Takeaway: As part of a collective effort focused on FAFSA, Michigan's governor challenged every high school in the state to increase their FAFSA completion rates from the year before, aiming for a 75% completion rate in 2020.

By Jamie Jacobs, Deputy Director, Michigan College Access Network

For the past five years, Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) has organized the “College Cash Campaign,” which is designed to increase FAFSA completions among high school seniors. The campaign is a part of a larger strategy called College Bound Michigan (CBMI), which also includes Michigan College Month and College Decision Day. Together, these three efforts facilitate college application completion, FAFSA completion, and final college selection.

In 2019-20, more than 400 high schools participated in CBMI, which was the highest since we launched these efforts with College Application Week back in 2011. College Cash Campaign runs annually from Nov. 1 to March 1. March 1 is Michigan’s FAFSA deadline.

To participate in the College Cash Campaign schools agreed to the following:

  • Setting a bold FAFSA completion goal.
  • Selecting a FAFSA champion.
  • Systematically tracking student-level FAFSA completion data.

Governor’s FAFSA Challenge

In December 2019, the College Cash Campaign received a major boost from Michigan’s Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. When she had learned that $100 million in federal Pell Grants went unclaimed by Michigan high school graduates, she sought to put more free money in the hands of students in the spirit of making college more affordable. Thus, the Governor’s FAFSA Challenge was launched! That challenge was to every high school in Michigan to increase their FAFSA completion rates from the year before, aiming for a 75% completion rate in 2020.

The FAFSA completion rate in Michigan for the 2018-19 year was 56%. The governor teamed up with the lieutenant governor to record a FAFSA challenge video that was viewed more than 1,700 times via MCAN’s Facebook page. Because of the Governor’s interest, MCAN was able to partner with multiple organizations to show a collective effort: Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Department of Treasury, Student Scholarships and Grants, Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling and the Detroit Regional Chamber. Leveraging these connections raised the visibility of the College Cash Campaign.

We also established several milestone goals along the way:

  • High schools achieving at least a 65% completion rate received a framed tribute from the governor.
  • High schools achieving at least a 75% completion rate would receive an award presented at a future school board meeting.

Part of the Governor’s FAFSA Challenge included that three top high schools would be named and would receive a $10,000 cash prize. Ten regional winners would also be selected from across Michigan and would be eligible for a visit to the Capitol and a photo opportunity with Gov. Whitmer.

In early April, MCAN announced the 13 winners of the challenge. Thirty-six high participating schools were recognized as having at least a 75% FAFSA completion rate as of March 1, 2020.

Data Access, Tracking, and Sharing

Another major accomplishment was the establishment of a data-sharing partnership with the Michigan Department of Treasury’s Student Scholarships and Grants division, which allowed MCAN to publicly display aggregate FAFSA completion data by high school. These data empowered high schools to have a new level of specificity in their data available at the lift of a finger and encouraged many more schools to process the necessary paperwork to access student-level data to target their interventions and support.

Response During a Pandemic

Once the pandemic forced the closure of K-12 in Michigan, we quickly pivoted to ensure FAFSA completion rates could remain a priority. This pivoting include the following new efforts:

  • Virtual College Advising. MCAN’s 56 college advisers immediately moved their postsecondary attainment work to a virtual setting and were laser-focused on FAFSA completion rates. They communicated with their students via text, email, social media, and virtual video calls.
  • College Advising Hotline. In early May, MCAN launched a free, statewide college advising hotline for all students in grades 9-12. In promoting the hotline, we made sure to communicate that help with the FAFSA was available on the hotline. We believe this was the first of its kind in the country.
  • Paid Advertisements in Social Media. In an effort to keep FAFSA completion rates going up, MCAN invested in several paid advertisements on Facebook and Instagram. These advertisements promoted the FAFSA, the Department of Treasury- SSG Call Center, and the hotline.

As of June 3, Michigan’s FAFSA completion rate is 51.1%, slightly above the FAFSA completion rate at this same time last year.

We still have much work to do to reach the goal of 75%. But we are hopeful that 2019-20 demonstrated that with a bold challenge by a governor, an increase in high schools’ participation in the College Cash Campaign, new partnerships, and creative solutions during an international health crisis, we can move the needle and demonstrate that we are changing a culture and behaviors in support of making a postsecondary education both accessible and affordable.

I like this! +1