May 2000 Newsline Articles
Legislative actions modify TOPS
During its First Extraordinary Session of 2000, the Louisiana Legislature passed five bills mandating changes within the state’s premier higher education scholarship program, the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS). The five bills were: House Bills 159 and 224; and Senate Bills 27, 91 and 97.
Immediately after the governor signed the legislation, thus enacting the bills into law, the executive committee of the Louisiana Student Financial Assistance Commission (LASFAC) met and adopted several emergency rules to implement the new legislation.
The legislation’s impact on TOPS eligibles includes the following:
House Bill 159 (Act 133)
Otherwise qualified 1999 high school graduates may become TOPS eligible with an ACT or SAT score obtained after graduation but prior to July 1, 1999.
House Bill 224 (Act 105)
High school graduates from 1997 and 1998 who were eligible for the Performance or Honors award, but opted for the Opportunity award instead, can begin receiving their original award stipend amount beginning with the fall term 2000, provided they have maintained a 3.00 grade point average and completed the required hours by the end of each spring semester. This also applies to those students who were given a choice of awards but did not respond and were, therefore, defaulted to the Opportunity award.
Senate Bill 27 (Act 110)
Non-public high schools which had, by May 15, 2000, applied through the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for approval under the criteria imposed by the Brumfield vs. Dodd settlement, have until the 2003-2004 school year to obtain that approval for their graduates to be TOPS-eligible.
Senate Bill 91 (Act 69)
a) Initial applicants for TOPS may file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) up to 60 days after the July 1 deadline and still be eligible for a TOPS award, subject to a penalty. The penalty shall be a reduction of one semester or two quarters or equivalent number of units of eligibility. These extended initial FAFSA deadlines/penalties are retroactive to 1999 graduates.
b) Initial applicants for TOPS who file the FAFSA between 61 and 120 days after the July 1 deadline may qualify for a TOPS award, subject to a penalty. The penalty shall be a reduction of two semesters or three quarters or an equivalent number of units of eligibility.
c) Initial applicants may qualify using an ACT or SAT score after high school graduation but prior to July 1 of the year of graduation, subject to a penalty. The penalty shall be a reduction of one semester or two quarters or an equivalent number of units of eligibility.
Senate Bill 97 (Act 73)
Allows recipients of TOPS Opportunity, Performance and Honors awards to pursue skill or occupational training, including a vocational or technical education certificate or diploma program or a nonacademic undergraduate degree from a public institution of higher education or a private institution which is a member of the Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (LAICU).
News and Updates
LSU-Shreveport welcomes new assistant director: Linda Wimbley, formerly assistant director at LSU-Alexandria, has accepted the position of assistant director of financial aid at LSU-Shreveport.
LSU-Alexandria hires new assistant director: Ken Posey, formerly at Northwestern State University and Educaid, has accepted the position of assistant director of financial aid at LSU-Alexandria.
National Student Loan Servicing Alliance (SLSA) hires new executive director: Patricia Sullivan was appointed executive director of SLSA effective April 4. Previously, Sullivan served as legislative assistant to the U.S. Congress, House Committee on Education and Labor. SLSA is an alliance of more than 30 organizations which have the responsibility for servicing and collecting approximately 80 percent of all outstanding federal student loans C a portfolio valued at more than $170 billion.
LOSFA promissory notes: Beginning May 1, 2000, all promissory notes for LOSFA guaranteed loans will be printed and mailed from the USA Group facility in Fishers, Ind. This will allow students to contact one phone number for duplicate notes regardless of the guarantor (LOSFA or USA Funds). The notes will be identical in appearance to those currently printed by USA Group except for the guarantor designation in the upper right hand corner of the form. This measure is implemented as a convenience for the aid officer in directing the students to one phone number.
LOSFA employee reassignments: As of April 3, Cynthia Hathaway and Nell Rivet have transferred from LOSFA's Collections Division to the agency's Scholarships and Grants Division, where they will be working with John Bell and Belinda Tate in the Billing and Renewal Unit.
