By Jesse Kannam, Master of Public Policy Candidate at UC Berkeley
Exciting momentum is building across the country regarding the importance of talking about the financial aid process in schools and encouraging the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA form represents a crucial part of students’ transition from K-12 education to postsecondary since it is the key to accessing federal financial aid as well as many types of state and institutional aid.
This issue is especially pertinent due to declines in immediate college enrollment among recent high school graduates and FAFSA completion since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Communities and organizations have adapted to the virtual environment through innovations like live online chat platforms, virtual events, and one-on-one virtual advising meetings for families and students. One key step some communities have been taking to boost financial aid application numbers is to launch initiatives and campaigns to increase FAFSA completion among students, often called FAFSA challenges. These challenges often spur friendly competition among schools or communities and offer incentives to students and families.
Over the past five years, states, cities, and localities have organized FAFSA challenges as a strategy to increase the number of graduating high school seniors who complete the FAFSA and understand the amount of federal aid they can receive to help support their postsecondary education. Research indicates that strategies like offering personalized assistance, providing information about financial aid early in the college application process, and using data to inform outreach to students are effective in increasing FAFSA completion, and many FAFSA challenges include these elements within their campaigns.
In an effort to document what works, a few organizations have analyzed these initiatives, including the National College Attainment Network (NCAN)’s evaluation of its FAFSA Completion Challenge and the Education Strategy Group’s recommendations based on interviews with state and local stakeholders.
So, where do you start? Or, how can you improve your state’s existing FAFSA challenge? One strategy is to pull from the best ideas from states that have already approached the issue.
This blog post provides an overview of the common elements that states used in their FAFSA challenges in the 2020-21 school year. While the resources linked below are not exhaustive, hopefully, they are a good first step!
Some states establish requirements for a school or district to be eligible to participate in their FAFSA challenges, receive supplementary support resources, or qualify for prizes.
For example, in New York, eligible schools must have student bodies where at least of 50% students are economically disadvantaged, and a minimum of 20 students in their 12th-grade class, among other requirements. In Connecticut, to be eligible to participate in the state’s FAFSA Challenge Learning Community and receive seed grant funding, schools had to have a FAFSA completion rate below 50%, more than 45% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, and a 12th-grade class of more than 50 students.
School & District Categories
States are also intentional about segmenting schools and districts into categories to compare FAFSA completion rates more fairly. Winners are then chosen for each category.
While some states create categories by school or district size, others categorize schools and/or districts by type and/or geography.
Winners and Prizes
States designate winning schools and/or districts in a variety of ways. Some states reward the schools that had the most students complete FAFSA, others reward schools that improved the most compared to their number of student filers the previous year, and some reward both. States also include prize categories that prioritize equity, innovation, and progress over various periods. Some examples of prize categories include:
- Overall highest percentage of FAFSA completions.
- Overall highest percentage increase in FAFSA completions.
- Largest week-to-week improvement (DC).
- Statewide (Missouri, North Carolina).
- High-need districts (North Carolina).
- Monthly (Arizona).
- Percentage of students from low-income backgrounds who filed (Missouri).
States use a variety of incentives to encourage students, families, school administrators, and staff to help increase the number of students completing the FAFSA. Connecticut, Missouri, and North Carolina offered cash prizes. For example, Missouri decided to award $750 to winning schools, while Connecticut awarded $5,000 to winning schools. The District of Columbia, Florida, and Michigan used combinations of gifts, trophies, and public recognition as incentives, and the Arizona challenge rewarded specific groups (students, schools, and counselors) with different prizes.
Additionally, within states, schools sometimes use incentives to encourage students to complete the FAFSA. These incentives can include graduation tassels, gift cards, and t-shirts. In some cases, these prizes and incentives are gifted by local partners, do not require financial resources, or are purchased through seed funding provided to the state or district, and therefore are a cost-effective strategy.
Data Sharing and Dashboards
To monitor and share FAFSA completion progress, some states made completion rate data publicly available. States utilized data visualization and disaggregation tools like Tableau. Information is disaggregated by school, district, and in some cases by county or region. See below for links to each state’s data dashboards:
- Rhode Island (scroll down)
Here are a few things states can consider as they create their data dashboards. These are my personal opinions and are not based on surveys or feedback solicited from school leaders or communities.
- Who is your audience? Is it students and parents? School leaders and staff? Some of the data dashboards appear overwhelming with the amount of information shared on the opening page. Any way in which states can offer multiple viewing options may be helpful for those who just want high-level takeaways rather than school-by-school information.
- Share the estimated amount of Pell Grant dollars students receive after they complete the FAFSA. To be eligible for Pell Grants, students must complete the FAFSA. The maximum grant amount shifts from year to year. For the 2021-22 aid cycle, students could receive a maximum of $6,495. Grant size is determined by financial need, and unlike a loan, Pell Grants do not need to be repaid (except under a few circumstances). The amount of grant aid that becomes available after students complete the FAFSA is a clear and inspiring metric that can be shared with your community.
- Display how the state is measuring against its established goal. Prior to the challenge, some states stated a goal for a percentage of students in the state they hoped would complete the FAFSA. Showing how a state is measuring against its goal is another clear metric to share with your community.
- Engage users with visual tools. Maps can help draw an audience to potential geographic gaps in completion. The use of color gradients can also point to completion trends across a state.
- Allow for filtering for students from low-income backgrounds. Some states included a filter in their dashboard that allowed users to see FAFSA rates for schools that had certain percentages of students from families with low incomes. This is a useful tool to see if states are implementing FAFSA completion efforts equitably and if states should put in additional work to reach students who could benefit most from financial aid.
Resources and Partnerships Available to Participating Districts
To strengthen statewide campaigns, state agencies and partner organizations often provide resources to the districts participating in FAFSA challenges. Arizona, the District of Columbia, Florida, and New York created challenge toolkits. Meanwhile, Arizona, North Carolina, and Rhode Island shared step-by-step guides for filling out the FAFSA. To spread the word and foster excitement, some states also created social media toolkits, like Missouri (scroll to FAFSA Filing section) and North Carolina.
To leverage existing capacity, a few states used their partnership with the College Advising Corps to have near-peer student advisers support FAFSA completion efforts within the schools they served.
According to the Form Your Future FAFSA Tracker, as of Sept. 24, 58.8% of the high school class of 2021 had completed a FAFSA, 4.2% lower than last year during this time. There is still much work to be done!
And while tracking FAFSA completion rates is central to these initiatives, there are so many other less-tangible benefits that come from communitywide FAFSA challenges. These initiatives raise awareness about financial aid opportunities and encourage partnerships between schools and community-based organizations with expertise and capacity in financial aid and college access.
On Oct. 1, the FAFSA for the 2022-23 aid cycle became available for students to complete. Use this blog post as a tool as your community organizes its own FAFSA challenge initiative to help make college accessible and affordable to more students.