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Alerting Schools to their Responsibilities and Potential Liabilities in Processing TOPS Awards

Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) Bulletin
March 26, 1999
Upon Receipt
DISTRIBUTION: Louisiana Colleges and Universities, Technical Colleges, Board of Regents, Department of Education, and Louisiana Officials
TOPIC: Alerting Schools to their Responsibilities and Potential Liabilities in Processing TOPS Awards

To assure that your Scholarship and Grant Policy and Procedure Manual remains current, please record this document on your TOPS Bulletin index and retain it with your manual.


A special meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Louisiana Student Financial Assistance Commission (LASFAC) was recently called to respond to questions raised by directors of financial aid regarding the eligibility of certain students appearing on the TOPS Master Roster to receive awards. To ensure that all institutions participating in the TOPS Program are alerted to those circumstances which could pose a potential liability to schools if awards are made to certain students appearing on the Master Roster, the draft minutes of that meeting are being provided as an attachment.

The minutes also describe the actions which have been taken to address the problems identified. The revisions in the Master Roster discussed in the minutes have been completed and are described in TOPS Bulletin T99-10, which was mailed to participating schools on March 23, 1999. As stated in that bulletin, the revised Master Roster will be placed into production on March 29 and be available for retrieval by schools on that date.






DATE:         March 8, 1999
TIME:        10:00 a.m.
PLACE:        Fourth Floor Conference Room, Wooddale Tower


        The Advisory meeting was called to order by Ms. Kathleen Sciacchetano, Chair, at 10:27 a.m. The following members of the Advisory Committee were present:

    Ms. Melanie Amrhein
    Mr. Wally Boudet
    Mr. John Cadenhead
    Ms. Anita Dabon
    Mr. Jack L. Guinn
    Ms. Kathy Sciacchetano

        The following members were absent:

                        Ms. Sherry Gladney
                        Ms. Connie Roubique
                        Ms. Ursula Shorty
                        Mr. Roger Vick

        Six members were present for a quorum. Mr. Ed Chase, Commission Member, was also present. The following members of staff were present:

                        Mr. Jack L. Guinn
                        Dr. John Bell
                        Ms. Christy S. Marchand
                        Mr. Mark Riley
                        Ms. Juanita Rougeau
                        Mr. Gus Wales

        The minutes of the January 7, 1999 joint Ad Hoc Marketing and Advisory Committee meeting were presented for approval. Mr. Boudet made a motion for approval, was seconded by Mr. Cadenhead, and the motion carried unanimously.

        There was no old business.

        The committee was asked to discuss and make recommendations to address the various problematic scenarios listed in the agenda. Mr. Guinn disseminated a memorandum which outlined solutions suggested by staff.

1. A.   A student listed as eligible for a TOPS Performance award on the Master Roster as a prior Louisiana Honors recipient had received the Louisiana Honors Scholarship for two                  years at NSU and had maintained the required grade point average and hours earned. This student had not enrolled at school for the 1998 semester. How and when would the                  TOPS Master Roster be updated to let me know that this student is not eligible? When would LOSFA have notified the student and informed her what to do in appeal?

        Staff’s Response: The current problem is that the Master Roster programming does not currently contain fields to reflect the "continuous, full time enrollment" requirement for a student. OSFA has initiated programming changes which will indicate the last term for which a student has received a TOPS award payment. This new field will allow the billing institution to identify whether the student had qualified and received payment for the last semester. If the student had not received payment for an award, the school should be alerted that it cannot bill unless the student can demonstrate that an exception to the continuous enrollment status has been granted by OSFA. The schools will still need to assist in this process. OSFA only maintains that limited data needed for a student’s qualification. Additional data concerning continuing qualification comes from the school which the student attends, and in many instances that school will have more current information than OSFA.

        Mr. Chase suggested that, once the programming is in place, a reasonable deadline for billing be established.  With a deadline in place, a student who had not been billed for by an

institution by a certain date would be flagged in the system as being ineligible.  Mr. Chase stressed the importance of both LOSFA and the institutions being administratively responsible.

