Takeaway: In an effort to boost FAFSA completion rates across the country, NCAN selected 25 U.S. cities to receive a grant of up to $40,000 each for the 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge.

By Sara Melnick, Deputy Director, National College Access Network

The National College Access Network announced the winners of the 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge last week at the 2019 NCAN National Conference Indianapolis. Out of the more than two dozen U.S. cities that participated in the Challenge, five received awards for their outstanding efforts.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) effectively serves as the gateway to higher education for millions of students each academic year. But the complex and extensive nature of the FAFSA deters some students from applying for the financial aid for which they would otherwise qualify.

In an effort to boost FAFSA completion rates across the country, NCAN selected 25 U.S. cities to receive a grant of up to $40,000 each for the 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge. This work was led by a mix of school districts, postsecondary institutions, community-based organizations, and foundations.

NCAN challenged each of the grant recipients 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 focused on cities with baseline FAFSA completion rates below the national average.

This project was generously funded by The Kresge Foundation and Ascendium Education Group.

Grand Prize – Mesa Public Schools (Mesa, AZ)

The grand prize winner of the 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge is Arizona’s Mesa Public Schools.

Mesa implemented several creative strategies to help more of its students file the FAFSA. The district used student-level completion data to strategically target non-completers and invite them to smaller, more intimate FAFSA completion events and one-on-one sessions. Mesa also implemented a campaign to clarify and disseminate information about FAFSA completion, spreading the word though social and traditional media, a website, flyers, and the school’s messaging system.

But a major key to the district’s success was its use of peer coaches. These coaches were recruited by school staff to spread the word among their peers about FASFA completion, its importance, and where to get help with the financial aid application process. The coaches received extensive training and used data to target their peers who had not completed the FAFSA. They supported FAFSA completion events at their high schools, led information sessions at lunch, and used social media to get the word out.

As the grand prize winner, Mesa Public Schools received $100,000 to continue its FAFSA completion efforts.

First Runner-up – Denton Independent School District (Denton, TX)

Denton ISD also took a multi-pronged approach to its FAFSA completion work. Strong support from the district superintendent helped generate more buy-in for the work. And the district’s director of counseling was the point person for all FAFSA-related activities, making it easier to coordinate efforts throughout the schools. Denton provided each school a small sub-grant to spend on activities to boost FAFSA completion. These funds were often used for student incentives and prizes.

Another key to Denton’s success was to use grant dollars to hire a FAFSA expert to complement the work of the school counselors. This FAFSA expert had the knowledge and, more importantly, the time to address complex FAFSA situations and work one-on-one with students and families in a non-threatening environment. The school district deemed the work of the FAFSA expert so important that it will to continue to pay their salary for another school year.

As the first runner-up, Denton ISD received $25,000 to continue its FAFSA completion work.

Award for Excellence in Overcoming Barriers and Perseverance – Rochester Education Foundation (Rochester, NY)

Rochester was one of the only sites that did not have access to student-level FASFA completion data, despite the district’s best efforts to obtain these data from the state. On top of that, two partners that would have expanded the Rochester Education Foundation’s ability to help hard-to-reach students with FAFSA completion were unable to participate in the project.

But with these lemons, the Rochester Education Foundation (REF) made lemonade. Here are just a few ways the site demonstrated perseverance in the face of significant obstacles:

  • Rochester built a cadre of counselors who became personally invested in this work.
  • REF implemented many more school-based FAFSA completion events than originally planned (15), in addition to six community-based events.
  • REF capitalized on the strong existing relationships with institutions of higher education and added new partners during the year. These higher ed partners provided in-school advising and trained volunteers; one institution even provided on-the-spot admissions decisions.

In the end, REF estimates that 47% of all FAFSA completions in Rochester happened at one of its events.

As the recipient of the Overcome Barriers and Perseverance award, Rochester Education Foundation received $10,000 to support future FAFSA completion work.

Award for Excellence in Community-Based Leadership – Citizens for Educational Excellence (Corpus Christi, TX)

Citizens for Educational Excellence (CEE) is a local intermediary organization that is also the hub of several collaborative efforts in the area that focus on equity in postsecondary access, and workforce development.

One of CEE’s major accomplishments during the Challenge was facilitating deeper relationships between local postsecondary institutions and the school district, as well as formalizing CEE’s partnership with the school district. CEE had provided support to the schools around FAFSA completion in the past, but this grant facilitated deeper involvement with counselors, who came to appreciate that CCE was there to support them (and not to create extra work).

Other activities implemented as part of this project included monthly competitions and awards for schools with the highest completion rates in the district; using traditional and social media to disseminate information about the FAFSA to the entire community; awarding graduation cords to students who completed the FAFSA; and engaging high school students to disseminate information about the FAFSA to their peers.

As the winner of the Community-Based Leadership award, CEE received $10,000 to continue its FAFSA completion efforts.

Award for Excellence in Training and Professional Development – Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority (West Valley City, UT)

The Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority (UHEAA) is a state agency that has access to student-level FAFSA completion information and already does a great deal of outreach on FAFSA completion statewide. The challenge UHEAA faces throughout the state is that a fair number of high school seniors do not historically go right on to a postsecondary institution after graduation.

UHEAA used a variety of strategies to increase FAFSA completion rates, including outreach to students through social media and texting, engaging near-peers through the statewide advising corps, and providing student-level data to counselors and advising corps members so they could target non-completers through small group and one-on-one assistance. The organization enjoyed a strong partnership with local postsecondary institutions and the school district, and UHEAA provided all partners with regular communication that included project updates and progress, as well as information on relevant partner resources.

UHEAA also used its robust toolbox of training resources (videos, webinars, etc.) to train counselors and college access professionals on why and how to complete the FAFSA. The organization provided training to administrators, counselors, and teachers throughout the grant period. Counselors and college access personnel were trained to assist students through most straightforward FAFSA completion scenarios, but they also had access to help when they encountered more challenging situations.

As the recipient of the Training and Professional Development award, UHEAA received $10,000 to support future FAFSA completion work.

All five award-winning FAFSA Completion Challenge sites were actively engaged in the project and with NCAN throughout the grant year. They presented on their experiences during webinars, were active participants in the webinars when they weren’t presenting, agreed to be interviewed by evaluators and to share their stories for blog posts, and were always willing to offer insights and their challenges when asked.

The sites’ willingness to share best practices helped grow the power of the Challenge grants by spreading solutions to other cities around the country.

Read more about the Challenge on the Kresge Foundation website.

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