This piece originally appeared on the Principal Project blog. It is reposted here with permission.
By Ralph Aiello
For many students, the ability to enroll in and complete college hinges on financial barriers that can feel outside of a family’s control. The truth is, students who need aid to attend college are often eligible for quite a bit – but to receive it, they must first fill out the FAFSA, which can feel intimidating and confusing – especially to low-income and first-generation college-bound students and their families. This is an urgent equity issue, and my district has made it a major priority to ensure that every student has the support they need to complete the FAFSA.
Boosting FAFSA completion rates requires us to create a culture that inspires hope and lets students know they’re not alone – that there are adults here to help them through the process. It’s a big undertaking, and you can’t do it alone as a school leader, but you can spearhead a community approach.
Here are the ways my district pushes for FAFSA completion with wraparound supports and outreach, taking a full-community approach.
You can also find resources to help you in these efforts via the National College Attainment Network:
6 ways our district works to boost FAFSA completion
1. Train a pool of volunteers to offer one-on-one help with FAFSA completion.
As complex as the FAFSA can feel, the people with whom students engage on a daily basis – staff members, community members or even other students – can assist with a lot, and they refer those with more intricate questions to a higher-level professional, like the school counselor.
Any FAFSA-completion event is going to have a bigger impact with a team of volunteers trained to help people navigate their way through the FAFSA and answer general questions. Invest early in training so you can leverage volunteer support all school year long. Check out resources from NCAN that can support your team with training.
2. Emphasize the amount of money that might be at stake.
Some families don’t even know that the FAFSA exists – or how much support might be available to their students if they fill it out. When we show families the amount of funding that they could be eligible to receive – whether in the form of a loan or a grant – the number tends to catch their attention. When people realize their student might have the opportunity to attend a local college for almost free, they’re more motivated to overcome obstacles to navigating the FAFSA.
3. Carry out awareness campaigns to address myths and fears about the FAFSA.
Even for families that do know about the FAFSA, misinformation can get in the way of completion. Families might worry about exposing their immigration status or financial situations that aren’t sorted out the way they’d like, making the FAFSA feel intimidating – and even risky.
Get the word out, through conversations, letters and social media campaigns, that the information shared in the FAFSA won’t be flagged by the IRS or immigration authorities.
Enlist as many staff members, community partners, parents and students as you can to spread the message that the FAFSA is only used to determine how much money students can afford to pay for college and, therefore, the aid they’re entitled to. Check out NCAN’s tips for communication around the FAFSA.
4. Engage community partners.
When the same messages reach families through multiple channels, they’re likely to engage more. Partner with community organizations around FAFSA completion: local college access networks, Boys and Girls Clubs, PTAs – anyone who is available to support your students. Partners can become trained to assist students, spread information, make computer labs available for FAFSA completion and just serve as additional touchpoints. Explore NCAN resources on engaging partners.
5. Lean on student groups and peer mentors.
When you look around a high school campus, most of the people there are students. How can you draw them into such an important effort? In my district, peer mentoring has transformed postsecondary advising in many ways, and one is in spreading the word about FAFSA. The student “cadets” have a social media division, where they use Instagram and other platforms to get students’ attention and share information.
6. Go where the families go – until you reach everyone.
We try to get as innovative as we can to reach every family. If they don’t come to us, we’re going to them. We are also working on some text-messaging capabilities, and we’re finding our way into their world.
We partnered with a TRiO program that has a mobile unit on buses. We roll the buses into students’ communities, open up shop and go knocking on doors to say, “Hey, come now to the Walmart, or the church parking lot, or just the sidewalk in your neighborhood.” They come onto the bus, and we help them fill out their FAFSA or college application right there.
We go on the radio. We go to community events. We translate everything into Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole, and we hire interpreters for our events. We try to exhaust every opportunity we can, and reach out until we reach everyone.
About the Author
Ralph Aiello is director of school counseling at his district in Broward County, FL