Accelerate Recovery: Double Down on FAFSA Completion

Wednesday, May 6, 2020
Lauren Norton
Associate Director

With families facing deep financial hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is more important than ever. We know that, particularly during an economic downturn, a postsecondary degree or credential is key to opening the door to economic opportunity. Yet, faced with uncertainty of what the future might hold, many students are reconsidering their postsecondary plans, choosing to go to a college that is less expensive or closer to home, or deciding to defer their college plans entirely.

According to recent data from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), more than 55,000 fewer students have completed the FAFSA compared to this time last year. Nationally, this equates to a 2.8 percentage point decrease, with only California, Nevada, and Texas seeing improvements from the previous year. This impact is felt particularly deeply by communities that serve low-income and first-generation students – the students who stand to benefit most from financial aid.

Earlier this year, ESG released Fast Track FAFSA Completion, a report on the highest impact strategies for increasing FAFSA completion. Building on the lessons from this report, today we are releasing a series of five case studies that highlight the impressive efforts of local communities across the country to support students and families in completing the FAFSA. 

When we initially conducted research for these publications, we could not have predicted that a global pandemic would fundamentally change every facet of the education system as we knew it. Despite the monumental challenges they face, state agencies, local school districts, higher education institutions, and community organizations across the country have quickly pivoted to providing support virtually. In addition to the strategies we have outlined in the case studies, here are a few of the creative and effective approaches we have seen emerge since the start of the outbreak.

– Provide virtual support to students and families

– Prioritize targeted communication to build and maintain engagement

– Launch short-term competitions and incentives

– Refine institutional policies for admissions, enrollment, and financial aid

Provide virtual support to students and families

As we outlined in Fast Track FAFSA Completion, there is no replacement for providing individualized support to students and families in completing the FAFSA. In the absence of being able to meet in person, many providers have pivoted to a virtual advising model since the outbreak. At the state level, agencies have been staffing phone banks and recruiting volunteers to hold virtual, one-on-one office hours. For example, Indiana hosted an all-day virtual FAFSA Frenzy event, with students and families able to text or call one of eight regional phone lines for personalized assistance and agency staff answering the most commonly asked questions on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Tennessee and Louisiana, which have held on to the top two spots in the national rankings for FAFSA completion, are offering similar models of support.

Other providers have launched innovative, technology-embedded solutions to widen their reach. The College Board partnered with the Benefits Data Trust to develop Penny, a text messaging chat bot that uses machine learning to answer student questions about completing the FAFSA. The CommonApp collaborated with AdmitHub and the College Advising Corps to integrate a free chatbot named Oli that is targeted specifically towards the nation’s 200,000 first-generation and low-income applicants. Each week, Oli sends students guidance on key college enrollment milestones – including filling out the FAFSA and applying for scholarships – and sends responses to their questions. If a student would prefer to correspond with a human, Oli connects them with staff from the College Advising Corps.

Prioritize targeted communication to build and maintain engagement

To spread the message about the importance of the FAFSA and the supports that are available to students and families, many states and districts have doubled down on their communications efforts. For example, as part of their FAFSA Now campaign, the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Aid (LOSFA) hosted a financial aid webinar, developed a press kit with sample social media posts, and hosted a Twitter chat with Louisiana GEAR UP to address some of the most common misconceptions about the FAFSA.

Additionally, leading national organizations such as the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) and uAspire have built out their repositories of resources for students, families, and educators, with financial aid checklists, award letter review tools, sample appeal letters, and video tutorials for completing the FAFSA, to name just a few.

Launch short-term competitions and incentives

To drive improvement at the local level, many states and districts have turned to hosting FAFSA completion challenges over the past several years. By harnessing the competitive spirit among schools, these challenges often provide incentives for schools with the highest completion rates or which demonstrate the most significant year-to-year growth. While many of this year’s FAFSA completion challenges have concluded, some sites have launched new, short-term competitions since the start of the outbreak. College Goal Arizona, an initiative of the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education, launched a 21-day virtual FAFSA challenge from April 11th to May 1st. The high schools with the highest increase in FAFSA completion won a laptop to award to a senior of their choice who has completed the FAFSA. Chiefs for Change, a national network of state and district education leaders, has partnered with former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to extend their FAFSA Fast Break competition among the 20 districts led by their members.

Refine institutional policies for admissions, enrollment, and financial aid

Institutions must ensure they have clear appeals processes for financial aid. Since students are unable to revise or resubmit the FAFSA – even if their family experiences job loss or a significant change in income after submitting the form – their only option for having their award letters reconsidered is to submit an appeal directly to their selected college’s financial aid office. To support students with navigating this unfamiliar process, FormSwift and the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation have launched SwiftStudent, a free, online platform that guides students through the financial aid appeals process and provides customizable templates for students to send a request to their school’s financial aid office.

In addition, on top of the financial difficulties their families may be facing, many students understandably are struggling to commit to attending an institution they may have never visited in person. While many admissions offices have embraced virtual open houses and prospective student events, over 325 higher education institutions across the country have chosen to extend their decision deadlines to June 1st or later to give students additional time to weigh their postsecondary options. Likewise, several states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and West Virginia, have extended their deadlines to apply for state financial aid programs.

With the clock ticking for students to decide on their plans for the fall, now is the time for education leaders across K-12 and higher education to ensure that students have completed the FAFSA. In doing so, they can help students see that, even during this challenging time, their college dreams can be an affordable reality.