Takeaway: Rene Diaz and Alma Vargas of GEAR UP Chicago highlight experience-based tips and strategies on how best to involve parents in the FAFSA completion process.

By Lindsay Broderick, NCAN Staff Writer

A common question in the college access field is how to effectively engage parents and family members. Many parents of students served by NCAN members do not have a postsecondary degree or credential and are therefore unfamiliar with the steps of the college and financial aid application processes.

NCAN hosted a webinar in which presenters Rene Diaz and Alma Vargas of GEAR UP Chicago highlighted experience-based tips and strategies on how best to involve parents in their children’s postsecondary pursuit, specifically in the FAFSA completion process. NCAN members can view the archived webinar recording.

The presenters began by discussing general parent outreach strategies that can be used during different stages of the college access process. Díaz said the key is to “be where parents are,” which can take a variety of forms.

  • Be present and visible at open houses, parent-teacher conferences, school day drop-off/pick-up, sporting events, and plays. Set up a table and put information about the college application process and FAFSA completion directly in parents’ hands.
  • Get to know school-based parent councils or committees. These parents are leaders in the school community, have relationships with other parents you are trying to reach, and can help disseminate your message and materials.
  • Work with community-based organizations. Families may already have a relationship with organizations such as places of worship, social service organizations, and public libraries. These organizations are often closer to the community and have deep cultural understanding and insight. Holding events at these locations may be less intimidating and more convenient.
  • Make phone calls. Diaz cautions against the use of robocalls. She favors personalized calls made by an actual person who can tailor a conversation with specific information.

The next segment of the webinar described ways college access practitioners can build relationships with families. The overarching theme of this segment was to be inviting, relatable, and friendly.

  • Smile, and appreciate parents. Thank them for taking the time to attend an event. Help parents who are nervous feel comfortable and welcomed.
  • Acknowledge parents’ expertise and experience. Although not all parents understand the college application and financial aid processes, they do have experiences and knowledge to share. Find a way to identify, recognize, and value their input.
  • Communicate constantly. Keep parents informed via text, emails, and/or phone calls, depending on the preferred method of communication. This shows parents they have support and will help them keep their child on track.
  • Understand your community. Translate printed information into the language(s) spoken by local parents. Schedule events during the evening and on the weekends. Provide transportation or vouchers. Offer child care and food.
  • Schedule one-on-one meetings. This allows parents to voice concerns and ask questions in a safe environment. Also schedule meetings where both the parent(s) and student will be present to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  • Maintain confidentiality. This will help engender trust and strengthen relationships.

The presenters also discussed the elements they include in every college access workshop they host for parents and families.

  • Fun. Start each event with icebreakers to create a friendly, welcoming, and open environment.
  • Participation. Create an environment where parents feel comfortable participating. Try breaking parents into smaller groups based on the profiles of their child – this will encourage conversation and allow the facilitator to target the presentation to the needs of the audience.
  • Clear takeaways. Strive to make sure that every parent takes away something of value.
  • Relationship building. If parents like you, then they’re more likely to come back!

During the last segment of the webinar, Diaz and Vargas spoke more specifically about engaging parents and families in financial aid and FAFSA completion activities. Here are 11 keys to cultivating parental involvement.

  • Build capacity. Make sure anyone who presents information on FAFSA completion has adequate training and is knowledgeable about the topic.
  • Start early. Begin holding financial aid events in middle school if possible. The sooner parents are introduced to the significance of financial aid to their child’s postsecondary success, the more they can learn.
  • Coordinate with school personnel. Make sure they understand the importance of FAFSA completion and support/echo these efforts.
  • Make the FAFSA completion campaign visible. This can be done through bulletin boards, college banners, etc.
  • Conduct information sessions first. Then move to events where you’re actually facilitating FAFSA completion.
  • Introduce financial aid terminology. This should include terms such as cost of attendance, scholarships, loans, work study, tuition and fees, etc.
  • Conduct multiple sessions. Host events at a variety of times so all parents are informed about what documents are needed to complete the FAFSA, have created an FSA ID, understand FAFSA eligibility, and are familiar with award letters.
  • Conduct one-on-one meetings. Once parents understand the financial aid process, schedule one-on-one meetings so they can ask questions confidentially, get assistance completing the FAFSA, and receive advice on reviewing and assessing financial aid award letters, and determining whether financial aid package is sufficient.
  • Use online tools. One example is the FAFSA4caster from FSA.
  • Address key topics. Make sure parents understand:
    • A postsecondary education is a long-term investment with many positive impacts on the individual student, his/her family, and the community.
    • How to prepare to financially support their student throughout his/her postsecondary career.
    • The importance of completing the FAFSA and the relationship between FAFSA completion and postsecondary enrollment.
  • Have parents and students work together. This will help equip students to complete the FAFSA on their own during the following year(s).

Parents are an integral part of a child’s life, and having them on board and educated about the financial aid application processes will make it significantly easier. We encourage you to try some of these strategies to increase engagement with the parents in your community.

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