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The 5 Best Online Tools to Help You Pay for College
by Jessica Ashley, TakePart.com

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OK, the good intention to stash away a little college money each month when your child started kindergarten may have never come to fruition. And the money you did manage to save looks insignificant compared to public tuition costs—which average about $21,000 a year ($42,000 for private). Don’t despair! Whether your child is just learning to tie his shoes or has already settled into her dorm, these tools will help you get savvy, supported, and better prepared for the rising costs of higher education.


Jane Lynch’s National College Finance Center

Cheered on by Glee’s brassy Jane Lynch, this one-stop college financial site launched this summer with the aim of helping families make smart decisions about saving and paying for tuition. It’s packed full of resources, including loan comparisons, financial aid tutorials, and state-by-state programs. For families that have already acquired college loans, it also has a rich loan-repayment section to help students and parents create lower-stress strategies for paying back money in a sluggish post-college job market.


College Navigator

Forget the old-school, encyclopedic, 14-pound books that list every single college and university in the country. Instead, hone a list of prospective schools with the National Center for Education Statistics’ time- and money-saving College Navigator search program. Plug in what’s most important to your family—tuition, distance from home, major, selectivity, etc.—and you’ll get a list of best-fit schools. Click to turn it into an interactive map or spreadsheet, and to cull more info on how to pay for that perfect college.


MORE: These 10 Colleges Leave New Graduates With the Most Debt


FinAid.org

Of course, your child is gifted, talented, and a star lacrosse player. But that might not be enough to get her the funding she needs for the university she’s set on. Good thing there are scholarships that reward left-handers, marble shooters, skateboarders, duck-callers, kids who can sing the national anthem “with sincerity,” and kids with the last name Zolp. Sites like FinAid.org help you search a comprehensive database of unusual and smaller scholarships that match the skills and characteristics of your completely individual college-bound kid.


MappingYourFuture.org

This website is full of empowering tutorials on managing student loans, credit cards, and limited income. Use their budget calculator and consider downloading the free and excellent Mint.com app to track all of your finances and see how much you are saving and spending with the quick click of a button. Finally, get your teen set up so they can also track their own after-school job earnings, weekend splurges, and college contributions. And imagine this: You could be giving your child a financial education before they graduate high school!


Academic Apps to Keep Kids on Track

Have a high-schooler eligible for an academic scholarship or a current college student who’s already got one? Apps are a great way to help them keep on top of schoolwork so their aid is secured. MyGPA tracks grades and cumulative GPA; gFLASH creates flashcards and quizzes for test prep; and Evernote syncs web pages, text, PDFs, and photos of class notes to create one comprehensive study guide. With iProcrastinate, organize to-dos, share lists with a group, schedule assignment reminders, and (best of all) break down big projects into manageable tasks.


Plus, don’t forget to find out what Federal aid is available to you at FAFSA.ed.gov.