Hot off the press! The new and revised version of the Student Tuition Assistance and Revenue Trust (START) Application Booklet is now available by contacting LOSFA at (800) 259-5626, Ext. 1012. START is Louisiana's tax-advantaged college savings program where account owners receive interest on deposits in addition to incentives in the form of annual state-funded tuition assistance grants which are calculated according to the account owner's adjusted gross income.
SLS goes to Indianapolis: Kelly Cormier, Jeff Cropco and Sigmund Morel of LOSFA's School/Lender Services Section (SLS), attended guarantor training at USA Group's office March 29-30 in Indianapolis, Ind. Topics discussed during the two-day training included: Master Promissory Note (MPN) overview, MPN confirmation process, blanket guarantee process, WhizKid, ConnectUSA, ISIR utility/communication options and NetWizard.
Debt management conference: The National Council of Higher Education Loan Programs Inc. recently hosted its annual debt management conference March 12-15 in San Antonio. Representing LOSFA during the conference were Pat Shannon, Loan Operations; Lynda Downing, Pre-claims; Byron Henderson, Collections; and Gwen Johnson, Claims. The event covered the latest developments in default aversions and collections, the usage of Internet tools, complaint resolution, Department of Education (ED) procedures and provided an excellent opportunity for LOSFA to network with other guarantee agencies. LOSFA staffers noted a number of highlights from the conference including a session on the proliferation of credit cards on campus and Downing's moderation of a session titled Surfing for Solutions, on using the Internet to aid in collections and default prevention.
Feds require Master Promissory Note
Beginning with the 2000-2001 academic year, the new Master Promissory Note (MPN) will replace the previous Common Stafford Loan Application and Promissory Note, and must be implemented by all schools.
The MPN is the only promissory note which will be accepted by the Department of Education (ED) for loan periods beginning on or after July 1, 2000, as well as any loan certified on or after July 1, 2000, regardless of the loan period.
The new MPN is intended to streamline the loan application process and offers several advantages over the old procedure. Most striking is the MPN's ability to be used as both a single-year and multi-year promissory note. This feature allows most borrowers to sign the note one time only, at the time they apply for their first loan. The original note may then be used to secure additional loans during the same academic year or in subsequent years. A new note is not required as long as the student is attending a school which has been authorized to use the multi-year feature of the MPN.
The use of the MPN as a multi-year instrument will not initially be available to borrowers at every school. In general, four-year and graduate/professional schools as defined by the secretary of the ED will be the first authorized to use the multi-year feature. Eligible schools will determine their use of the multi-year function of the MPN.
At a later date, additional types of educational institutions will be selected by the secretary and designated by the ED as eligible to use the multi-year feature. For now, borrowers attending schools which are not authorized to use the multi-year feature will be required to sign a new MPN for each subsequent loan.
Borrowers attending schools which have been deemed eligible to use the multi-year feature and who wish to obtain subsequent loans must participate in a school-initiated notification or confirmation process. This replaces the old requirement that the borrower sign a new note for each academic period.
Lenders will continue to provide borrowers with disclosure documents in accordance with the provisions of Section 433 of the Higher Education Act. These statements will inform borrowers of the specific terms and amount of each of their loans. In order to provide borrowers with the most useful loan information, the ED has developed a plain English disclosure statement which will be provided with each subsequent loan made under the original MPN.
Some additional features provided by the MPN which simplify the student loan process are as follows:
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) must be used by students to request a loan, eliminating the need for separate loan application. With the MPN's structure, the FAFSA serves as the initial loan application.
The MPN eliminates
many of the checkoff boxes on the face of the loan note. These boxes
required the borrower to provide responses which often resulted in
The MPN provides a more conspicuous explanation of loan terms and conditions and offers a more borrower-friendly package of information on loan-specific as well as annual disclosures.
The MPN provides options for students who wish to make adjustments in loan type and amount throughout the loan delivery process.
