in a program leading to a certificate, degree, or some other recognized educational credential;

4. Registered for selective service (if you’re male).

5. Not currently in default on a federal student loan, or not currently owing a refund on a federal grant; and

6. Making Satisfactory Academic Progress toward your certificate, degree, or other credential (if you’re already enrolled).

Payable Expenses

The law says your federally-funded emergency grant may be used for “expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus (including eligible expenses under a student’s cost of attendance, such as food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and childcare).”

ED added that such a grant cannot be used to pay off outstanding and overdue bills you owe to your school, and your school can’t use federal emergency grant money to reimburse itself for expenses it ran up for you — even if they’re because of a coronavirus-related campus disruption.

Expiration Date

The law says federal emergency grant funds remain available through September 30, 2021, so you may be able to get such a grant through that date — although your school is likely to run out of its federal allocation long before that.

Delivery of Funds

ED has ruled that your school may provide these grant funds to you by check, debit card, electronic transfer to your bank account, or any other application it uses to transmit your regular federal student aid and loan funds. ED also ruled that your school cannot issue such funds to you using a credit card that’s accepted only on campus or at an institutionally-affiliated retail establishments (bookstores, athletic apparel shops, etc.).

If you have a financial predicament, but something described above makes you ineligible for a federally-funded emergency grant, what should you do? Request emergency financial help from your school anyway, because some postsecondary institutions also have other funding sources for emergency grants.

Struggling to pay expenses related to education after high school? College Affordability Solutions has 42 years experience in helping to keep postsecondary learning within the means of students and families. Contact us at (512) 366-5354 or collegeafford@gmail.com if you need some advice — no charge!

Special Coronavirus Bulletin #10: Make Suspended Payments On Your Federally-Held Student Loans . . . If You Can Afford It!

The CARES Act suspended payments you’d normally make on your student loans held by federal government agencies* with an “administrative forbearance” lasting through September 30. It also waived interest accumulation on such loans through that date. This is all automatic. You need not do anything.

But although you’re not required to make payments, you’re not prohibited from making them, either. And there are advantages to doing so.

Say you owe the average for those who borrow as undergraduates — $30,000 at a 4.69% interest rate. And say you’re paying $314 a month under the government’s Standard Repayment Plan. Make no payments between now and September 30 and what you’ll owe on October 1 will be exactly what you now owe. But keep making your $314 monthly payments and your principal balance will be $1,884 less on October 1. As a result, you will:

    Pay Less on What You Borrowed: Make no payments and the interest you’ll eventually pay on your federally-held debt will be $7,842. But keep making payments over the next six months and you’ll end up paying $6,749 — or $733 less — in interest on that debt. Why? Since there’s no interest on that debt right now, 100% of every dollar you pay will reduce your loan principal, and by diminishing principal, you’ll pay less interest.
    Eliminate Your Debt Faster: Keep making payments and your federally-held debt will be paid-in-full six months earlier than if you don’t make your suspended payments.
    Match Your Employer’s Payments on Your Debt: If your employer also makes payments on your federally-held college debt as part of your fringe benefit plan, it may only match payments you make. So before deciding whether to stop making payments on your federally-held loans, find out how your decision will affect employer payments.

Carefully scrutinize your current budget. Don’t make payments if doing so will undermine your ability to cover necessities like food, housing, and transportation. But there are definite advantages for continuing to make payments if you can afford to do so.

By the way, the U.S. Education Department says that, if you want to keep making payments by auto-debit, you should contact your loan servicer and opt out of your administrative forbearance so your auto-debit payments will resume. But not all servicers will restart auto-debit right now, so you’ll have to make payments manually. Contact your servicer to learn how to keep making payments through September 30.

* Student loans held by federal government agencies include all loans made under the Federal Direct Loan Program (FDLP). They do not include (a) loans made under the Federal Perkins Loan Program unless the postsecondary schools that made those loans have turned their ownership over to the federal government; and (b) loans made under the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), also known as Stafford Loans, unless the commercial lenders that made those loans have turned their ownership over to the federal government.

To determine ways to manage you student loan debt during the current coronavirus national emergency, become a follower of the College Affordability Solutions website so you’ll always be notified about special bulletins such as this.

Special Coronavirus Bulletin #9: Emergency Grants Are Available To Postsecondary Students Who Are Struggling Financially Due To Coronavirus

Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on both the health and finances of college students and their families. So far more than 600,000 Americans have been infected and over 25,000 have died. Bloomberg Business News reports that 22 million unemployment claims have been filed since mid-March, and that economists are predicting a 20% jobless rate before this month ends. Almost every college campus has closed, and many students need new computers and software for online classes.

Does any of this describe a situation that applies to you or your student? Has this situation left you unable to cover college-related expenses for rest of this term? If so, don’t panic, drop classes, or drop out. Get an emergency grant.

In the last several years, colleges and universities have become keenly aware of how unforeseen financial problems undermine student success, obstruct student retention, and erode student opportunities to graduate. As a result, many institutions now offer their students emergency grants.

Students in need of emergency grants can usually obtain them fairly quickly, but such grants are normally limited to a few hundred dollars because institutional emergency grant funds normally don’t contain tons of money. However, these are not normal times.

In fact, depending upon the size and financial need of its student body, your college is getting federal funds ranging from thousands to millions of dollars out of $6.28 billion Congress allotted for emergency grants. To see how much Washington is sending your school, click here.

Institutions must use these federal emergency grant funds to help students to pay expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus. These include costs they can’t cover for child care, course materials, food, health care, housing, and technology.

Emergency grants are typically administered by deans of students, student financial aid, or student affairs offices. Check their websites to learn how and where to request such grants.

Recently, we recommended you seriously consider filing an appeal for additional financial aid if coronavirus-related issues have significantly cut your ability to pay necessary college expenses. Such appeals usually require you to get and submit various documents, and it may take several days or weeks for your financial aid office to make decisions about them. So if you can’t afford to wait out an appeal, seek an emergency grant to cover expenses that’ll come up until it’s decided.

Students in need of emergency grants should go get them. Don’t let coronavirus prevent the completion of your studies this spring!

Need information on how to make, and keep, postsecondary learning affordable. Start following the College Affordability Solutions website for articles and special bulletins like this.