Takeaway: Louisiana implemented a rule requiring 2018 high school seniors to complete one of four tasks in order to graduate: submit a FAFSA, complete the state aid application, submit an opt-out form, or request a waiver from their school system. Result? The state's FAFSA completions increased 26 percent.

In the 2016-17 school year, the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) was one of 22 organizations selected by NCAN as a grantee for the FAFSA Completion Challenge, which was sponsored by the Kresge Foundation. This grant work laid the foundation for how LOSFA would strategize to increase FAFSA completion in Louisiana in 2017-18.

Prior to this, the Louisiana Department of Education implemented a new financial aid access policy that would require students, beginning with the 2018 high school senior class, to complete one of four tasks in order to graduate: submit a FAFSA, complete the state aid application, submit an opt-out form, or request a waiver from their school system. This new policy, along with several other strategies, would lead to Louisiana’s 25.9 percent year-over-year increase in FAFSA completion.

In a recent webinar hosted by NCAN, Dr. Sujuan Boutte, executive director of LOSFA, describes her organization’s three keys to FAFSA completion success: collaborative efforts, providing wraparound services, and developing a strategy to engage students and parents. In any collaboration, it’s important for partners to build off of each other’s individual strengths and to share a common collaborative goal, which was to minimize students’ loan debt and maximize their gift aid awards. Next, you want to provide support services that help familiarize students with college, the college application process, college options, etc. Lastly, it is important to determine the best setting and method on how you will engage parents and students, whether one-on-one or in a large group, with a hands-off or hands-on approach.

To increase FAFSA completion among Louisiana students, here are six steps LOSFA took:

  • Used a one-on-one approach. One of LOSFA’s strategies for increasing FAFSA completion was to work with students and parents separately on completing their respective portions of the application. LOSFA worked with the students during the school day to complete the student portion of the FAFSA and would invite parents to the school during the evening hours to complete the parent portion of the FAFSA.
  • Developed a peer-to-peer financial aid education program. LOSFA started a FAFSA Ambassadors program where current college students who were former program participants help high school seniors fill out their FAFSA. The FAFSA Ambassadors serve a great purpose, as they are influential, relatable, and have personal experience to share to help demystify the financial aid application process, making it less intimidating.
  • Created a FAFSA competition. The office of Federal Student Aid offers data on FAFSA completion at the state, high school, and district levels. With that information, LOSFA made its own website portal – Compete to Complete – where administrators, teachers, and others could see their state, district, and high school ranks, in terms of how many students had filled out the FAFSA. Louisiana school administrators checked this site often and got excited about their progress, creating friendly competition! LOSFA considers week-to-week and month-to-month percent increases and awards schools based on their progress. This levels the playing field and balances out schools that may have had a stronger start to FAFSA completion or serve a large senior class size. The effect is to give all schools something to play for. For NCAN members who may not have the resources to create their own database and website, you can use NCAN’s #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker. This tracker monitors FAFSA completion at the high school, city, and state levels.
  • Offered meaningful incentives. If you’re going to have prizes as incentives to motivate students to complete their FAFSA, you should know what students value and need, said Boutte. For LOSFA, students valued supply graduation vouchers – vouchers that could be used toward purchasing items such as a cap and gown – concession stand food vouchers, certificates to restaurants, and pizza parties.
  • Used various modes of communication. College access providers should communicate with students in different ways to remind them about FAFSA-related events. One method LOSFA used was one-calls, which are automated phone messages that typically came from a high school principal, to remind parents about events. These messages included details about the materials parents needed to bring to a FAFSA completion workshop. In addition to one-calls, LOSFA also used PSAs, videos, Signal Vine text messaging, and social media to get the word out.
  • Provided easily accessible resources. As an additional way to assist teachers, school administrators, counselors, and college access providers, the Louisiana Department of Education developed a financial aid webpage. This webpage contains resources, such as the financial aid library, which includes a financial aid lesson plan, financial aid events calendar, verification resources, and much more. This webpage also served as a guide to provide teachers and school administrators with the knowledge and ability to ensure students were able to complete the new graduation requirement. For additional support, LOSFA’s field outreach services had staff readily available to facilitate FAFSA presentations and workshops to students in the classroom, answer FAFSA-related questions, and explain the importance of filling out the FAFSA.

We know that completing a FAFSA is a means to having access to college. LOSFA shows us that when you have dedicated individuals working around a common goal, anything is possible. We look forward to continuing to learn from the FAFSA-completion work that LOSFA is doing and sharing best practices.

(Image via http://competetocompletela.org/)

Oct. 18, 2018: This piece has been updated to include the correct creator of the financial aid webpage for Louisiana teachers, school administrators, and others.

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