The new MPN process is intended to streamline the one lender, one holder, one servicer, one guarantor concept by providing a convenient method to borrow from the same lender and use the same guarantor. The MPN encourages this policy without mandating it. There is ample room for student choice and change of school, as well as lender and guarantor mergers and consolidations.
The MPN process works through the following steps. First, the student requests a loan through the FAFSA. The FAFSA processor notifies the school of the student's application. The school annually determines the student's eligibility for aid and advises the student of the loan amount available. The school then certifies the student's eligibility. The student completes the MPN. If the student is attending a four-year or graduate school, this step may be eliminated in subsequent years. The loan is then guaranteed by a guarantee agency and funds are disbursed through a servicer using existing procedures.
The MPN is a simpler loan application process that reduces paperwork for students and schools. It provides faster serial loan turnaround by eliminating the primary cause of delay B the distribution and collection of promissory notes. Delays caused by incomplete promissory note data are also eliminated. The borrower remains in control of choices regarding loan amount and type, lender and guarantor. These choices are made at the beginning of the loan application and throughout the entire loan process.
LOSFA sets 2000-01 TOPS processing timeline
|April 1||DEADLINE for 1999-2000 high school graduates to achieve TOPS qualifying ACT score with no penalty. The minimum TOPS qualifying scores for Award Year 2000-2001 are: 19 for TOPS Tech; 20 for TOPS Opportunity; 23 for TOPS Performance; and 27 for TOPS Honors. Qualified graduates of out-of-state high schools, qualified dependents of resident military families stationed outside Louisiana and students completing Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE)-approved home study programs must score three points higher for each award.|
|April 15||Last day for filing of Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for priority processing|
DEADLINE for institutions to return Program Full-Time listing described in TOPS Bulletin T2000-05 dated March 15, 2000.
DEADLINE for high schools to request participation in electronic certification of TOPS applicants on the Web.
|May 1||DEADLINE for 1999-2000 high school graduates to achieve TOPS qualifying SAT score which may be considered in lieu of an ACT score without penalty. Students planning to utilize SAT scores must notify SAT to forward scores to LOSFA.|
|May 12||Final TOPS Master Roster processed for academic year 1999-2000.|
|May 15||Final Tops Master Roster for academic year 1999-2000 is available for electronic retrieval.|
|May 15||First mailing of high school certification forms to schools that will manually certify their 1999-2000 graduates.|
|May 15||Electronic high school certifications for 1999-2000 graduates available to high school counselors at http://www.osfa.state.la.us|
|May 19||Final bill processing date for continuing students on the 1999-2000 TOPS Master Roster. Billing processing suspended after this date until June 2, 2000.|
Second mailing of high school certification forms to schools that will manually certify their 1999-2000 graduates.
Initial processing of TOPS applicants and renewals for Award Year 1999-2000. Resumption of processing of Fall Semester 2000, Spring Semester 2000, Fall Term 2000, Winter Term 2000 and Spring Term 2000 billings.
First date for students to check 2000-2001 eligibility status at http://www.osfa.state.la.us or (800) 259-5626, Ext. 1012
|June 5||Initial TOPS Master Roster for Award Year 2000-2001 available for electronic retrieval.|
DEADLINE for 1999-2000 high school graduates to achieve TOPS qualifying ACT score with penalty.
|June 30||Final processing of regular Fall Semester 2000, Spring Semester 2000, Fall Term 2000, Winter Term 2000 and Spring Term 2000 billings.|
DEADLINE FOR RECEIPT OF 2000-2001 INITIAL FAFSA BY FEDERAL PROCESSOR WITHOUT PENALTY.
Final processing of regular Summer Semester 2000 and Summer Term 2000 billings (prior LA honors recipients are the only students eligible to be billed for this semester or term).
Third mailing of high school certification forms to schools that will manually certify their 1999-2000 graduates.
Questions concerning initial eligibility processing should be directed to LOSFA Public Information and Communications at (800) 259-5626, Ext. 1012. Questions concerning billing, continuing students and the master roster should be directed to John Bell, TOPS awards manager at (800) 259-5626, Ext. 1113 or email@example.com.
