Family Involvement and FAFSA Completion: Parent Engagement Matters

October 27, 2016

By Sara Melnick, Deputy Director

One of the keys to increasing postsecondary enrollment and completion is engaging parents and family members. The attitudes and beliefs of these adults can create or extinguish a community-wide college-going culture. Many NCAN members employ strategies to engage parents and families – from advising on how to support students, to educating on the many postsecondary options and which are best for their student, to offering information on financial literacy. We understand the value of ensuring parents support their students.

One of the most important times to engage parents and family members is when it comes time to complete the FAFSA. Dependent students need financial information from their parents or family members to file the application, but it’s also crucial the adults understand just how important completing the FAFSA is for their student’s success in postsecondary education. That’s why we asked the recipients of the Kresge FAFSA Completion Challenge Grant how they’re ensuring parents and families are involved in their FAFSA completion efforts. These key strategies emerged:

Meet them where they are. In Charleston, West Virginia, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission meets parents and family members where they are – at high school football games, of course. The College Foundation of West Virginia and Kanawha County Schools jointly host “FAFSA Friday” events at the games, where WiFi-equipped school buses are parked near the football stadiums and financial aid experts are on hand to help families learn about aid and the FAFSA online.  Meanwhile, I Know I Can in Columbus, Ohio connected with the Latino, Somali and Nepali communities, whose leaders suggested ways to maximize attendance at FAFSA completion workshops. They’ve also spread the word about the workshops among community members.

Provide incentives. We’ve heard it before: Providing food will increase attendance. But in Jackson, Mississippi, Get2College is not serving just ANY food -- they work with the Jackson Public Schools to produce a “Back-to-School Catfish Fry” for city partners and volunteers and staff working on FAFSA completion. They draw attendees from high schools, the mayor’s office, the local chapter of 100 Black Men, Parents for Public Schools Jackson, the Mississippi Department of Education, the State Office of Financial Aid, and local postsecondary institutions. They also provide giveaways to families who are tailgating at high school football games, where the cheerleaders throw “1st You Hafta FAFSA” footballs and rally rags into the crowds.

Inform, inform, inform. Before FAFSA completion events, Get2College mails a letter to the parents of each high school senior in the school district. The correspondence includes where to be, what to bring, and fast facts about the FAFSA, which aim to debunk myths that might have dissuaded families from attending a FAFSA completion event. Get2College also asks each high school to schedule a Financial Aid Workshop for parents prior to their FAFSA Days, to explain the application and its importance and allay any parental concerns about filing. In Houston, Texas, cafécollege Houston presented several financial aid 101 workshops at local high schools, an opportunity to also promote in-person FAFSA completion workshops. I Know I Can provides information to students through multiple avenues -- in-school announcements and parent-oriented flyers stuffed into backpacks, for example – that students can then relay to their families. 

Partnerships with the media. cafécollege Houston partnered with Univision to publicize FAFSA completion workshops through broadcasted radio segments to the entire metro area – and it worked. Families came out in droves, driving 30-45 minutes across the Houston metroplex to attend events and get the help they needed with FAFSA completion and college admission applications. Get2College also partners with the media to host a FAFSA completion day for Jackson Public Schools’ students and families, where a local radio broadcasts live from the parking lot. What’s more, they work with the media to produce geofencing ads (which are tied to a virtual boundary around a location), 30-second videos, and radio ads to build awareness about FAFSA among students and their family members.

Several other grantees in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Austin, Texas; Jacksonville, Florida; and Los Angeles, California are also working closely with the media to engage parents and families and get the word out about early FAFSA.

We’ll provide more detail on how these sites engage the media in a future blog post. In the meantime, we hope that you’ll use these ideas to bring parents out in your community!

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