In response to a concern voiced by Mr. Boudet that an absolute deadline could potentially damage a student, Mr. Guinn stated that LOSFA would not allow a student to be injured as a

result of a school’s failure to meet a deadline.  He explained that typically, when a deadline is established, the system will not flag students until a certain number of days past the deadline

to allow for some late entry, and after that point, manual intervention is still an option.  In response to an inquiry by Ms. Dabon, staff reported that hard copy master rosters are available

from the Scholarship/Grant division as well as a listing of Tech awards only.  It was noted that if an institution bills for an ineligible student, the institution would be paid but it could later be

an audit finding.   Ms. Sciacchetano asked if schools need to direct students who were billed for the spring semester but who did not enroll in the fall semester to file an appeal for

continuous enrollment.   Mr. Guinn stated that if they were 1998 graduates and the first time they enrolled was for the spring semester, the answer is no.  However, 1997 graduates who

failed to enroll for the fall semester or 1998 graduates who had attended an out-of-state institution must file an appeal request.  Mr. Chase added that another category of students are

those who previously attended another state institution such as Bossier Parish Community College, but did not receive their award.  The point was made that it has to be a close working

partnership to ensure that all students who are eligible at all institutions are being billed.  In response to a statement by Mr. Chase that program rules should be changed and the computer

program revised to capture this information, staff explained that there is certain information the agency does not capture; i.e., whether students transfer from one state institution to

another.  To clarify, if a student is a 1997 graduate but did not enroll for the fall semester and a school billed the Spring Semester for that student, the student would require a continuous

enrollment exception.   Mr. Riley stated that if a student can show that he was enrolled full-time, then he is eligible for the next semester.  It is up to the institution to identify the students

who were not continuously enrolled. Upcoming changes to the master roster will enable the schools to determine which students were previously billed.  Enhancements to the master roster,

including the first semester institutions can bill for as well as the last semester actually billed for, will be in place before the end of this semester.  Mr. Riley pointed out that some of these

issues will only occur in this first year of the program.

        Items B and C were addressed jointly.

1.    B        There are two transfer students at LSU-S for the spring semester who are listed as being eligible for a TOPS award. Both of these students enrolled as full-time students at                   out-of-state institutions for the fall ‘98 semester. The only way I could know this at the beginning of the semester is to physically go look at their admission records. How and                   when would these students ineligibility be determined by LOSFA and the Master Roster updated?

        Staff’s Response: In the case of a student who enters as a "first-time freshman" in an ineligible institution (usually an out-of-state school) and then subsequently transfers to an eligible institution, the eligible institution will have information that OSFA does not capture. OSFA does not have the resources to gather information concerning which school an eligible student actually enrolls in first. The eligible institution should be alerted by the fact that the student has transferred grades or other history of enrollment from an ineligible institution. In that case, the student has violated the "first-time freshman" rule and will not be eligible without a waiver from OSFA. Eligibility would be determined by OSFA after the student has filed an appeal under OSFA rules. High school graduates have one year from the date of graduation to enroll (students who join the military, peace corps, etc. have an extended period). For example, a 1998 graduate will have until the 1999 fall semester to enroll. During that time period, if the student enrolled in an ineligible institution, only the enrolling eligible institution will be able to detect the violation. After the grace period has expired, the student will be reflected on the Master Roster as ineligible.

1.     C       A 1997 high school graduate listed as eligible on the TOPS Master Roster had attended school out-of-state for 1997-98. It is my understanding that this does not make this                   student ineligible. However, she did not enroll anywhere for the fall semester. Therefore, she did not meet the deadline required for a 1997 high school graduate to enroll                    full-time and start receiving a TOPS award. How and when would LOSFA have determined this and updated the TOPS Master Roster?

        Staff’s Response: Because the initial year of TOPS dealt with dual classes that had different qualifying criteria, programming was not always able to solve these problems. OSFA has relied upon the institutions to identify these students from the information they have in the student’s file. This should not be a recurring problem.

                Mr. Chase reported that had he not checked the records for two May 1998 graduates who transferred to LSU-S for the spring semester, he would not have discovered that they

had been full-time students in the fall semester at an out-of-state institution, which made them ineligible for the program. He pointed out that if the program rule requiring students to be

first-time freshmen is changed, this will not be an issue. Ms. Sciacchetano asked if the programming change agreed upon for Item a would cover this problem. Mr. Guinn stated that the

Master File will indicate the first semester for which a student may be billed, but the school is the only entity that knows if the student is a transfer student. Dr. Bell suggested sending a

letter to 1998 graduate students stating they are ineligible unless they refile a FAFSA and certify they did not attend another institution or submit a copy of their transcript to the agency.