Collections section ranked No. 13 in nation
In a recently published national ranking of collection rates among student loan guarantors for the fiscal year Oct. 1, 1998 - Sept. 1, 1999, the Collections section of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) ranked 13th out of 37 guarantors, placing the agency directly behind 12th ranked USA Funds.
This is the eighth consecutive year in which LOSFA has increased its collection recovery rate, improving from 31 percent in fiscal year 1991 to 56 percent by 1998.
"The credit for the movement in this arena belongs to this staff and their efforts," Pat Shannon, LOSFA loan operations director said.
However, this year is the first time the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has used a new formula for calculating recovery rates, switching from a historical calculation C which determined rates by taking the total amount of dollars defaulted during an agency's history and dividing that by the total collections recovered C to an annual calculation. The new formula compares the inventory of loans in default at the beginning of the federal fiscal year to the dollars collected by the end of the year. Under this formula, LOSFA's recovery rate is 17.42 percent, just below USA Funds, at 19.27 percent. New Hampshire showed the highest recovery rate at 27.97 percent.
LOSFA's ranking, compared to its competitor USA Funds, is even more significant when the following factors are considered:
USA Funds is a
private guarantor and chooses the schools in each state where it will
compete for student loans. In Louisiana, USA Funds has guaranteed loans
primarily from 4-year colleges, professional and private schools.
LOSFA is designated
guarantor for the state and must guarantee loans for eligible students
attending schools in the state. This results in a student base which, on
average, comes from a lower income base and possesses a greater risk of
defaulting on a student loan than the loans guaranteed in Louisiana by USA
Louisiana has one
of the lowest per capita incomes in the nation.
According to the
Louisiana Department of Labor, Louisiana's unemployment rate was eighth
highest in the nation.
Until last year, LOSFA had the highest cohort default rate in the nation, mainly a result of the makeup of the student population which the agency insures.
During March 2000, the LOSFA collections staff generated more than $1 million in internal collections. This is the second time the collections section has generated more than a million dollars in one month, which was previously accomplished in March 1999.
"Our current internal monthly collection average is $850,000," Shannon said. "We are optimistic that our collection staff will soon average $1 million per month."
LOSFA uses four recovery tools in collecting on a defaulted student loan, according to LOSFA Collections Supervisor Byron Henderson. These debt collection tools include administrative garnishment of wages, federal and state offset payments (Internal Revenue Service and State Department of Revenue refund seizures, Social Security check seizures, etc.), consolidation of debt via a new loan (in which the agency receives a single payoff from the borrower), and rehabilitation of loans for borrowers with good payment records.
Henderson said these four tools help assure borrower payments. While these debt collection tools are available to all agencies, not all agencies are gaining the maximum return from their use.
"The average recovery rate on the ED's recently published table is 14 percent, a figure which clearly showcases LOSFA's above-average 17.42 percent," Henderson said. "My goal is to be ranked in the top 10 by 2001. I want to show a recovery rate of more than 20 percent by then."
Abbreviated FAFSA approved for TOPS
Some students may now apply for the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) without having to disclose any of the financial information which is required on the application to qualify for federal student aid.
However, before the abbreviated version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) may be used, students must comply with state law by first making sure they are ineligible for federal Pell Grants. Once applicants have determined they do not qualify for the federal grant, they have the option of completing only certain sections of the FAFSA - referred to as the abbreviated FAFSA - in order to apply solely for TOPS.
To avoid incurring a late penalty, the final deadline for receipt of either the full or abbreviated FAFSA remains July 1, 2000. For priority consideration, the application must have been postmarked by April 15.
To determine eligibility for a Pell Grant, families should use Fin Aid's Financial Aid Estimation Calculator C which can be accessed through the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) Web site by clicking on the Scholarship/Grant section. The calculator may also be reached directly on the Internet at http://www.finaid.org/calculators After accessing the Web site, select Financial Aid Estimation under the "Needs Analysis" heading, complete the form provided and click the "Calculate" option. The Financial Aid Estimation Calculator provides complete anonymity because it does not require the user to divulge their identity and the data entered is not retained.
