By Manisha Mishra, Program Director, Alabama Possible
Change, as we all know, is the only thing that is constant. At the beginning of March, we were planning to close out the 2019-20 Cash for College Campaign, focused on Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion. Then with just a few days’ notice, we began working remotely – with no end in sight.
There was no time to hit the pause button; the team had to continue connecting educators, students, and families to FAFSA resources while also figuring out how to work effectively from home. We reached out to our partners, collected ideas and strategic plans, and had thought-provoking conversations that helped us anchor our work in Alabama’s students’ and families’ needs.
Prior to school closures in mid-March, Alabama’s Class of 2020 had 1.96% more FAFSA completions than the Class of 2019. To understand FAFSA completion trends during COVID-19, Alabama Possible conducted a detailed analysis in addition to its regular weekly data reports.
With schools closed, students faced challenges such as decreased access to high school counselors, career coaches, an internet connection, and other college-going resources. Mirroring national trends, FAFSA completion decreased statewide. As of May 29, Alabama was 1.75% behind last year’s completion rate. We published the full analysis on our blog and shared it with state policymakers and education leaders.
To address challenges faced by educators and students while schools remain closed, we used several initiatives to boost FAFSA completion and support a college-going culture:
1. Cash for College Week
In order to equip counselors/educators with tools to help students complete their FAFSA, Alabama Possible hosted Cash for College Week in collaboration with the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE), Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), and Alabama Community College System (ACCS). During this weeklong initiative, we took the following steps to connect students and families with financial aid to pay for education after high school:
- Created a landing page on Alabama Possible’s website with financial aid resources.
- Promoted a step-by-step guide to FAFSA completion.
- Provided virtual training to counselors/educators on how to access financial aid resources, including data tracking tools.
- Created and shared a document with updated financial aid and admissions deadlines for two-year and four-year institutions in partnership with ACHE.
- Sent emails and direct mailers to students/families promoting FAFSA completion.
- Promoted FAFSA completion activities on television, in print media, and on social media.
2. Cash for College Help Desk
To address declines in FAFSA completions, we launched the Cash for College Help Desk to complement the work of school counselors, career coaches, and college admissions and financial aid counselors. Answering questions about attending and paying for college, the Cash for College Help Desk provides an added layer of support to schools, students, and families.
The free Cash for College Help Desk is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and can be reached by texting or calling 334-316-6155, sending a Facebook message to @cashforcollegeal, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Messages received after hours are returned the next business day.
3. College and Career Decision Week
Alabama Possible, in partnership with the ALSDE, hosted College and Career Decision Week to support our high school graduates and celebrate their decision to seek valuable postsecondary credentials, including professional/technical credentials and academic degrees, or to pursue careers in skilled trades. Educators shared tips on unique ways to celebrate their students’ accomplishments virtually. Pictures and videos were shared on social media using the hashtags: #ALGOES2COLLEGE, #ReachHigher, #CollegeSigningDay, and #BetterMakeRoom.
Alabama Possible hosted several webinars to assist counselors/educators in helping students and their families navigate the FAFSA process. These webinars can be found on Alabama Possible’s YouTube Channel.
Since 2016, Alabama Possible’s Cash for College Campaign has worked to increase the number of Alabama students who pursue and complete a postsecondary education by increasing completion of the FAFSA. In partnership with the ALSDE, ACHE, and ACCS, Alabama Possible also provides support for the Alabama College Campaign, which combines Alabama College Application Week, Cash for College, and College Signing Day.
Schools in Alabama can monitor their FAFSA completion progress using our Cash for College Dashboard. This data visualization tool displays each school’s completion rate for the current year and prior year, allowing schools to track their year-over-year improvement. The dashboard also allows schools to make comparisons across districts, counties, and school sizes.
Alabama Possible is a statewide nonprofit organization that removes barriers to prosperity in Alabama through education, collaboration, and advocacy. We influence public policy to ensure every high school graduate in our state can pursue a technical or academic credential after high school. Our programs connect Alabama’s educational leaders, students, and families with the resources necessary to cultivate a college-going culture and equitable educational attainment.