Need a little help paying for college? The federal government can help. As of July 1, Uncle Sam rolled out a bevy of new programs and policy changes designed to give a helping hand to traditional and older students. Ranging from lower student loan interest rates to increased grant aid, these changes in college financing could beef up your bottom line.

More free cash

The federal government is expanding its grant programs in two ways — through bigger, more available Pell Grants and increased eligibility on merit-based scholarships, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“The increases in the Pell Grant will affect about seven million students,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the financial aid Web site “Students who already qualified are going to receive an extra $600 or so and an additional 800,000 new students will qualify.”

In addition to increasing the Pell Grant to $5,350 for the 2009 to 2010 school year, as of July 1 the grant will be available year-round, giving those who start school in a spring or summer semester the opportunity to qualify for the grant at the time they start school.

The other change to government-sponsored gift aid applies to fewer students and focuses on two merit-based programs: the Academic Competitiveness Grant and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant, or SMART. The former involves an award of up to $1,300 to first- and second-year Pell Grant-eligible undergrads. The SMART grant award is worth up to $4,000 for Pell Grant-eligible third- and fourth-year students majoring in science, math, critical needs foreign language or certain liberal arts programs. Both are now available to non-U.S. citizens and those enrolled half-time, according to the Department of Education.

Cheaper loans

Much of the new legislation aims at making federally backed student loans more affordable and accessible to undergrad students.

“With the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, the fixed interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduate students has gone down, which will positively affect students this year,” says Paul Dockry, senior vice president of the loan servicing division for Wells Fargo, which disburses federal student loans and originates private loans. “If customers take out a (subsidized Stafford) loan between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010, their interest rate is now 5.6 percent.” That’s down from 6.8 percent.

The 2009 to 2010 interest rate decrease is one step in a larger effort to keep lowering student loan interest rates and fees, reports the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. While interest rates on unsubsidized Stafford loans will stay at 6.8 percent, those who qualify for subsidized loans may want to consider starting school the following year or hold off on getting their loans until July 2010, when rates on subsidized Stafford loans will drop to 4.5 percent. Rates drop again in 2011 to 3.4 percent.

In addition to a sharp decrease in interest rates, the new legislation will also lower origination fees on subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans from 2 percent to 1.5 percent. Meanwhile, borrower benefits, such as the six-month grace period borrowers have after graduation before payment begins, deferment and forbearance options will remain the same.

Dockry adds that the changes don’t just affect students taking out new loans.

“If students have variable rate Stafford loans that they took out prior to July 1, 2006 (the last year the government offered variable rate student loans), now’s a great time to consolidate,” he says. Students will be able to consolidate at very low levels through June 30, 2010.

“If (students) are still in school (or within the grace period), the current interest rate is 1.88 percent. If they’re already in repayment, the current interest rate is 2.48 percent. That’s on all Stafford loans, subsidized and unsubsidized,” he says.

Because, by law, students can only consolidate their federal loans once, the deal is applicable just to those who haven’t already consolidated. Meanwhile, for students who consolidate fixed interest rate loans, the new interest rate they pay will be a weighted average of the rates of the underlying loans. Dockry says that, depending on the size of the loan, consolidating could allow borrowers to extend their repayment term — a possible added bonus.

“If borrowers have $60,000 or more in outstanding federal debt, they can extend their repayment term (from the standard 10 years) to 30 years,” he says. “If they have less than $60,000, it’s a sliding scale.”

New repayment options

Stafford loans aren’t just cheaper to get; they’re now easier to pay back, too. Thanks to the government’s new income-based repayment plan, students who borrow more than they can afford to pay back may be able to escape some of their debt.

“It’s designed for people that are in very, very worthy professions like social work where the pay may not be as recognized as other professions,” says Norm Bedford, director of financial aid at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. After 10 years, he says, “people in public service fields can have their debt forgiven.”

Bedford adds that all students with federal loans, regardless of profession, are eligible for the new income-based repayment option. Monthly loan payments for students choosing this option are capped at 15 percent of a borrower’s discretionary income, defined as any earnings above 150 percent of the poverty line, or $16,245 for a family of one. So a grad who earns $16,245 or less would have no payments at all, while a grad earning $30,000 per year would pay no more than $172 a month toward student loans.

The income-based repayment program requires students who don’t qualify for public service loan forgiveness to make payments for 25 years, after which, their loan is forgiven. Economic hardship deferments do count toward eventual forgiveness. Forbearance doesn’t count — but neither option will kick you out of the program. Should the student take deferment or forbearance for reasons other than economic hardship, time spent without making loan payments will not count. Those who work full-time in public service fields for tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, the government (federal, state or local), the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps can have their debt forgiven after 10 years of payments.

The Department of Education reports that those who seek public service loan forgiveness can count payments made after Oct. 1, 2007, toward fulfilling the income-based plan’s requirements. Those seeking regular (25-year) loan forgiveness can only count payments made after July 1, 2009.

Help for military personnel

Changes in college financing means good news for veterans as well, says Keith Wilson, education service director for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. As of Aug. 1, those who served 90 days of active service or reserve duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, or those who served at least 30 days of active duty but were discharged due to a service-connected disability will be eligible to have tuition, fees, housing and up to $1,000 worth of books at a public in-state college or university paid for by the U.S. government.

“The new (Post-9/11 GI Bill) can be used for up to 15 years after the service was completed, which is five years longer than the Montgomery GI Bill allows,” says Wilson. “Under the new bill, service members can also transfer their GI benefits to their spouse or children.”

On top of increased educational funding, Wilson says that post-9/11 vets who served at least 36 months of active duty may also be eligible for “Yellow Ribbon” benefits at participating institutions. A public-private partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs and more than 1,100 public and private institutions nationwide, the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program discounts tuition and fees on a first-come, first-served basis.

Wilson encourages vets to visit to view eligibility requirements for both programs. “This is going to change the entire education landscape for us,” he says.