New Report and Webinar: How to Increase FAFSA Completion in Your Metro Area

February 5, 2018

By Patricia Steele, Higher Ed Insight, and Wendy Erisman, Strix Research

A new report, “Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees: How 22 Cities Helped High School Students Complete More FAFSAs and Get More Financial Aid Dollars,” details the best practices and lessons learned from the FAFSA Completion Challenge grant initiative, a partnership of The Kresge Foundation and the National College Access Network (NCAN). 

An upcoming webinar, created to help metro-areas and other stakeholders increase FAFSA completions in their own communities, will include discussion of the report's findings and recommendations. Click here to register for the webinar, which will be hosted on Feb. 21 at 3 p.m. Eastern by NCAN and Higher Ed Insight, the evaluators for the FAFSA Completion Challenge grant initiative.

The initiative was designed to support metro-wide efforts to increase FAFSA completion among high school seniors during the 2016-17 school year. Of the 22 cities selected to participate, 10 achieved an increase in their completion rates increase by more than 5 percentage points, and only four cities saw a drop in their completion rates. The average FAFSA completion rate for high school seniors in these cities increased to 54.6 percent, and three cities reached completion rates above 60%.

Lessons Learned

  • Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: Increasing FAFSA completion rates, particularly for low-income and first-generation college students, did not require new strategies but rather adapting existing, well-documented strategies to specific community contexts. All of the participating cities had implemented some FAFSA completion efforts prior to the FAFSA Completion Challenge Grant initiative. These efforts, however, were typically scattered across different organizations and might have even been duplicative. For many of the participating cities, coordinating existing FAFSA completion work was central to the project strategy.
  • Take a Tiered Approach: In many participating cities, project teams took advantage of the earlier start to the FAFSA season and developed a tiered approach, starting with a citywide outreach campaign, followed by large-scale FAFSA completion events, smaller group interventions at high schools and college access organizations, and finally, one-on-one assistance with the students most in need of support. This approach made effective use of time and resources, while still meeting the needs of different students.
  • One-On-One Assistance Makes All the Difference: Informational campaigns and large-scale FAFSA completion events must be supplemented with one-on-one assistance. For low-income and first-generation students, one-on-one outreach and support is needed if they are to successfully navigate the college admissions process. This one-on-one assistance requires considerable investment in time and resources but was consistently seen by participating cities as crucial to their success in increasing FAFSA completions.
  • Support Your Support Staff: Most cities offered several training opportunities for high school counselors and community volunteers, and several also created FAFSA toolkits that counselors and others could use to refresh their memories over the course of the school year.
  • Set Goals and Track Progress: A crucial strategy in most of the cities was the use of data on FAFSA completion by high school seniors to set goals for the city as a whole and for each participating high school and to track progress toward those goals. FAFSA completion data proved to be an incredibly useful mechanism for both understanding what was happening with FAFSA completions in each city and encouraging accountability on the part of school districts and high schools.

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