Takeaway: Some schools are tapping students to provide encouragement or assistance to help their peers complete the FAFSA.

By ASA Research

Last year, the National College Access Network selected 25 U.S. cities to participate in the 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge. Through this project, generously funded by The Kresge Foundation and Ascendium Education Group, NCAN challenges each of the grant recipient cities to increase their FAFSA completion rates by at least 5 percentage points for the graduating high school class of 2019. In an effort to address equity gaps, this challenge specifically focuses on cities with current FAFSA completion rates below the national average.

ASA Research, the 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge project evaluator, is monitoring the 25 sites’ activities and results throughout the grant and highlighting strategies of interest.

Through focus groups and interviews, we have heard much interest and excitement around peer strategies, whereby students provide encouragement or assistance to help other students complete the FAFSA. In some cases, peers are competing within or between schools and are offered financial incentives or rewards.

This blog post profiles various peer strategies employed by sites to provide information about how to implement peer strategies locally.

The Power of Peers

Several grantee sites credit peers as having a positive influence on FAFSA completion rates. For example:

  • Michael Garcia, director of opportunity and achievement at Mesa Public Schools (the site lead for Mesa, AZ) shared that he believes this strategy has been effective because students appreciate hearing about the FAFSA from their peers, who can “communicate with them on the same level.”  He believes Mesa’s peer coaches are not only motivated by monetary rewards but also by “doing good and providing an important service” to help members of the community access college.
  • Sarah Piwinski, director of data management and analysis, Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, the Charleston, SC lead, shared that it is encouraging for students to hear from their peers who completed the FAFSA, some of whom already have financial aid offers – this demonstrates to students not only the process but also the results.

Some examples of peer engagement models follow.


Recruiting student ambassadors to motivate other students to complete the FAFSA seems to be the most common peer model among grantee sites. Some examples include:

  • Fort Wayne: Counselors nominated five FAFSA ambassadors from each school. These students are typically seniors who are actively involved in student groups and hold leadership positions. Ambassadors motivate their peers to complete the FAFSA and are incentivized through both between and within-school competitions and rewards such as gift cards.
  • San Diego: Schools are working with their associated student boards to lead a completion competition between schools of the same size. Each of their 18 schools has five student ambassadors who talk to students at lunch and encourage them to complete the FAFSA.
  • Baltimore: Counselors selected one student in each school to serve as a FAFSA ambassador. These students make classroom presentations to help spread the word about FAFSA completion.

Paid Peer Coaches

Mesa has 24 peer coaches (four at each school) who receive a stipend and scholarship incentive for encouraging and helping peers to take specific steps to complete the FAFSA. Mesa modeled its strategy in part after Phoenix’s peer model. (Phoenix was a 2016-17 FAFSA Completion Challenge grantee.) Additional details follow:

  • Selection and training: Counseling teams identified students – typically, seniors planning to attend college who are “influencers” in their peer groups and/or strong communicators, savvy with social media and, preferably, multilingual. Nominees submitted brief YouTube video applications, and those selected attend events and monthly trainings throughout the year.
  • Role: Peer coaches help students create FSA IDs, but do not handle any financially sensitive information. In cases where a peer coach cannot answer a question or encounters a difficult situation, the student/family is referred to the site partners, including the local college access network.
  • Rewards: In addition to a stipend, the site awards $25 gift card incentives to peer coaches who reach specific milestones (see below):

Mesa’s 5 Milestones for Peer Coach Incentives

1. Make contact/collect data on whether students are going to college.
2. Help students prepare to complete college applications.
3. Get students an FSA ID, confirm that they or their parents created the ID. (This is the first payment milestone for which coaches are rewarded $25 for every 15 students. One student has already received $400 for this milestone.)
4. Confirm submission of FAFSA.
5. Confirm completion. (This is the second payment milestone.)

  • Success: Mesa’s peer coaches are excited to be involved and take the initiative to brainstorm creative strategies such as classroom presentations. One student convinced an entire social studies department to incorporate FAFSA presentations in their classes. Garcia reports that six or seven coaches are “extremely active,” and he has observed a correlation between their level of activity and school results.

Near-Peer Strategies

In addition to peer strategies, some sites are employing near-peers (college students), for example:

  • San Diego hired eight college students as paid interns who give presentations and assist students with FAFSA completion in English and social studies classes.
  • At West Valley City, the Utah College Advising Corps provides two part-time college student employees who offer assistance at large events and in small group settings. They are provided with in-depth training about the FAFSA, college access, and various resources.

Emerging Strategies

In addition to ambassador strategies listed above, Vancouver has had success with two student ambassadors in one school, and is currently considering incentives to draw more participation. Other sites’ peer strategies include in-class assistance in Charleston, student club competitions in Corpus Christi, a Street Team in Baltimore, and poster contests in Baltimore and West Valley City.  Some of these strategies are still in development but offer innovative approaches that we will be following as we track sites’ results throughout the grant.

For more information about the 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge, please contact melnicks@collegeaccess.org.

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