How Three Cities Plan to Boost FAFSA Completion

July 6, 2016

By Allie Ciarmella, Communications Manager

In May, NCAN announced the 22 U.S. cities we chose to receive up to $55,000 each for the FAFSA Completion Challenge Grant. Through this project, generously supported through a $1.6 million grant from The Kresge Foundation, NCAN is challenging the 22 cities to increase FAFSA completion rates by at least 5 percent for the graduating high school class of 2017.

Two significant changes to the FAFSA coming this fall will make applying for aid easier and better-timed than ever for low-income students. The grant funding will support the planning and execution of citywide, cross-sector FAFSA completion efforts for the 2016-17 school year, with strategic efforts to help students navigate the new changes and timing.

Our nearly two dozen grantees are already thinking big, as evidenced by their applications for the funding. College access advocates in Charleston, West Virginia; Bakersfield, California and Detroit, Michigan -- the location of our upcoming national conference -- exemplify just a few of the exciting ways in which communities are creating broad partnerships to increase FAFSA completion rates, ultimately helping more low-income and underrepresented students apply to, enter and succeed in college.

The Motor City has experience with such things: It is also part of the Lumina Foundation’s Community Partnership for Attainment network, whose members work closely with Lumina and national thought leaders to develop a customized action plan to increase the percentage of high-quality credentials held by residents. But collaborative college access and readiness work in Detroit dates back to the spring of 2013, when a group of cross-sector organizations assembled to increase FAFSA completion rates -- and did so, in impressive numbers. The momentum led to the creation of the Detroit College Access Network, which is supported by the Michigan College Access Network.

And now, they’re aiming even higher: Detroit’s goal for the FAFSA Completion Challenge is to raise the citywide FAFSA completion rate from 58 percent for the class of 2015 to at least 65 percent by June 2017 (with an intermediate target goal of 40 percent by mid-December) and up to 75 percent within the next five years. DCAN will lead the data-driven effort, working with a so-called Action Team comprising partners from education, college access and success organizations and community groups. Among the team’s guiding principles: “The purpose is to strengthen our community and improve the outcome of children. We will use a student-centric lens … Team determines WHAT to accomplish (measurable outcome), but utilizes community engagement to determine HOW to reach it.”

The team will designate a “College Access Champion” at each Detroit high school and relevant community organization, who will convene their own action teams aimed at increasing their site’s FAFSA completion rates by at least 7 percent. 

The effort is aptly named -- the 2016-17 Detroit Drives FAFSA Campaign -- and that’s just the beginning of what we’ll see from the Motor City in the coming year. Stay tuned for more -- and if you haven’t already, consider registering for our 21st annual national conference in Detroit, where MCAN is eager to connect and collaborate.

Community engagement is at the heart of the FAFSA Completion Challenge strategy proposed in Bakersfield, California, where the Kern Community Foundation aims to use “a whole cadre of resources provided by the state and local partners, to maximize impact and effect change.”

The plan includes engaging high school seniors in a comprehensive financial literacy curriculum, coordinating a community-wide FAFSA awareness campaign, and creating a districtwide FAFSA Completion dashboard (modeled after the Florida FAFSA Finish Line’s trail-blazing version), along with a supporting toolkit.

The goal: To raise FAFSA completion rates among area seniors by 9 percentage points next year, to 60 percent, and after expanding the outreach, to increase rates to 75 percent county-wide within two years.

That will involve a slew of partners, but to name just a few: Kern High School District; community leaders and policy makers; the College Futures Foundation; several California State University offices, including the California Academic Partnership Program and the Educational Talent Search Program; social service groups, and of course, the media.

Onward, to West Virginia: The “multifaceted approach” in Charleston aims to boost FAFSA completion rates by six percentage points in 2016-17 and each year thereafter, until 78 percent of Kanawha County Schools seniors complete a FAFSA in 2019-20. 

The proposal by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission encompasses three main strategies: increasing communication aimed at informing students and families of the FAFSA’s significance and reducing informational barriers to on-time completion; increasing access to professional support in applying for financial aid; and building schools’ staff capacity to assist students and families in navigating and completing the process.

Signs of the collaborative approach will be visible all around -- at “FAFSA Friday” events before high school football games, in weekly progress reports at the superintendent’s office, and in Wi-Fi-equipped school buses bringing “mobile FAFSA labs” into metro-area grocery stores, churches, libraries and other community gathering places. Frequent and consistent use of personalized text messaging and automatic dialing systems will keep students and families in the loop.

NCAN looks forward to sharing additional strategies and results from more of our 22 FAFSA Completion Challenge grantee cities as their campaigns unfold.

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