By Ainsley Ash, NCAN Communications Intern
Anyone in the college access and success space knows Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion is crucial to increasing the odds that a student will pursue postsecondary education. According to one study, 92% of high school seniors who completed the FAFSA enrolled by the November following graduation, versus 51% who did not complete a FAFSA.
FAFSA completion numbers are way down for the high school class of 2021, and states are responding by ramping up their efforts to assist students.
According to NCAN’s #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, only 39.9% of the class of 2021 has completed the FAFSA, as of Feb. 19. That’s about 9% less than the previous academic year.
As the end of the school year draws closer, it will be a race against the clock for districts to increase their FAFSA completion numbers before students graduate and potentially become more difficult to contact.
Here are some strong examples of the work that organizations across the country are doing to increase FAFSA completion rates.
Implementing State- and District-Level FAFSA Challenges
The Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) organizes the College Cash Campaign. A major component of this campaign is to create a competition that encourages high schools to reach at least 75% FAFSA completion. MCAN has a comprehensive list of recommendations for how individual schools can increase their FAFSA numbers. They include examples such as hosting FAFSA nights, publicly tracking FAFSA goal progress within high schools, and offering incentives to students.
MCAN is certainly not the only NCAN member sponsoring a statewide FAFSA campaign. Take the Florida College Access Network, for example. Their statewide FAFSA initiative aims to reward schools whose yearly FAFSA completion rates increase by at least 5 percentage points.
[See a list of other states that have implemented challenges to boost FAFSA completion.]
Of course, statewide organizations are not the only ones that can launch FAFSA challenges.
In the fall, the School District of Lancaster launched a FAFSA completion campaign filled with FAFSA days, one-on-one meetings, and a “FAFSA Phone Blitz,” during which parents received phone calls asking them to schedule FAFSA appointments.
Similarly, Baltimore City Public Schools uses a FAFSA Tracker, managed and created by Chiefs for Change, that shows the leaderboard for each school’s FAFSA completion rates. The district encouraged students to register for their virtual “FAFSA Fest,” which took place last week. During the event, students and their families received one-on-one FAFSA assistance and were entered into a raffle to win prizes.
Utilizing Student-Level FAFSA Completion Data
Most states have the ability to share student-level FAFSA completion data with districts, which can be distributed to schools to identify which students have completed the financial aid form.
NCAN member Iowa College Aid has utilized these data so well that every public high school in the state automatically receives this information. In this article, Iowa College Aid details how they set up this data-sharing process.
Once a school or educational organization has access to student-level FAFSA completion data, this information can make the process of identifying and assisting individual students much more efficient and effective.
Offering Virtual FAFSA Assistance
In another effort to meet the needs of more individual students, many organizations are adapting to serve students virtually. Online financial aid assistance offers a safe and effective way to reach students and their families.
The Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance is now offering virtual office hours and email communication to help students complete their FAFSA.
Other organizations are taking large-scale, often schoolwide events online. For instance, the Connecticut Association of Professional Financial Aid Administrators and the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority have transitioned to hosting virtual FAFSA days for students in their states.
Broward County Public Schools in Florida has hosted a number of virtual FAFSA completion assistance events throughout the 2020-21 school year. You can learn Hosting FAFSA Drive-Insmore about how the district planned these events and recruited volunteers for support on the NCAN blog.
Hosting FAFSA Drive-Ins
NCAN member Get2College has hosted several successful FAFSA drive-in events for students in Mississippi. College access organizations in Arizona are doing the same thing.
Essentially, families drive up to an outdoor location, remain in their cars, and are assisted by a socially distant staff member. These drive-in FAFSA sessions are similar to pre-pandemic ones, albeit a little bit more high tech – complete with tablets, mobile hotspots, and generators.
These practices can certainly be reproduced and modified to fit the needs of specific college attainment organizations and communities. For NCAN members working to support the class of 2021, FAFSA completion efforts such as these can be the difference in whether or not a student unlocks thousands of financial aid dollars and, ultimately, enrolls in college.
(FAFSA drive-in event image courtesy of Woodward Hines Education Foundation)