Mr. Chase stated he hopes the Commission will propose a legislative change to the program to no longer require students to be first-time entering freshmen, to preclude this

administrative nightmare. He added that the program as currently established is unmanageable and creates excessive audit exceptions for schools. With regard to the first-time freshman

requirement, Mr. Chase expressed his opinion that if that requirement is lifted, there would be a greater incentive for students who chose to go out-of-state to return. Ms. Sciacchetano

added that institutions are going to request administrative relief this first year in terms of audit findings. With regard to the problem of identifying transfer students, it was noted that

institutional admissions processes require incoming students to indicate whether they are transferring from another institution.  Ms. Sciacchetano questioned how institutions could adjust

their internal system in light of TOPS to be able to allow them to identify everything they needed to know about the student before they could bill LOSFA when schools are only now finding

out that they needed to know whether or not a transfer student was enrolled for the fall semester.  Schools are being forced to readjust and re-engineer their systems to capture the

required information to maintain compliance. Ms. Sciacchetano stated if a student has been truthful, the burden is on the institution to ensure the student has taken the steps necessary for

eligibility, and these involve manual intervention efforts.  Mr. Guinn concurred that from the point that a student is identified as a transfer student, it becomes a manual process for the

schools because there is no way for LOSFA to know he is a transfer student without being identified as such by the institution.  A discussion ensued on how to possibly address the

continuous enrollment issue systematically.  Mr. Chase reiterated his position that the law should be changed to state that participants do not have to be first-time freshmen but rather

must simply enroll by their deadline.  Mr. Guinn responded that this scenario would require the program to forego any grade point or academic requirement based on where they went to

school previously, which is contrary to previous programs such as Louisiana Honors.  Mr. Riley cited a scenario in which a student transfers from out-of-state with an extremely low grade

point average which would preclude him from achieving a sufficient GPA by the end of the fall semester to meet the continuation requirements.  Members of the committee concurred that

this is not fiscally responsible.  Mr. Guinn stressed the importance of knowing a transfer student’s grades and hours.  Ms. Sciacchetano stressed that, at a minimum, knowledge of

probation status would be necessary. It was suggested that students be flagged at the end of each semester and then be required to certify their eligibility before being reactivated. Ms.

Amrhein stated that the majority of transfer students will be from in-state institutions and will be easy to identify. It was noted that the Master Roster will identify these students because

the roster shows the last term billed.  Ms. Sciacchetano clarified that the group under discussion are the students who did not attend school or attended school out-of-state.  Ms. Rougeau

agreed that the system can be refined to identify and make ineligible the students who are not billed for after that first term, requiring them to then communicate with LOSFA.  In response

to an inquiry by Mr. Boudet, Ms. Sciacchetano stated that every school has a different process for anticipating whether students may be eligible for TOPS.  To clarify the solution, Mr.

Guinn stated that if an student has not enrolled by the fall semester by the billing deadline, the student is turned off.  The schools will then refer the students to LOSFA.  This process will

also cover students who are transferring from in-state schools that may have been billed late.  The students will be turned back on once eligibility is re-established.  After every semester,

those students that have not been billed will be turned off.  Mr. Riley pointed out that the one-time waiver for first-time freshmen only applies this year to 1997-98 graduates who went

out-of-state and returned.  Mr. Chase said it is his hope that if a student is listed as eligible on the master roster, he can bill for that student without concern for repercussion.   The

safeguard as agreed upon will ensure the reliability of the Master Roster.  In response to an inquiry by Ms. Dabon about how the process affects vocational-technical students, it was

reported that the process for vo-tech schools is completely manual at this time.  It was noted that the technical population in the program will likely increase.  In response to an inquiry by

Ms. Amrhein, it was noted that students who resign during a semester, after the fourteenth class day, are no longer eligible because they do not fulfill the continuous enrollment

requirement.  To regain eligibility, they would have to appeal and be granted a waiver.  There was discussion about the emergency rule on this issue.  Mr. Guinn reported that it was very

recently approved as an emergency rule.  Ms. Sciacchetano asked if the schools were notified of this rule change because LSU has billed for students who resigned in the fall semester but

attended in the spring semester.  In response to an inquiry by Mr. Boudet, a school that submitted spring billing prior to the effective date of the rule change would not be affected by the


1.       D     For the above scenarios, if the students’ admissions files had not been consulted and reliance was placed on the data on the TOPS Master Roster and on the student’s LSU-S                   admission’s computer record (which indicated the students are not on probation), I would have let these students receive their TOPS awards. I can only assume that this                   ineligibility for the 1999 spring semester would have been detected several years from now. Would LSU-S be expected to repay these awards to LOSFA at that time?

        Staff’s Response: To be discussed.

                Ms. Sciacchetano stated that the question whether schools will be expected to repay awards erroneously granted to ineligible students should be a general topic for all the issues.

