By Stephanie Breen, NCAN Program Fellow
Over the past two years, North Carolina launched a statewide initiative to increase the number of high school students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Using data-driven approaches, myFutureNC and the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA) have worked diligently with community partners and education nonprofits to better support school-based practitioners and families in their FAFSA completion efforts. Some of the key players in these collaborative efforts include Carolina Demography, College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC), College Advising Corps, the Hunt Institute, and the John M. Belk Endowment.
With a progressive focus on improving FAFSA completion rates across the state, myFutureNC developed a six-pronged approach to catalyze the process. The six strategies include:
- Setting a FAFSA completion goal.
- Building shared ownership of FAFSA completion across K-12 and higher education stakeholders.
- Creating incentives for local and regional implementation of FAFSA completion best practices.
- Using data to target support and report progress.
- Establishing partnerships to provide training and support.
- Spreading awareness to practitioners, the public, and policymakers about the value of FAFSA completion.
In setting FAFSA completion goals, myFutureNC collaborated with various stakeholders to develop a statewide goal of attaining an 80% FAFSA completion rate by 2030.
The organization connected this FAFSA completion goal with the education continuum of indicators through an interactive dashboard as well as statewide and county attainment profiles. Individuals can track the state’s vision and shared educational attainment goal of having 2 million North Carolinians with credentials or degrees. This tie to existing initiatives and priorities helped to build awareness and momentum and created buy-in at the state and local levels.
North Carolina’s First in FAFSA Challenge incentivizes administrators and counselors to boost FAFSA completion rates within their schools with a chance to win a $500 grant. The First in FAFSA Challenge tracks FAFSA completion rates across various school types and sizes drawn from federally reported data.
During the 2020-21 academic year, the first year of this challenge, nearly 77% of all public schools in North Carolina participated. The First in FAFSA collaborative awarded five Innovation Grants to schools that employed innovative strategies to boost their FAFSA completion rates for their senior classes.
The First in FAFSA Tracker has also provided local and regional stakeholders with tangible data that they can use to track district- and countywide progression in FAFSA completion. The tracker allows practitioners to identify their school’s progress compared to the completion rates of peer schools that share similar characteristics, including senior class size, the number of students of color, and the percentage of students from low-income backgrounds.
The data populating the First in FAFSA tracker have been available since 2014 via a student-level database run by the NCSEAA. But it’s these data, the First in FAFSA completion initiative, and the interactive dashboard displaying the data working in concert that are so promising in North Carolina.
As of 2021, 97% of North Carolina’s public schools have access to student-level data through the Finish the FAFSA platform. The platform provides data on students who have completed the FAFSA, which students have FAFSA errors and what those errors are, and which applications require further verification. By employing this tool, school practitioners are better equipped to monitor their students’ progression toward FAFSA completion and provide targeted support as needed.
“We wanted to make sure that data and the powerful combination of tools that were already in place across the state were more accessible to counselors. This would allow counselors to target their efforts in supporting students and families,” said Cris Charbonneau, director of advocacy and engagement at myFutureNC. “That’s where the connection between resources, practices, data, and tools have gone a long way in helping to lift up our FAFSA completion goals.”
In addition to data, at the core of this work is the commitment to spreading awareness about FAFSA completion practices through P-20 partnerships in North Carolina. This is being accomplished through myFutureNC’s communication channels as well as statewide communities of practice.
myFutureNC has collaborated with a number of community organizations to build momentum and awareness through the following programming:
- Hosting FAFSA Kickoff webinars with a statewide collaborative of 49 school districts to discuss how guidance counselors can navigate challenges and tricky situations related to the FAFSA.
- Offering statewide drive-in FAFSA completion events through virtual, hybrid, and in-person models. Students and families can get financial aid assistance at college campuses across the state throughout April, a practice that is continuing to support FAFSA completion efforts this fall.
- Disseminating FAFSA completion and college readiness-related resources to families, students, and practitioners, such as a YouTube series on navigating college as a first-generation college student, free and virtual FAFSA assistance to Latinx families, and e-newsletters with updates and invitations to FAFSA events.
- Establishing a FAFSA Network to provide on-the-ground training and support for a community of practice for practitioners in 42 priority districts. These districts were selected due to FAFSA completion as an opportunity for growth on their myFutureNC county attainment profile and other criteria.
While this blog offers a snapshot into the breadth of the exciting FAFSA completion strategies in North Carolina, NCAN encourages those who want to emulate these approaches to explore myFutureNC’s platform further.
In the coming months, NCAN will continue to highlight promising FAFSA completion practices to help practitioners and community organizations think collaboratively and creatively about boosting FAFSA completion rates in their states.