By Tricia Dunn, Director of Media Relations, EducationQuest Foundation
For over 34 years, EducationQuest Foundation has provided free college planning services to Nebraska students and families including one-on-one help with FAFSA completion. During 2019, our staff helped with the completion of 9,470 FAFSAs via in-office appointments, virtual appointments, and FAFSA-filing sessions at high schools and agencies across the state.
In mid-March, EducationQuest sent staff home due to COVID-19, but didn’t miss a beat in the continuation of free services – especially since those in the College Planning and Outreach Services departments already had experience with virtual FAFSA filing.
Remote FAFSA Technology
“For the past few years, we have used RescueAssist technology to provide remote FAFSA help to families who don’t live near one of our locations,” said Joan Jurek, director of EducationQuest’s college planning office in Omaha. “This was a real advantage when we started working from home.”
Despite the experience with remote assistance, staff had to overcome some issues including supporting families who do not own a computer or laptop, which is required for RescueAssist.
“In those cases, we help clients over the phone,” Joan said. “This isn’t ideal, but most of us have the FAFSA memorized, so we can follow along pretty easily as we guide them through the information to input.”
Joan said remote and phone assistance can take as much as an hour and a half per appointment, which is longer than the average 45-minute in-person appointments. For those making the transition to remote FAFSA assistance, Joan advises “extensive knowledge of the FAFSA form, along with lots of time and patience.”
Confirming FAFSA Submission
Joan explained that, unless a student actually submits the FAFSA during the remote appointment, it’s not possible to follow up and confirm that the student completed the FAFSA process. Nebraska does, however, have a FAFSA Completion Initiative in which high schools can access FAFSA submission and completion status updates on their students and provide help to those who need it.
“We heavily promote the FAFSA Completion Initiative to our high school counselors and encourage them to refer to us any students who need help finishing the process – especially verification,” Joan said.
Reaching Out to Students
When COVID-19 hit and staff started working from home, EducationQuest used several different mediums to spread the word that free help with college planning and FAFSA completion was still available. These included:
- Creation of a COVID-19 webpage that directs students to free college planning resources along with updates and resources from Nebraska colleges.
- Weekly Countdown2College emails to Nebraska high school seniors and juniors.
- Communication to high school counselors and agency representatives.
- Installation of a live chat feature on the EducationQuest website.
- Memes and ads that are pushed via social media.
- A news release that was sent statewide.
Despite all these efforts, Joan acknowledged that FAFSA completion numbers are not where EducationQuest would like them to be.
“Nebraska is at about a 53% completion rate right now for the 2020-21 FAFSA, which is down slightly from a year ago,” she said. “There’s no doubt that part of this reflects students who put their college plans on hold due to COVID-19.”
Prior to the pandemic, EducationQuest had started working with the Nebraska Department of Education and other key stakeholders on the process of implementing FAFSA completion as a high school graduation requirement for eligible seniors. This effort is temporarily on hold, although a few Nebraska high schools have agreed to pilot mandatory FAFSA completion this fall.
“EducationQuest is continually looking for new ways to spread the word about the importance of the FAFSA and the assistance we can provide,” said Joan.