If, by using the aforementioned procedure, the student is determined to be ineligible for federal grant aid, the TOPS applicant may then submit an abbreviated version of the FAFSA in paper form only. When filling out the abbreviated FAFSA for school year 2000-2001, the following sections must be completed. Unanswered questions are to be left blank, not filled in with zeros.
Step 1: Questions 1 through 17 (1-17) and 25 through 28 (25-28)
Step 3: Question 54 through 59 (54-59)
Step 4: Questions 67 through 69 (67-69)
Step 6: As applicable
Step 7: Question 100 and 101
Although the abbreviated FAFSA is a convenient TOPS-only application, the Louisiana Student Financial Assistance Commission (LASFAC) encourages all students to complete all of the questions on the federal form. This will ensure the student receives full consideration for all types of federal and state aid programs. This is important because a TOPS award covers only tuition at state public institutions, or partial tuition for students attending certain private colleges within Louisiana. However, additional forms of aid are often essential for students pursuing postsecondary education.
Students who submit the abbreviated FAFSA will not qualify for federal aid in any form, including federal Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, federal work study programs, federal Perkins Loans, Federal Stafford Loans (subsidized and/or unsubsidized) and federal PLUS (parent) Loans.
In addition, in the event of a state budgetary shortfall, the Legislature has stipulated that those students who failed to provide financial data on their application will be the first who will be denied a TOPS award.
Finally, students who chose to submit an abbreviated FAFSA will receive from the federal processor a Student Aid Report notifying them that their application has been rejected and that they are ineligible for federal aid. This notification should be disregarded since it has no effect on TOPS eligibility.
Expansion planned for
Loan Administration Division
Plans are presently underway to enhance the customer service efforts within the Loan Administration section of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA).
The changes follow action taken during the April 4 meeting of the Louisiana Student Financial Assistance Commission (LASFAC) - the body which governs LOSFA activity. The commission approved an increase in the section's human resources from nine to 14 in order to achieve strategic objectives in customer service.
"Our present staff has performed quite admirably in the midst of some rather challenging times and should be commended for their efforts," Linda Dawkins, loan administrator, said. "They have been diligent in attempting to meet the needs of our customers and will continue to be a vital part of the section as we work through this growth period."
An increase in staff will not only allow Loan Administration to provide a stronger support system for its present clientele, but will allow the division to concentrate on garnering an increased share of the loan guarantee market under the Federal Family Educational Loan Program (FFELP).
Though approved by LASFAC, the changes must still meet with budget approval.
Rule changes improve award benefits
The Louisiana Student Financial Assistance Commission (LASFAC) recently took action granting more latitude to recipients of several state-supported scholarship programs.
TOPS professional students
TOPS recipients who are admitted to professional schools prior to finishing a bachelor's degree program will now be able to receive their TOPS scholarships for the entire four years of their award eligibility period. These students must also meet all other TOPS continuation requirements in order to maintain their eligibility.
By amending its rules to redefine the terms "undergraduate student," "tuition" and "award amount" at its March 14 meeting, LASFAC paved the way for undergraduate students to keep their TOPS awards after entering a professional school without first obtaining a bachelor's degree.
Before the change, TOPS students who attended professional schools such as veterinary, law, medical or dental school, were no longer considered to be in pursuit of an undergraduate degree and were not continued on TOPS.
However, a number of TOPS students who had received the scholarship for up to two years while pursuing undergraduate degrees were - based on their outstanding academic credentials - accepted into professional schools prior to obtaining a baccalaureate degree.
In reviewing these cases, the LASFAC concluded it would be unfair to deny these students the remainder of the TOPS funding for which they would otherwise be eligible. Therefore, up to the limit of their eligibility, TOPS students enrolled in professional schools will receive the award amount which is normally conferred on an undergraduate student enrolled at a public institution, or will receive the state's weighted average tuition amount for a private school, depending on whether the professional school is public or private.
