Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Five Ways to Cut College Bills

By John F. Wasik (from my Reuters column)

I can hear the quaver in the voice of my neighbors as they send their children off to college this week. Not only do I sense the emotion of having a child leave home, but the anxiety of what it’s going to cost.

The financial part, at least, doesn’t have to cause insomnia. There are a number of routes to find money for college that few explore. Yet you have to plan ahead to find these sources of cash.

Few comprehend that the rate in increase in college costs has outpaced consumer inflation by a factor of two — from 5 percent to 8 percent. That’s why some 73% of families surveyed by student lender Sallie Mae reported that they were either reducing spending or working more to pay college bills.

With most big states experiencing fiscal crises, state schools, which used to be relative bargains, have been increasingly exposed to college inflation. They’ve had to jack up their tuition bills to cover their expenses.

It’s unlikely that state schools will resolve their fiscal shortfalls any time soon as the housing crisis has devastated state tax revenues.

How about private colleges? They are already charging top dollar — an average $26,273 for tuition alone for the 2009-10 school year, according to The College Board. Combined with room and board and other fees, private colleges are easily billing between $30,000 and $50,000 a year.

But there are a number of ways to cut bills. Here are some of the least known:

* Ask for a Tuition Discount. Most colleges don’t call it this and certainly don’t advertise the fact that they offer reductions from their “sticker” price. Once you’ve completed financial aid forms, ask for additional money off. Always cite special circumstances — loss of parental income, unreimbursed medical care. Put everything on the table and ask for work-study programs and grants (which don’t have to be paid back).
* Go to Community College First. This has become an increasingly popular option. Most colleges have the same core requirements that can be taken at community colleges for a fraction of the cost. Students can also stay at home so you don’t have to pay room and board. About one-third of all college students go the community college route, which charge an average $2,544 annually.
* Grandparents. They can help by either directly paying tuition bills or contributing to a 529 college savings account. While they don’t get a tax deduction for their contribution, the money grows tax deferred in the 529 until it’s withdrawn.
* Hidden Grants and Loans. Do you belong to an ethnic group or service organization? There are thousands of groups that offer scholarships and grants. A great source is the database at There’s more than $3 billion available, so do your homework once you get accepted.
* Network. Who in your network can help you? Employers may offer assistance. Affinity groups may have grants. Contact the college to see if departments offer special programs for students in specific majors. Peer-to-peer lending is emerging as an alternative. These networks offer access to direct lending. See, and

None of these options present easy-money solutions to college financing.

You’ll have to get ahead of the game well before you send out entrance applications; research and negotiations take months to yield results. (Community college is always a viable fall back at the last minute, though).

Going into debt for a six-figure education will set young adults behind if they want to buy a car, home and live a sustainable, happy life. In order to get a decent education, you’ll need to first educate yourself on the myriad opportunities to avoid that debt trap.

John Wasik is the author of “The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream.”

Friday, August 13, 2010

Creating Green Jobs the Chinese Way

By John F. Wasik

from my commentary

American politicians campaigning now would do well to stop polarizing the climate change debate and start talking about jobs, economic development and beating China at its own game.

That would mean employing social capitalism to create a powerful national energy plan that ignites the private sector through public incentives. Although the Chinese are faced with horrible environmental conditions, at least they are doing something about it and may win an economic war in the process.

Aided by a currency peg to the dollar — many say an unfair manipulation that has hurt U.S. exports — the Chinese are currently winning the trade battle. Imports from China surged to $33 billion in July, a figure not seen since the dark days of 2008, ballooning the U.S. trade deficit with the People’s Republic.

To date, U.S. policymakers are losing the Earth Race and the only environmental target they can hit are their own feet. The Chinese recently pulled ahead in the contest, announcing through its State Information Center that it would spend $738 billion in renewable energy projects over the next decade.


By any measure, that’s a great leap ahead of U.S. clean-tech efforts. The stimulus plan set aside about $36 billion for a host of U.S. Department of Energy-led projects in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. In contrast, China’s stimulus investment for reducing greenhouse gas emissions was $221 billion, according to a report by British Bank HSBC.

What’s at stake isn’t whether climate change will be tackled this year by the world’s largest economy. It’s a matter of millions of new jobs that will likely flow to China, Germany and any other country with a comprehensive policy. Even poor, tiny Portugal has a better energy plan — it gets more than one-fifth of its energy from renewable sources, whereas the U.S. only gets 4%.

The International Energy Agency estimates that there’s a $27 trillion market for clean-tech over the next 50 years. If the U.S. just captures 14% of this business, that creates 850,000 new jobs, reports the World Wildlife Fund. Clean energy is not only a proven job creator, it’s relatively recession proof, according to a Pew Charitable Trust study. It declined only 6.6% last year despite one of the worst economic climates since the 1930s.

A tremendous opportunity for America is being lost as Washington has stumbled at every turn this year when it had a chance to launch a world-class energy policy.


Despite the passage of a U.S. House plan to address climate change and promote energy projects, the Senate was unable to bring any energy bill to the floor and recessed this summer without doing a thing. Not even the largest oil spill in history was a call to arms.

Misguided deficit hawks have been deriding clean-tech as an expendable line-item. Some $3.5 billion in renewable energy loan guarantees have been rescinded this year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. And an untold number of clean-tech ventures have been put on hold. If the U.S. doesn’t get in this game soon in a big way, it will be playing catch-up for years.

So, to help our country along, here is what we must do:

• Increase and extend loan guarantees and tax breaks for all clean-tech companies over decades, not year to year. A national energy program shouldn’t be subject to the political climate of the moment.
• Create incentives for all consumers to buy clean power. There’s a reason why Germany is one of the largest manufacturers and consumers of solar power appliances. Utilities buy back home-generated power over time. The U.S. needs a renewable energy portfolio standard to do the same.
• Create financing that favors energy-efficient buildings. That means widespread programs for “green” mortgages that offer lower rates for environmentally friendly buildings. That would stimulate the overall housing market and green building.
• Enact a permanent national trust fund to build/repair infrastructure in an environmentally friendly way. By my rough estimate, we need at least $5 trillion to fix crumbling roads, bridges, water systems and other public amenities. (The estimate is based on what the American Society of Civil Engineers projected should be spent to fix up essential infrastructure in 2009 minus what was allocated by the stimulus plan.)

Washington has battled many enemies over the years and rallied Americans to the cause. When it comes to forging a long-term, job-producing U.S. energy policy, though, their worst nemeses are stateside. So having an external foe may rouse more productive emotion than simply citing numbers and bungled opportunities.