Takeaway: Through a deadline extension, strategic outreach, and expanded summer advising, MCAN helped more students complete the FAFSA, despite COVID barriers.

By Sara Melnick, Deputy Director, National College Attainment Network

As of the writing of this blog post, FAFSA completions among high school seniors are down 4.3% from last year. But some states have found ways to buck this downward trend and engage students during the summer months.

NCAN recently hosted a webinar highlighting some of the innovative strategies states are using to increase their completion rates. The states that presented on this webinar all received funding from NCAN (via the Kresge Foundation) to increase FAFSA completion for the high school graduating class of 2021.

Even though a new school year is upon us, many of the strategies discussed during this webinar are relevant to facilitating FAFSA completion at any point in the school year. And even though the strategies discussed during this webinar were implemented at the state level, almost all are relevant to local and district-level efforts focused on increasing FAFSA completion.

The first presenter on this webinar was Jamie Jacobs, deputy director of the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN). Jamie described a number of FAFSA completion strategies MCAN has been implementing throughout the summer.

FAFSA Deadline Extension

MCAN made policy changes to facilitate FAFSA completion and, ultimately, college enrollment.

Michigan’s state priority FAFSA deadline has historically been March 1. But MCAN knew that, especially this year, students might mistakenly believe that they would not be able to enroll in college if they missed that deadline, even though it is only a priority deadline.

To address this challenge, MCAN worked with the Michigan Department of Treasury – the agency in Michigan that established the state FAFSA deadline – to push the deadline back to May 1 for this year. The choice of May 1 was strategic on the part of MCAN because, in Michigan, May 1 (Decision Day) has for about a decade been associated with the celebration of postsecondary decisions and enrollment. The shift of the priority deadline from March 1 to May 1 had two positive outcomes:

  • It provided more time to encourage students to complete the FAFSA using, among other strategies, student incentives, competitions, and cash prizes for FAFSA completion.
  • The narrative around the looming and impending March 1 deadline shifted to be more closely associated with the upbeat and celebratory May 1 Decision Day.

Strategic Outreach

MCAN sent short, attractive, direct-to-students communications via email, social media, and paid advertising focused on FAFSA completion.

The organization also reached out to school staff early in the summer to engage them in getting the word out about FAFSA completion to amplify/reinforce the messages students were receiving directly.

And throughout the state, MCAN is helping to disseminate a clear message to students and families that it’s not too late to enroll in a postsecondary program. The organization has engaged higher ed, K-12, and state-level association partners, such as the Parent Teacher Association, in this messaging since, when this webinar aired, there were still many postsecondary institutions that were still enrolling students.

Additionally, MCAN is encouraging their postsecondary partners across the state to reach out to students who have been admitted to an institution but have not submitted a FAFSA. MCAN is appealing to the desire of these institutions to increase their “yield,” since a student with a completed FAFSA is likely to have a much different – and potentially favorable – financial aid package and might therefore be more likely to attend that institution.

Expanded Summer Advising

MCAN worked with their state community service coalition to deploy summer AmeriCorps VISTA staff to double down on advising to help mitigate summer melt. The major focus of this advising was FAFSA completion.

This strategy was still in its early stages at the time of this webinar but showed much promise, especially around developing and delivering a coordinated summer melt strategy for the first time.

To help get the word out about these advising opportunities, MCAN reached out to partners, such as the state-level associations for superintendents, principals, and others. Essentially, MCAN has become a communication arm of these associations – writing plug-and-play emails and social media posts – so it’s easy for associations to get the word out that these college access services are available.

We are grateful to MCAN for sharing these insights and ideas with us. As we prepare for the release of the new FAFSA on Oct. 1, stay tuned for more tips on how to boost FAFSA completion in your communities.

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