Takeaway: When planning virtual FAFSA events, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education considered which platform to use, what time of day to attempt the events, and how best to share information and connect with students and families.

By Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education

It is often said “necessity is the mother of invention.” Truly, the whole world has been learning this firsthand throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education – Indiana’s coordinating body for higher education – has adapted to new circumstances in order to reach students and families, particularly the most vulnerable among us. By shifting our critical outreach efforts online and utilizing social media to connect with students and families, the Commission has continued to administer the state’s financial aid programs, which require a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on file.

Under “normal” circumstances, the Commission’s outreach and communications team actively works with schools and families to increase college access and readiness through one-on-one events, as well as by email, text and phone calls, and through postcards and social media campaigns to communicate about the FAFSA and other important college resources.

These outreach events were planned to start in March (leading up to Indiana’s original April 15 FAFSA deadline), just as COVID-19 struck and initiated the closure of schools, colleges, and workplaces.

Moving our entire FAFSA outreach efforts to a virtual setting became the goal. That included transitioning the dates and times from in-person events to Facebook Live events – what we’ve dubbed FAFSA Frenzy events – through the Learn More Indiana Facebook page and all of our social media platforms (Instagram, Twitter and Facebook).

All tools on the table

Considerations for how to make the most impact through virtual events included which online platform to use, what time of day to attempt the events, and how best to share information and connect with students and families.

The Commission’s Facebook pages have a strong following of school counselors, administrators, educators, community partners, and public policy leaders. Promoting and hosting the events through Facebook ensured the Commission would be able to reach its target audience. Other considerations included time constraints (there were none with Facebook Live) and video permanence (Facebook Live videos remain on the page after the broadcast ends).

With the overarching message “Call us or chat us – we’re here to help,” the Commission presented tips and resources for students and families, along with answers to frequently asked questions.

The Commission featured several guests on the first broadcast during a Saturday afternoon, including a representative from financial aid guidance partner INvestEd Indiana, as well as a Spanish-language segment. Combined, staff members and community partners received nearly 100 phone calls, plus texts and emails. The video of the event is available on the Facebook page and has more than 1,600 views to date and reached over 3,000 people.

After a successful first event in early April, a second live event was held the evening before the state’s FAFSA deadline. Again, with one segment dedicated to support for Spanish  speakers, the Commission’s staff also welcomed Purdue University’s executive director of financial aid. This event generated more than 100 calls, as well as texts and emails, and the video has more than 1,200 views.

Successful outcomes and future plans

Aside from social media analytics bearing out success, the Commission registered a 4% uptick in FAFSAs filed immediately after the Frenzy events. Of course, we don’t attribute all of that increase to the virtual events. However, the ability to quickly transition our outreach events to virtual offerings meant we were able to reach additional Hoosiers in the midst of a global pandemic.

The Commission also extended the state’s FAFSA filling deadline on a first-come, first-served basis as funding remained available. The extension allowed more than 6,000 additional students to be eligible and considered for financial aid.

Our outreach staff will be glad to get back to in-person events when it is safe to do so, but the success of these events prove the value of virtual offerings, which will become a regular feature of our outreach efforts.

Additionally, and because of the relative success of the FAFSA Frenzy events, the Commission hosted virtual enrollment opportunities in June for the 21st Century Scholars program, which provides tuition for up to four years for income-eligible students.

We will continue to develop these virtual events throughout the summer, fall and beyond. The Commission is counting the lessons we’ve learned along the way as opportunities to deliver important information to students and families about the FAFSA and college financing options during a time when this outreach is more important than ever.

Teresa Lubbers is the Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education. Created in 1971, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education plans, coordinates, and defines Indiana’s postsecondary education system to align higher learning with the needs of students and the state. The Commission also administers Indiana’s financial aid programs, including the 21st Century Scholars early college promise scholarship, which celebrates 30 years in 2020. Learn more about the Commission’s Reaching Higher in a State of Change strategic plan here.

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