Which State Led the Pack in FAFSA Completion This Year — and How?

August 10, 2017

By Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern 

For 365 days beginning June 30, 2016, officials in one state worked across sectors to help more students than ever seek money for college  and it worked. Utah showed the greatest improvement of any state in high school FAFSA completions, demonstrating an increase of 33 percent in just one year — over 10 percentage points higher than Wyoming, which experienced the second-greatest increase, and more than 20 percentage points higher than the national average

How did the Beehive State accomplish such a great increase by June 30, 2017? 

“We have gone from event-driven strategies to a programmatic focus,” explained Stephen Rogers, manager of outreach services at the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE). “Step Up Utah [USHE’s outreach initiative] is a crosswalk that overlaps FAFSA completion, paying for college, and financial literacy.” The state’s FAFSA Completion Initiatives includes an awareness component, an assistance component, and a follow-up component.

The financial awareness process in Utah begins before senior year, so by the time students are ready to file the FAFSA, they are already familiar with it. The StepUp Utah Scholars program, for example, encourages junior high students to plan for college by completing college readiness tasks each year from 8th through 12th grade. The broader StepUp to Higher Education initiative also sends newsletters and text message reminders about scholarship opportunities, college prep tips, and application deadlines. “Over a quarter of a million people receive the newsletter, and we’re trying to grow that number over last year,” Rogers said.

When it comes time for students to file the FAFSA, they have hands-on support and incentives to apply. In November, close to 20,000 students from 32 school districts across the state attended Utah College Application Week events, where they learned about the college application process, submitted their applications, and for the first time last year, were able to the receive help filing the federal aid form (thanks, Early FAFSA!). Because the FAFSA opened Oct. 1. in 2016, College Application Week and FAFSA Completion Open Houses were paired together, so students could get help with multiple aspects of the college application process at once. Last year, StepUp Utah hosted over 75 FAFSA Completion Open Houses across the state and awarded a total of $3,000 in scholarships to attendees. 

About 67 percent of Utah public high schools utilize USHE’s FAFSA Data Site, which is available via a data-sharing agreement between high schools and USHE. Through this agreement, the designated Data Steward at each school can see which of their students have completed the FAFSA, who has been selected for verification, and who has yet to finish the form. This way, schools and college access partners such as GEAR UP, the Utah College Advising Corps, and NCAN member College Access Network of Utah (CAN U) can encourage students who have not yet completed the FAFSA and support those who have been selected for verification by using intervention strategies provided by USHE. 

“Knowing the individual FAFSA filing status of each student is a great advantage to advisors and counselors,” said Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy at NCAN. “The U.S. Department of Education granted permission for states to share this information with schools three years ago, and the work put into building a secure platform and training counselors and advisors to use the data is starting to pay off nationwide, especially in Utah.”

Another part of Utah’s success in raising FAFSA completion rates has to do with partnerships around the community. For example, USHE has solidified partnerships with community learning centers and libraries to reach underserved populations and parents of first-generation students. Here, a six-week, Saturday-morning program was provided for refugee parents on how to communicate with a guidance counselor and how to prepare their child for college. In rural communities, printed college preparation materials were distributed through a library book mobile service. 

What’s important about Utah’s initiatives is that parents and families aren’t the only ones who benefit from USHE’s programmatic initiatives. To prepare college access staff for success, USHE designed a FAFSA Boot Camp — a four-hour, online course that uses the FAFSA Demo Site to bring counselors and advisors up to speed on filing the FAFSA. Attendees walk through various filing scenarios, and upon completion, receive credential hours.   

College access staff also benefit from Step Up’s “Do-It-Yourself FAFSA Kit,” which provides resources and guidelines to host a FAFSA event at their own school. This filing season, for the first time, each school was incentivized to host their own event thanks to the opportunity to win $750 in Professional Development Grants through the “FAFSA Cup,” a competition among high schools. The team finishing with the highest percentage of FAFSA completion at their school will win an award to be announced at the USHE Conference for School Counselors and Administrators in September, where over 750 public school counselors convene annually. 

Each of these moving parts in Utah — early awareness about financial aid, hands-on assistance and follow-up, community partnerships, and professional development — have contributed to the incredible advance in FAFSA completion rates this year and aided the shift from an event-driven focus to a programmatic, holistic initiative. Most importantly, the Utah System of Higher Education and all of its partners have demonstrated clear leadership by collaborating across the state to raise FAFSA completion among high school students. 

If you would like to share your FAFSA completion strategies with NCAN — both what has worked and what hasn’t — email Graduate Policy Intern Courtney Argenti. Also, be sure to register for our 2017 National Conference taking place Sept. 11-13 in San Diego! There will be plenty of information about FAFSA completion this year, including successful strategies and networking opportunities to meet others in the field.

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