St. Charles Herald-Guide

Cash for college

By Shonna Riggs - February 14, 2007

With thousands of kids across Louisiana preparing for college, and federal money up for grabs, students in St. Charles Parish should apply for assistance now to avoid losing out on getting the help they need to pay for school expenses.

"By completing the application early and in advance of state and school deadlines, students and families have a better chance of securing free and cheap money for college," Gus Wales, public information officer for the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance in Baton Rouge, told the Herald-Guide.

The student's Free Application for Federal Student Aid form must be turned in no-later-than Jul. 1, 2007 to receive financial help when school starts in Aug. 2007.

"The FAFSA is a student's starting point for applying to almost all financial assistance programs. Students need to apply before our state's deadline to ensure they do not miss out on state grants - free money - to help pay for college," Wales says.

Wales says the form takes about six weeks to process and careless mistakes can halt the application and it would have to be resubmitted - extending it past the state's deadline.

"The most common mistakes students make when filling out the application is not answering the question ‘have you ever been convicted of a drug charge' and not putting in the correct Social Security number," Wales told the Herald-Guide.

Wales says students can qualify for grants, scholarships, work-study programs and student loans, but says loans should be considered a last resort option to pay for college.

"I advise students to get all the free money they can to pay for college because loans that are guaranteed by the state will have to be paid back in full with interest when the student graduates," Wales says.

Wales recommends the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students and the Student Tuition Assistance and Revenue Trust Program for parents who want to help fund their child's education.

"TOPS is a scholarship program for students who have maintained a certain grade point average and received a high test score on the college entrance exams either the SAT or ACT," Wales says.

TOPS pays 100 percent of the base tuition, but this does not include all of the fees and other expenses which are extra and vary depending on which college the student wants to attend.

"Many Louisiana families, particularly those with younger children who have not yet experienced 'sticker shock' from college fee bills, haven't considered how the future costs of educating their children will affect them financially," Wales continues.

Wales says parents should start saving for their children's college education on the day they are a born.

"The START Savings Program, is a college plan designed to help families contend with the growing costs of educating their children after high school and requires a $10 deposit to open the account," Wales says.

Wales suggests signing your child up for the savings account program on the day they are born because Louisiana will match up to 14% of deposits made into these accounts each year.

"Louisiana incorporates the benefits from financial aid, TOPS and START to create a financial package to bring some relief to parents and students who are burdened with college debt," Wales says.