With 2017-18 TOPS awards uncertain, what should you do?

Ashley Rodrigue talks to college students who are confused about how much financial aid to ask for because of the TOPS program being in limbo.

HAMMOND, La. --  So far, Lauren Chaisson's first semester at Southeastern Louisiana University, chasing her dream to become a social worker, has her high on life.

Knowing she has to come up with $1,000 next semester, due to the cut in the TOPS award, and not knowing at all what kind of TOPS shortfall to expect for the 2017-2018 school year, kills that buzz quickly.

"Money is so stressful," said Chaisson, "That's the biggest stress in college is money.  It should be classes, but it's not."

Next year's money is a topic of conversation already because FAFSA, the free application for federal student aid, a financial aid program that provides grants and loans to college students, has opened its registration three months early.  In the past, sign-ups opened January 1 of any given school year, but it required tax forms from the year that just ended, leaving students having to wait to apply until tax documents were available.  As of October 1, students are welcome to register for 2017-2018 financial aid using 2015 tax documents.

Financial aid advisors say it's a benefit because the earlier students sign up, the more money they could be eligible for.  Plus, counselors say getting on the books early allows students more time to provide missing paperwork.  Registering early also means getting an answer early, so students would know whether they needed to apply for additional outside scholarships.

Because the TOPS question may not be answered until the end of the 2017 legislative session, two months before 2017-2018 classes start, students like SLU Sophomore Ryan McCutcheon don't even know how much they should register for.

"We don't really know anything about what they're going to give us or not," he said, "We know that it's cut through next semester, but beyond that, we're pretty much in the dark."

Financial aid counselors advise students and families to sign up early, and for everything that you can, then later, whenever the TOPS question is answered, take only what you need.

"By completing the FAFSA, it makes them eligible, or at least in the selection to see if they're eligible, for Pell grants, which is free money that they don't have to pay back to the government. It also makes them eligible for subsidized, or unsubsidized loans, which the students can accept or decline at pretty much any time leading up to the beginning of school," said SLU Director of Financial Aid Charles Cambre.

The early start is a relief to many, but Louisiana students, and their families, continue to hope for a early TOPS answer to follow suit.

Advisors say not to let the potential lengthy process of the form discourage you from filling it out.  The process can be as quick as 30 minutes if all necessary documentation is in hand.  Also, high school seniors can sign up for FAFSA without having chosen a college yet, as it has space to add 10 different possible schools.


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