By Dr. Sujuan Boutté, Executive Director, Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance
The Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) strives to be Louisiana’s first choice for college access. LOSFA’s three-part program allows students to continue their education beyond high school by promoting, preparing for, and providing equity of college access to the students of Louisiana.
We promote college access through college browses, integrated business and industry visits, and postsecondary campus visits, among other initiatives. A browse session is typically held at a college fair or expo. At a browse session, students and/or parents can speak to a LOSFA representative and ask questions related to financial aid, college access information, and Louisiana’s merit-based aid, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) awards.
We prepare students for college success by providing academic tutoring support services, ACT/SAT standardized test preparation activities, comprehensive mentoring, college/career counseling and advising, and dual enrollment support.
We provide college financial aid and related support services by administering TOPS, Louisiana’s need-based scholarship (GO Grant), LOSFA’s Go Youth ChalleNGe Grant, START Saving Plan, START K12 Saving Plan, and additional financial aid opportunities.
Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, LOSFA staff implemented a holistic approach to student support and connected the importance of academic persistence to college scholarships, initiating conversations to explain the financial aid process and student loan debt. This approach included:
- One-On-One Engagement – LOSFA provided line-by-line and face-to-face assistance to students and their families in order to complete their respective portions of the FAFSA application.
- Event Registration – High school professionals coordinated with LOSFA to host multiple events at their schools to ensure a full range of opportunities for students and families to understand the financial aid process.
- Communication – LOSFA used text messaging, postcard invitations, PSAs, videos, email, phone calls, and social media campaigns to spread the word about the FAFSA, financial aid opportunities, FAFSA completion events and initiatives, and other resources to provide college readiness support.
- LOSFA’s FAFSA Lab – LOSFA utilized an on-site FAFSA lab for families who needed additional assistance with completing their FAFSA outside of school or home.
The pandemic presented unforeseen challenges, and the LOSFA team worked quickly and creatively to meet the needs of students and their families. LOSFA launched several initiatives to provide virtual FAFSA completion assistance:
- FAFSA Now campaign – When the office transitioned to working remotely, during Phase 1 of Louisiana’s re-entry strategy, LOSFA implemented its FAFSA Now campaign to support students with FAFSA completion. The campaign began April 9,, and ended on July 1, the priority deadline for TOPS, Louisiana’s merit-based scholarship. The campaign targets high school seniors in the class of 2020 to remind and encourage them to complete the FAFSA or address any errors on their FAFSA.
To spread the word to their prospective students, postsecondary partners have recorded video messages on the importance of FAFSA completion. LOSFA has also used videography and graphic designs, shared via social media and Signal Vine text messaging, to remind high school seniors and current college students to renew their FAFSA. Instructions to register for virtual office hours, text messaging assistance, and email support by LOSFA outreach staff have also been promoted across the state, so students and their families know the agency remains committed to meeting the needs of students, even during these difficult times.
- Virtual Office Hours – Students, parents, and families may register for Zoom appointments to obtain one-on-one assistance or join group sessions for FAFSA completion support.
- Geaux FAFSA Email Support – LOSFA widely publicizes our email address (GeauxFAFSA@la.gov) to families and students who have questions about the FAFSA. We regularly check and respond to all messages.
During the past several months, we have committed additional staff time and capacity to remain available to students. Outreach staff who provide virtual assistance have customer service experience and sufficient knowledge about the FAFSA to deliver exceptional support, while helping students and families complete the FAFSA. We have also invested in internet access, Wi-Fi devices, the Zoom virtual platform, laptops, and web cams. FAFSA verification is conducted by postsecondary institutions while LOSFA generates and monitors FAFSA error reports and subsequently follows up with students to correct errors in processing. And we use NCAN’s #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker data to confirm FAFSA completion.
In our increasingly technology-driven society, we have maximized the opportunity to transition to 100% remote service provision. We advise practitioners transitioning from in-person to virtual FAFSA support to leverage technologies to engage through video conferencing sessions, e-mail campaigns, social media, text messaging, and phone. Though we have and will continue to face many challenges, we encourage fellow college attainment professionals to embrace the opportunity, adapting to meet the needs of students and their families.