Mr. Chase asked if this issue can be presented to the Commission. Mr. Guinn stated that, in his opinion, both the Commission and the institutions will be held accountable by the Office of

the Legislative Auditor. In response to an inquiry by Mr. Chase regarding the school’s responsibility if a school doesn’t manually check whether a student is eligible, staff stated that the

Legislative Auditor will likely consider both law and rule, and if a school has information that they are dealing with a transfer student, whether that information is housed in Admissions or

Financial Aid, the school will be held responsible. Mr. Chase stressed the importance of schools being fully aware of their fiscal responsibility and liability on the issue of transfer students.

                It was confirmed that the emergency rule regarding continuous enrollment was approved at the February 9, 1999, Commission meeting. After discussion, Ms. Amrhein made a

motion to recommend to the Commission that the definition of "continuous enrollment" as adopted on February 9 as emergency rule, become effective only for semesters beginning with

Fall 1999. Mr. Boudet seconded the motion and it carried unanimously.

1.      E      How the students who attended Louisiana Tech fall quarter ‘98 and another college for the spring ‘99 semester will be evaluated regarding the number of credit hours they must                   earn. Is it fair to expect them to earn 24 hours?

        Staff’s Response: OSFA recommends that the 24 hour rule for full time enrollment be applied consistently. A student that transfers from a quarter institution to a semester institution is aware of the requirement and can make decisions accordingly.

                Mr. Chase voiced his concern for students who transfer from Louisiana Tech, which is on a quarter system, to a semester institution. He felt it is unfair to require a student who

successfully completed one quarter, or a third of a year, at Tech, and a half a year at another state institution, to meet the 24 hour requirement. Mr. Guinn said that a transfer is a decision

on the part of the student and they should not be relieved of the 24 hour requirement. In response to an inquiry by Mr. Chase, Mr. Guinn stated the 24 hour requirement is in rule. Ms.

Sciacchetano concurred that a transfer is the decision of the student. In response to an inquiry by Mr. Chase regarding the rationale used for the Louisiana Honors and TAP Program, Mr.

Guinn stated that it was the inappropriate decision made by one person in the Scholarship/Grant Section at the time. Mr. Guinn stressed the importance of holding students to a regulatory

standard. It was noted that the award letter sent to all TOPS recipients speaks to the 24 hour requirement. Mr. Chase stated he would like the Advisory Committee to suggest that the

Commission consider some flexibility for students transferring from Tech until LOSFA can include information in the award letter to help the student understand the 24 hour requirement

pitfalls. Mr. Guinn pointed out that transfer students can enroll in the fall quarter and the spring semester and still achieve the required 24 hours. Ms. Amrhein cited another example of

how a student can misinterpret program rules, and agreed that students must be held responsible for understanding and meeting requirements. She added she feels there should be more

publicized information made available to the students, but she did not agree with relieving Tech transfer students from the program’s 24 hour requirement. Mr. Riley suggested

communicating directly with Tech to encourage them to ensure students are aware of the requirement if they choose to transfer. It was the consensus of the group that students should be

held to the 24 hour requirement.


2. Consider the development of a standard definition for TOPS "academic probation", which would only be used for purposes of the TOPS Program.

            A document outlining academic probation policies from various institutions was disseminated to members. Mr. Guinn explained that staff is considering adopting a standard

definition for "academic probation" that can be applied across the spectrum because it was brought to his attention that academic probation is different at each of the participating schools.

A student who may have his TOPS award suspended at one school may not be suspended at another school. Secondly, there is an issue relating to the cost of the program; i.e., if students

are permitted to continue, though they may not be on academic probation, when they are not capable of completing the required grade point average and hours by the end of the academic

year. Finally, the program would be easier to administer. It would, however, require that schools submit semester grade point averages and hours completed. The agency would then apply

the common definition of academic probation to all students, and those who were subsequently determined to be ineligible would be coded accordingly on the Master Roster. Mr. Guinn

proposed, for purposes of discussion, to consider it on the basis of the academic year only before discussing it on the basis of cumulative grade point average. He asked what the members

felt should be included in a general definition of "academic probation." Ms. Sciacchetano stated she would like to eliminate the use of the word "probation" and instead state "this is the

requirement for staying in the TOPS Program." Mr. Guinn explained that the law is rather specific and that the goal is to define academic probation for the purposes of TOPS, not to be

confused with individual school’s definition. Mr. Riley read the law aloud: "If at any time a student fails to maintain the cumulative grade point average required for continuation in the

program or is placed on academic probation by the college or university attended, such student shall become ineligible for further payments." Mr. Chase said that, probation is frequently

