April / May
April/May Newsline Articles
Lawmakers Modify TOPS
made significant changes to the Tuition Opportunity Program
for Students (TOPS) during the special
Among the more important changes is the expansion of TOPS to include three new groups of students whose parents are Louisiana residents: students who graduate from out-of-state high schools, students who attend state-approved home study programs, and students whose parents serve in the Armed Forces. In addition to other special eligibility requirements detailed below, students in these three groups qualify for TOPS awards based upon an alternate eligibility requirement. They must attain an ACT score which is three points higher than the ACT score required under normal eligibility standards. Their grade point averages (GPA) or curricula are not considered in determining their eligibility for the TOPS awards.
Children of Louisiana residents who graduate from out-of-state schools must graduate from a school which is approved by the state in which the school is located. Students who complete a home study program must do so in a program which has been approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Additionally, if they previously attended a public or private high school, they must have begun their home-study program not later than the end of tenth grade and provide a sworn affidavit from an official at their previous high school which states that they were in good standing at the time they withdrew from the school. Active duty military parents must claim Louisiana as their home state of record and must have filed Louisiana state income tax returns for the two years prior to their dependent child's high school graduation.
Another set of changes to TOPS affects the core curriculum which is required for students qualifying under the regular TOPS eligibility requirements. Algebra 1A and 1B can now also fulfill the Algebra 1 requirement; Physics II and Physics for Technology have been added as acceptable science electives; and a state-approved, locally-initiated, computer-related course can fulfill the Computer Science core unit. An important exception to the core curriculum requirement has been allowed for 1997 and 1998 graduates only: they are required to complete only one unit of a foreign language instead of two, and may take that course in college.
To encourage school districts to make core courses available to all students, the legislature has repealed the authority to waive mandated courses which are not available to students at the school they attend, effective after the academic year of 1999-2000. One exception has been made to the waiver repeal. Students with exceptionalities or disabilities may have a core curriculum unit waived if the student's failure to complete the required course was due solely the student's properly diagnosed and documented disability or exceptionality. Certification of the student's performance or disability must be submitted by sworn affidavit.
A new TOPS Tech Award has been established for students who want to pursue skill training after high school. It pays tuition for up to two years for students pursuing a technical education at a public postsecondary school. Students qualify for the Tech Award by completing a modified core curriculum and achieving the same ACT score and GPA required for the Opportunity Award. (Both the regular and modified core curricula are listed on a special insert included in this issue of Newsline. See pages 4 and 5.)
Effective with the graduating class of 1999, the "top 5 percent" requirement for the Performance Award will be eliminated. For those graduating in 1999 and afterwards, eligibility for this award will be based on the student completing the core curriculum in addition to the GPA and ACT requirements. 1998 graduates may qualify for the Performance Award in two ways. Either they must graduate in the top 5 percent of their class and achieve the required GPA and ACT scores required for the award or they must complete all three requirements of ACT, GPA and the core curriculum.
Eligibility for the Teachers Award component of TOPS has also been expanded to include applicants who seek teacher certification and who have previously acquired a master's degree or a bachelor's degree with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. Current undergraduate students may also qualify based solely on their college performance if they have attained at least a 3.0 GPA and have completed 48 or more hours of course work.
The law changed residency requirements for the TOPS awards. Either the applicant or the applicant's parent(s) or legal guardian(s) must have actually resided in Louisiana during the 24 months prior to high school graduation. Students who complete an approved home-study program must have resided in or have parents who resided in Louisiana during the 24 months prior to the filing of the student's initial application.
The statute now provides that a student must claim the award within a defined time period, as a first time freshman, by the first semester following the first anniversary of his high school graduation, not counting summer semesters. A student who joins the Armed Forces within one year of high school graduation must accept the award as a first-time freshman by the first semester following the fifth anniversary of his high school graduation. The student must have received an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable conditions. Teacher Award recipients are not affected by this requirement. Time limits for home-study students are the same, but they are measured from the date the initial application was received.
The provision which required a student to accept the award with the highest continuation standards has been repealed. Students who are eligible for more than one TOPS award must choose between them and maintain the continuation standards mandated for the chosen award, without an option to change. The continuation requirements for the Opportunity Award have been increased to require a cumulative GPA of 2.3 after the completion of 24 credit hours and a 2.5 GPA after 48 credit hours.
Families who do not wish to disclose their income and can demonstrate they are ineligible for federal grant aid may refrain from entering financial data on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However, applicants who fail to disclose income data on the FAFSA will be automatically disqualified if appropriations are insufficient to fund the awards for all eligible applicants.
To apply for TOPS, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and, for subsequent years, the renewal FAFSA. The submitted FAFSA must correspond to the year the student plans to enroll in a Louisiana postsecondary educational institution. If the student plans to enroll in a Louisiana school in the school year 1998-99, for example, then the 1998-99 version of the FAFSA must be completed and submitted. Students must enter the name of a Louisiana college or university for the application to be considered for TOPS. All questions on the FAFSA should be completed.
TOPS is one of the most innovative and progressive student assistance programs in the nation. The program, created during the 1997 Legislative Session, originally had four components: Opportunity, Performance, Honors and Teacher awards. Each of these, as well as the new Tech Award, has specific eligibility criteria, award amounts and continuation standards. The Teacher Award was funded for the 1997-98 school year. TOPS will begin making its other awards for the 1998-99 school year.