Rockefeller, TOPS Teacher
Recipients of the TOPS Teacher Award and the Rockefeller State Wildlife Scholarship Award will now be allowed to defer repaying their loans for the duration of their enrollment as a full-time student.
LASFAC amended rules governing the TOPS Teacher and Rockefeller awards to allow recipients an open-ended in-school deferment of the obligation to repay their loans, eliminating an earlier provision which limited the in-school deferment to 36 months. The change was needed for cases when recipients of these awards decide to change majors and/or degrees. When this change occurs, the recipient loses eligibility for the award and quickly enters into loan repayment status. Yet, since the student is still in school, it is unlikely they will be able to meet repayment provisions.
In the past, these recipients have been allowed to apply for a 36 month deferment of repayment while pursuing a full-time course of study at the baccalaureate level or higher. However, the student may not be able to complete the new course of study and enter the work force within the allotted 36 months. The commission action has eliminated this 36 month deferment cap and now allows for an unlimited in-school deferment, as long as the student's enrollment remains full time.
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Zero guarantee fee on loans to continue
LOSFA waives 1-percent insurance fee for Stafford loans through 2000-01
For academic year 2000-01, the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) will continue its policy of waiving the 1-percent insurance fee for student loans guaranteed by the state. The waiver is applicable to both subsidized and unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans which are guaranteed through LOSFA.
The "zero guarantee" was first enacted in May 1999, at which time it was estimated the action would save Louisiana students up to $2 million annually. At the close of the third quarter of State Fiscal Year (SFY) 1999-2000, the actual savings topped just over $1.6 million. Projections by LOSFA predict that by end of the current SFY, total savings will reach $2.1 million with an additional $2.5 million in projected savings for SFY 2000-01.
Gov. Mike Foster commended the fee elimination when it was first enacted, noting that it was yet another example of Louisiana=s dedication to providing an accessible and affordable postsecondary education to the youth of the state.
"Not every student will qualify for a scholarship, and most scholarships will not cover all qualified costs," he added. "This is our way of assisting those students who must supplement their education funding through loans."
"TOPS, our premier state scholarship, only covers the cost of tuition, which is usually less than half the cost of attending an institution of higher learning," LOSFA Executive Director Jack Guinn said. "Supplementing TOPS awards with affordable student loans is a necessity for many students. Our goal, through the many programs administered by our office, is to make a college education as affordable as possible for our students and their families.
"Preparation for the cost of attending college should begin at an early age," Guinn continued, "with the enrollment of children in the START Saving Program, Louisiana's tax-deferred college savings plan, and continue throughout middle and high school with the development of good study habits which will lead to the student's qualification for a TOPS scholarship award. Finally, if additional funding is needed, we want to be sure that student loans guaranteed by the state of Louisiana are the most affordable loans available to our students and their parents."
Thanks to the 1-percent fee waiver, students selecting a Louisiana guaranteed loan for academic year 2000-01 will now have more funds to expend toward qualifying higher education expenses.
For more information on the "zero guarantee," contact LOSFA's Public Information and Communications division at (800) 259-5626, Ext. 1012.
Waiver of TOPS core
expires with graduating class of 2000
The authority of the Louisiana Student Financial Assistance Commission (LASFAC) - the governing body for the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) which administers the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) - to waive TOPS core curriculum courses not offered by state public and private high schools will expire with the graduating class of 2000.
To qualify for TOPS, students graduating from Louisiana high schools must complete 16.5 units of specific college preparatory courses which are collectively referred to as the "core curriculum." The TOPS Statute (R.S. 17:3048.1) has authorized LASFAC to provide by rule for the waiver of a course in the core curriculum upon proper documentation by a high school principal or authorized designee that a student's failure to complete a core curriculum course "was due solely to the fact that the required course or courses were not available to the (TOPS) applicant at the school attended."