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Despite the Possibility of Debt, Having a Degree Is Still Better Than the Alternative
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1/108 Orgs Making Schools Stronger
826 National
With storefronts across the country bearing names like Superhero Supply Company and Bigfoot Research Institute, and with items for sale like night-vision goggles and secret identity kits, you’d expect 826 National, the nonprofit behind these ventures, to be outside of ordinary. And they are. They bring creative writing into schools and communities with imaginative, high-energy workshops, volunteer tutoring programs, field trips, classes, scholarships, and publishing projects (create a ’zine with a famous author!) that make writing exciting and fun. Founded by author Dave Eggers, the organization bears his quirky stamp. Get your child to a location near you, or lend your support. [Gallery by Heather York]
2/108 Orgs Making Schools Stronger
City Year
Research shows that students at risk of dropping out have three things in common: poor attendance, disruptive behavior, and course failure in math and English. A child who exhibits even one of these as early as sixth grade has a 75 percent chance of dropping out, which increases their risk of unemployment and incarceration. City Year unites teams of AmeriCorps members to serve full-time in schools as tutors, mentors, and role models to struggling students. By giving these kids individual attention, members help them stay in school and on track to succeed. At the end of their service year, corps members receive an education award to apply toward a college degree, graduate school, or student loan. Join the corps or help them out.
3/108 Orgs Making Schools Stronger
Get Schooled
What if you had the help of a celebrity to get your kids out of bed in the morning? Since attendance is such a big indicator of student success, getting your kids off to school is one of the most important things you do as a parent. Get Schooled, a nonprofit that uses the power of media, technology, and popular culture to motivate kids to stay in school, has created the Wake Up Campaign: Your child will receive a recorded phone call from a celebrity —“Hi! This is Nicki Minaj. Get up!”—to motivate her to get to school every day on time. Get Schooled also sponsors My College Dollars, a Facebook app that matches students with scholarships they qualify for. Get the 4-1-1 or help them out.
4/108 Orgs Making Schools Stronger
DonorsChoose.org
The choice is yours: Pencils for a poetry writing unit, violins for a school recital, microscope slides for a biology class…with a single dollar, you can join the movement on DonorsChoose.org to help students get the education—and classroom supplies—they deserve. And it couldn’t be easier. Teachers from around the country post requests to the site, then you browse requests and give any amount to the project that inspires you. Once a project reaches its funding goal, DonorsChoose.org delivers the materials. You get photos of your project in progress, a thank-you letter from the teacher, and a cost report showing how each dollar was spent. Citizen philanthropy at its best.
5/108 Orgs Making Schools Stronger
Communities in Schools
Research shows that students who need the most help often have the hardest time getting it; troubled students and their families face multiple challenges in navigating the maze of public and private services. Communities in Schools “brings the village to the child,” dispatching site coordinators to schools to act as single points of contact to vulnerable children, connecting them to resources that help them stay in school, graduate, and achieve in life. From basic needs like food, clothing, and healthcare, to counseling and family support, to tutoring and college and career prep, CIS helps nearly 1.3 million young people in more than 3,400 schools. Support their work or find an affiliate in your state.
6/108 Orgs Making Schools Stronger
No Bully
Bullying today goes beyond name-calling and playground fights; with the advent of social media, kids have become vulnerable to round-the-clock campaigns of cruelty, abuse, and even violence. But recent research shows that all students—even those who bully—are capable of kindness when their school creates the right conditions. No Bully has developed a four-step system that trains teachers and administrators how to intervene, then supports them in coaching victims and developing empathy plans with all students involved. The program has an 88 percent success rate. To bring No Bully to your child’s school or learn how to use its techniques at home, check out their trainings for educators and parents.
7/108 Orgs Making Schools Stronger
GEEO
Understanding foreign cultures has never been more important to America’s future. For most of us, that understanding begins in school. In classrooms across America, students look to their teachers for knowledge about the world. Global Exploration for Educators Organization (GEEO) helps educators to travel abroad, offering discounted travel programs, professional development hours, teacher-friendly itineraries that include visits to local schools and lesson plans for sharing their new knowledge with their own students. The best part: Their travel companions are fellow teachers! GEEO runs programs in 30 countries on 5 continents, from Spain, China, and India, to Peru, Morocco, and Mozambique.
8/108 Orgs Making Schools Stronger
School Climate
Like the weather dictates traffic, a school’s climate can determine the behavior and outlook of both students and teachers. But what exactly is a school’s climate? For more than a decade, School Climate has been helping schools assess just that—evaluating such factors as rules and behavior norms, teaching practices, relationships between adults and between students, the physical classrooms, school identification, and more—to build safe, supportive environments that nurture emotional, ethical, and academic skills, enhance student performance, prevent drop-outs, reduce bullying, and develop healthy, engaged adults. Unlike the weather, a school’s climate can be changed. Find out how.
9/108 Orgs Making Schools Stronger
Take Part
As great as these organizations are, they shouldn’t have to be carrying as much weight as they do. With the elections coming up this November, we can all make an impact on America’s education system by urging our candidates to make education a priority.
10/108 Orgs Making Schools Stronger
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Q+A With a Real-Life Action Hero

Pencils of Promise: Founder Tells How $25 Started Something Big
Adam Braun was a college student backpacking abroad when he asked a boy begging on the streets of India what he wanted most in the world. The answer: a pencil. Inspired by this simple request, Adam distributed thousands of pencils during his trip through 50 countries and later founded Pencils of Promise to build community-owned schools in Laos, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. In its four short years, PoP has been recognized by Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, and celebrity supporter Justin Bieber. Here, Adam shares his experience.
Q:
How did you begin building Pencils of Promise?
A:
Pencils of Promise was founded while I was working in the corporate sector but wanted to find a way to give back. I started with $25 and asked friends to donate to my 25th birthday, and within a few months we’d raised the money to build a full school for children without access to education. I quickly realized the need for an organization that had the head of a for-profit and the heart of a nonprofit, and that allowed every single person to educate a child in need. We recently launched our SchoolBuilder platform on our website to enable every person to build a school themselves.
Q:
What’s one of your favorite Pencils of Promise success stories?
A:
The very first students at our first school were two girls named Nuth and Nith. They had no school to attend as preschoolers, so we built them a classroom and learning environment, and I recently learned about their success as emerging second-graders. We’ve returned and built an additional classroom and library in their village. It’s a place I can’t wait to return to see later this year, and I’m proud to say that 100 percent of the schools we built so far are fully operational within six months of completion.
Q:
Having seen schools around the world, what are some approaches to education that you think America gets right?
A:
As broken as our system in the United States is, we still have access to first-world education that many countries do not have the money to replicate. Our increased focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] education is a positive, and early childhood education, starting with preschool, is something that the U.S. has prioritized which developing world countries are just starting to pick up on. In general, every nation needs to focus on quality of education rather than simply demonstrating access, which is a big part of our programs at Pencils of Promise.

MORE: How Does American Education Compare to China and India?
Q:
What is the single best action, in your opinion, that someone can take to support education in the U.S.?
A:
Mentor a young person. We talk so much about formal learning within the classroom, but countless students are in tremendous need of the support that a caring, dedicated mentor can provide that goes far beyond traditional schooling.
Q:
What about internationally?
A:
Donate or fundraise on behalf of an organization like Pencils of Promise that works with local populations to increase ownership of their own educational opportunities. There are many great organizations, but it’s those that support communities and students themselves that create lasting impact.

MORE:
5 Consequences of Education Budget Cuts and What Obama Plans to Do
The 5 Best and Worst States to Educate Your Kids
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