understood to be a period where students can continue to receive the award but are allowed a specified amount of time to get back up to a required grade point average. He stated the law

needs to be changed to eliminate that phrasing because it is inherently unfair and suggested a GPA requirement that looks at every semester. Mr. Guinn expressed his concurrence and

stated he feels the Legislature would likely support a change in wording. Mr. Riley suggested deleting the phrase altogether and instead, require a minimum semester GPA. In response to

a request for clarification by Ms. Amrhein, Mr. Guinn stated that staff proposes to take the burden from the institution on the issue of reporting who is on academic probation. With a clear

definition, academic probation can be imposed on students systematically.  This would require schools to report hours and grades at the end of both fall and spring semesters.  There was

discussion whether both grades and hours should be included in the definition and what grade point average is reasonable.  Ms. Sciacchetano stated there would be a big increase in

appeals if an hours requirement is adopted for the end of the fall semester.  There was also extensive discussion whether institutions can assume that students are incapable of achieving

program requirements based on one semester’s performance.  Several scenarios were considered and committee members agreed it was a sensitive issue.  In response to an inquiry by

Mr. Boudet, Mr. Guinn explained that there is legislative interest in this issue.  Ms. Sciacchetano cautioned against publicly announcing a low standard for the program.  She also stated

that different institutions have different definitions for academic probation for specific reasons.   Mr. Chase pointed out that the legislature may take action without input.  Mr. Boudet and

Ms. Dabon suggested leaving the language as-is.  In response to an inquiry by Mr. Boudet, Mr. Guinn stated that the Commission will listen to the Advisory Committee’s recommendation

on the issue, and that key legislators would probably also consider the Committee’s recommendation.   Mr. Chase suggested that, for the fall semester, students be required to either

achieve a 2.0 semester grade point average or achieve the required cumulative grade point average for their particular level of TOPS.  At the end of the spring semester, the student would

simply be measured by the required cumulative grade point average for that program.  After further discussion, Mr. Guinn suggested that the committee recommend changing the term

"academic probation as determined by the institution attended" to "mid-year continuation as determined by the administering agency," which would enable staff and members of the

Advisory Committee to clearly define the requirements and make a recommendation to the Commission.   Committee members agreed they were not ready to make a specific

recommendation as to the mid-year grade point average requirement because all financial aid offices as well as academic staff should have input into the issue.  Members also agreed it

was advisable to try to take steps to avoid amendment to statute.  Accordingly, Ms. Amrhein made a motion to recommend that the administrating agency be authorized to amend

17:3048.1(a)(4) to delete the language "or as placed on academic probation by the college or university attended" and that the statute be further amended to authorize the administering

agency to create rules governing mid-year continuation. Mr. Cadenhead seconded the motion and it carried unanimously.


3. Review and make recommendations regarding overawards which occur when TOPS awards are made subsequent to the disbursement of loan proceeds by the school.

            Ms. Sciacchetano reported she wanted to raise this issue because of situations in which students are in overaward situations because students received all their loan funds as well

as the TOPS funding, putting them over the cost of attendance.  She asked if the Title IV regulations interpretation for overawards can be applied to the TOPS Program to avoid making

students pay back monies they have already used.  There was discussion whether students could use TOPS funds to repay student loan debt.  Mr. Guinn stressed that it is not the intention

of the Commission to encourage students to assume loan debt rather than accept their TOPS award.  The group noted that this will only be a problem this first year.  After discussion, it

was agreed that students in this situation should be given the opportunity to either authorize the amount of the overaward to be applied against his student loan debt or return the award

funds to LOSFA and that students who have received funds over the cost of attendance will have to repay the overaward amount.

            Ms. Sciacchetano asked if there is any flexibility in the order of reduction of funds when a student is in an overaward situation.  The order of reduction as specified in regulation

speaks to loans first and then institutional aid.  Mr. Guinn responded that a institution is free to make a reduction in some other award as long as the cost of attendance is not exceeded.

            After brief discussion regarding the 24 hour requirement, it was agreed that it would be problematic to allow students to utilize the summer semester as well as spring and fall in

achieving those hours.

            In response to an inquiry by Ms. Amrhein, Dr. Bell stated that the cumulative grade point average for 1997 graduates who attended school in academic year 1997-98 prior to being

awarded TOPS will not be reviewed until after they earned 48 hours.


There being no further business, Ms. Dabon made a motion to adjourn at 2:01 p.m. Mr. Boudet seconded the motion and it carried unanimously.


Kathleen Sciacchetano, Chair