Under current law, LASFAC's authority to grant such waivers will expire with the high school graduating class of 2000. Beginning with the high school graduating class of 2001 and thereafter, students will not be eligible for TOPS if they fail to complete the core curriculum, or the authorized substitutes for the courses in the core curriculum, even though those courses are not available to the students at the schools they attend.
ED alters stance on FAFSA drug question 28
The Department of Education (ED) has announced that financial aid will not be blocked for 140,000 students who thus far have not answered drug-related question 28 on the 2000-01 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Instead of holding up an applicants' financial aid until the question has been answered, ED will send notices to these students, warning them that they must alert the department if they have been convicted of drug-related offenses, or risk federal penalties for lying on their aid forms. This policy will also be applied in the future whenever an applicant provides a blank response to question 28.
The department's solution to the problem was announced on the first day of ED's annual direct-loan conference, to the loud applause of college financial aid administrators in the audience. Colleges had been unable to calculate aid packages for the 140,000 students - almost 20 percent of the 2000-01 applicants so far - while waiting for ED to determine a response to the situation.
"The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and a few of the other higher education associations have been working quietly behind the scenes with department officials regarding the confusion that resulted from blank responses returned to ED on question 28 of the FAFSA," AASCU spokesman Ed Elmendorf said.
"We attempted to find a fix that would not slow, change or otherwise jeopardize the flow of aid to students who failed to answer question 28. We were invited to a briefing where department officials explained the fix, essentially accepting all the recommendations that we had asked them to consider," he said.
Revised federal drug laws prompted the inclusion of the drug-related question which states, "If you have never been convicted of any illegal drug offense, enter No. 1 in the box and go to question 29. A drug-related conviction does not necessarily make you ineligible for aid: call (800) 433-3243 or go to http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/ to find out how to fill out this question."
Question 28 may be answered with three possible responses: 1, 2 or 3. Only one answer is allowed. Students should not count juvenile convictions or convictions which have been removed from their records.
An answer of No. 1 means the student may be eligible to receive federal student financial aid for the 2000-01 award year. An answer of No. 2 means the student may become eligible for aid at some point during the 2000-01 award year - earlier, if the student completes an acceptable drug rehabilitation program. Failure to complete a drug rehabilitation program may impose a time penalty on the student's eligibility for federal aid. An answer of No. 3 means the student is not eligible to apply for federal aid for 2000-01, unless the student completes an acceptable drug rehabilitation.
Originally, ED policy mandated that students who leave the question blank would receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) comment notifying them of the oversight, along with a drug-related worksheet to be completed by the student and returned to the processor before financial aid would be awarded by the schools.
However, the change in policy allows for a non-response to question 28. As of March 6, students who leave question 28 blank will no longer receive a SAR flag; however both student and school will receive a comment which stresses to students that if they have a prior drug conviction, they must answer the question.
The comment generated when a student submits a blank response to FAFSA question 28 (comment #53) will be as follows: "You left Item 28 blank. IF YOU HAVE A DRUG CONVICTION, you MUST answer Item 28. Your failure to accurately answer this question could result in legal action against you by the U.S. Government. Use the enclosed worksheet to determine your answer to this question, then correct Part 2 of your SAR, sign and submit it. If you need help or have questions, call (800) 433-3243 or visit http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/q28 A drug conviction does not necessarily disqualify you from receiving student aid."
Also, students can now call the Student Aid Information Center and ask the operator to change their answers to question 28 from a blank response to a response of either 1, 2 or 3. Like other changes made over the phone, students will need to provide their Social Security Number, data release number (DRN) and date of birth to the operator before the change can be made.
Other options for changing an answer to question 28 include accessing the Corrections Section on the FAFSA Web site http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/q28 and working with the financial aid administrator to make changes through EDExpress.
Critics of the ED ruling have suggested the department's solution makes it easy for students with drug convictions to avoid losing financial aid, but ED spokesperson Kay Jacks believes most of the students who left the question blank did so unwittingly. She said the department's first priority is to make sure students who have not committed any crime, but have overlooked the question, get their aid on time and are also not impeded in getting additional state or institutional aid.
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