Questions about TOPS should be directed to LOSFA's Customer Services Division at (800) 259-5626, Ext. 1012.
NEWS AND UPDATES
A new version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on the Web is available at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Applicants may access the site and apply for aid using 40-bit, 56-bit or 128-bit encryption. Netscape Navigator 4.04 has been certified for use with this site. This version of FAFSA on the Web supports the following browsers: Netscape Navigator 3.0-3.04 (Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows NT or Macintosh), Netscape Navigator 4.0-4.04 (Windows 3.1, Windows 95 or Windows NT) and Internet Explorer 4.0 (Windows 95 or Windows NT). For more information or assistance, call (800) 801-0576.
The state Legislative Auditor's office reviewed LOSFA's financial operations for 1997 and found the agency in great shape. This annual review is part of the audit of state agencies conducted by the Legislative Auditor. Procedures included a review of the agency's internal controls, tests of financial transactions, tests of adherence to applicable laws, regulations, policies and procedures governing financial activities and review of compliance with the prior year's report recommendations. Legislative Auditors interviewed management and selected office personnel and evaluated selected documents, files, reports, systems, procedures and policies as they considered necessary.
Lender changes: Citibank is participating in LOSFA's loan programs under two different lender codes: #807743 which is disbursed and serviced by UNIPAC, Denver, and #607743 which is disbursed by USA Group and serviced by UNIPAC.
The Office of Management and Budget granted an extension of the expiration date of the FFELP Economic Hardship Deferment Request Form from February 1998 to February 1999.
The U.S. Department of Education has extended the deadline for submission of the audit of lenders with loan portfolios equal to or less than $5 million from Oct. 1, 1997, to Oct. 1, 1998. The requirement that lenders with this volume of FFELP loans complete an annual compliance audit for all the fiscal years subject to the audit requirement is not eliminated. The date by which the audits must be submitted is simply delayed. Dear Colleague Letter 98-L-204 further advises that in light of possible legislative action by Congress, the Department of Education has decided to again postpone the deadline for completion and, if necessary, submission of the audit until June 30, 1999, for any audit period in which the lender originated and/or held FFELP loans totaling $5 million or less.
There have been a lot of changes in Louisiana's financial aid family during the past few months. Pat Cottonham, past president of the Louisiana Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and Financial Aid Director at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, has been named USL Associate Dean of Students. Mike Fuller, former Associate Financial Aid Director at Northwestern State University, accepted a position at Northeast Louisiana University. Sherry Gladney, Assistant Financial Aid Director at LSU-Shreveport, assumed the position of Director of Financial Aid at LSU Medical Center-Shreveport. DeAnna Morgan took over for Sherry at LSU-Shreveport on May 21. Congratulations to all!
J. D. Comeaux, Marketing Representative of NationsBank, N.A., in Slidell for the past four years, retired April 30. Comeaux spent 28 years as Director of Financial Assistance for LSU's Medical Center in New Orleans, during which time he received the NASFAA Leadership Award in 1994, was named 1991 LASFAA Man of the Year and served as President of LASFAA 1974-75. He organized LOSFA's Advisory Committee and served for two years as its chairman. Comeaux's plans for retirement include pursuing recreational activities and working with his son in their residential construction company.
Nominations are in and LOSFA is revving into high gear for this summer's Trailblazers Camps. Participants number 128 at the camp at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, July 19-21 and 103 at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, July 26-28. This represents a 68 percent increase in 1998 nominees over the number who attended last year.
Automatic Clearing House Boon to Defaulted Borrowers
Borrowers with defaulted student loans looking for an easier way to manage their loan debt and enter rehabilitation should take advantage of the Automatic Clearing House (ACH) system recently developed by the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance. ACH automatically withdraws a specified amount from a borrower's bank account each month, ensuring that payments are made regularly and on time. The risk of garnishment, tax refund seizure or other penalties can be eliminated. In addition, defaulted student loan borrowers with regular and on-time payments may qualify for additional student loans or loan rehabilitation.
ACH, under LOSFA's Loan Operations Division, started in September 1997 with one borrower signing up for a $225 monthly deduction. There are currently 92 borrowers participating in ACH with monthly deductions totaling $7,513. Byron Henderson, head of Collections, said his section is very pleased with ACH. "It helps us by automating the collections process," he said. "We don't have to deal with checks, it is less likely that mistakes will be made and it speeds up the entire process of applying a payment to the borrower's account."
Another advantage of ACH is that problem resolution is quicker. LOSFA is able to retrieve a borrower's files faster and can respond faster to billing and other questions. Usage and costs associated with paper and file storage are also reduced, and personnel can better manage time and accomplish other tasks.
Defaulted student loan borrowers can request an automatic debit form from LOSFA's website at www.osfa.state.la.us. Simply click on the icon indicating "Information Center" and follow the "Frequently Requested Forms" link to the forms index page. Choose the third option ("all others in need of forms"). This takes you to a page that lists all the forms available from LOSFA, including COL0001, Authorization for Automatic Debits from a Personal Banking Account. You may request this authorization form by phone, by e-mail or by filling out a request online.
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