By Christina Sibaouih, MAISD, and Jamie Covell, MSW, of Iowa College Aid
The mission to provide student-level Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion data to Iowa high schools began with a pilot in one region of the state – a partnership between our agency, Iowa College Aid, and AEA PREP (Area Education Agencies’ Postsecondary Readiness and Equity Partnership). We soon realized statewide expansion was possible, though we knew we were in for a bit of a long ride.
In the end, our persistence paid off, despite the various obstacles along the road. Thirteen months later, we have officially expanded to 100 percent participation – all public high schools in Iowa are now receiving student-level FAFSA data.
The overall process is relatively simple:
- Through use of our Student Aid Internet Gateway (SAIG) agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, Iowa College Aid receives Institutional Student Information Records (ISIRs) for those submitting a FAFSA in Iowa.
- Our agency also has an agreement with the Iowa Department of Education to receive a senior enrollment file, telling us all of the high school seniors enrolled in the state.
- Our research team compares these two lists to determine which students haven’t completed or haven’t filed a FAFSA.
- We upload this list to our Google system, run a script to produce each school’s report, and send an automated email to each AEA PREP lead when the reports are ready to distribute.
- Then, each AEA PREP lead distributes automated emails that contain the report to the schools within their region.
The logistical steps involved in setting up this process, however, were much more complex than we expected.
Systems were the first barrier. Our agency had been using a system that involved schools logging in to a portal, uploading their own student list, and creating a report. Our No. 1 priority was to streamline, simplify, and automate this process to make it easier for school counselors to get the information they needed without having to do extra work.
As part of the old system, each individual school was required to sign a data-sharing agreement with Iowa College Aid to be able to receive the student-level data provided by the report. As we knew this was a logistical deterrent for some schools to sign up, we began to look into what existing data-sharing infrastructure could be leveraged to avoid schools signing multiple agreements.
After a few months of working with our legal team and the U.S. Department of Education, we were able to determine that student-level data-sharing agreements with our agency only needed to be signed by our regional AEA’s, who, in turn, have data-sharing agreements with each of the schools in their region. This narrowed the number of agreements from 343 to 9 AEA-level agreements.
Nevertheless, we continue to have the responsibility to inform schools about what type of data they are receiving, what their responsibilities are with these data, and how to utilize the data. From our data-sharing agreement, we pulled the most important and relevant information for those accessing these data to know and developed a video to include in an online authorization form that school users would be required to electronically sign in order to receive their report. We placed the responsibility on each AEA to identify a school-level “local access manager,” the person assigned at each school to receive the report, usually a school counselor.
As of Jan. 25, all public high schools in Iowa have completed their authorization form and are now automatically receiving their weekly FAFSA report. The reports are sent once a week and stored in a Google folder, where the local access manager is able to access all past reports. The report lets each local access manager know which students are considered “Not Complete” – meaning they are missing something to complete their FAFSA, such as a signature – and “Not Filed” – meaning they have not submitted a FAFSA. School counselors are then able to notify students of what’s missing from their FAFSA or check-in with them about starting a FAFSA. We also provide a spreadsheet that shows more detail for each student, including whether they were selected for verification or not.
As exciting as it is to get these data to all of our 343 public high schools, there is more work to be done! We are now working to train all of our local access managers on how to best utilize these data. This student-level report has started a statewide conversation around FAFSA completion, and we hope to see an increase in Iowa’s FAFSA completion rate in the years to come, now that school counselors are better equipped to assist their students!