Promising FAFSA Completion Strategies in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Puerto Rico

October 21, 2016

By Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern

We talked with three NCAN member organizations working to raise FAFSA completion rates by at least 5 percent in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Juan, Puerto Rico this season as part of our FAFSA Completion Challenge and found some common strategies within each of their campaigns.

UNITE-LA, Arizona College Access Network (AzCAN), and Kinesis Foundation of Puerto Rico have provided personalized assistance for their students, administered extensive training for school counselors to overcome barriers faced in their unique FAFSA campaigns, and collaborated across sectors to raise awareness of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Each organization has worked diligently to raise awareness about Early FAFSA and has been hosting district-wide FAFSA workshops throughout the month of October. 

Personalized Assistance

In Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), many students are cannot file a FAFSA due to their immigration status. However, undocumented students meeting specific criteria are eligible to apply for in-state tuition, institutional aid and scholarships, state-funded grants, and state-funded loans through the California Dream Act, which also launched its application on Oct. 1 this year — thanks to a commitment from the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC). UNITE-LA, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, and their partners also focus on raising awareness of and helping students complete their California Dream Act applications as part of their FAFSA completion efforts. 

Linda Jensen, Director of AzCAN, explained that completing the FAFSA can often take longer than average for many families due to complicated financial and immigration situations. They have discovered that follow-ups with students who submit their applications are necessary, as oftentimes students with complex situations have errors in their application. Taking this into account, initiatives throughout the Phoenix area include school-wide FAFSA workshops and group sessions through the end of 2016, and in the first six months of 2017, more focused one-on-one sessions will be held to provide students with additional guidance. Additionally, NCAN member College Depot hosts advisory FAFSA sessions for students six days per week. 

Kinesis Foundation is the first organization to promote FAFSA completion throughout Puerto Rico, so they have needed to recreate material that is appropriate for their students. Each year, they publish an English-Spanish Bilingual FAFSA E-book, which is available for public use. Additionally, Kinesis Foundation’s Bright Stars Program provides financial planning literacy workshops for students and parents beginning in grade 7. This support continues through 12th grade, and has proved its success: All Bright Stars Students complete the FAFSA and 99 percent enroll in college. 

School Counselor Training

To increase regional capacity in the Los Angeles area, school counselors, community partners, and other school site staff attend training sessions that cover: changes to the FAFSA filing process, most frequent FAFSA filing mistakes, frequently asked questions, and where to find available support for hosting FAFSA completion workshops. Line-by-line training and discussion of family and student scenarios common to the area are ways in which attendees familiarize themselves with FAFSA completion.

In Puerto Rico, students cannot use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool because of the differences in tax filing. This promotes insecurity among high school counselors because they “do not want to be involved in the financial aspect of the student, in case of errors, especially,” explained Kinesis Foundation’s Programs Director, Yamira Flores Rodríguez, and Financial Aid Coordinator, Isabel Soto Cruz.

Similarly, in Phoenix, “we discovered there was a fear of telling families the wrong thing and leading them to mistakes on the FAFSA,” said Linda Jensen.

Kinesis and AzCAN are working to improve counselor strengths and minimize their anxieties through comprehensive training. Both organizations have incorporated line-by-line FAFSA training. Additionally, Phoenix school counselors complete scenario-based training. School counselors in Puerto Rico, meanwhile, complete a five-day financial aid course that emphasizes the difference between FAFSA “preparers” and counselors — the latter simply offer resources for FAFSA completion — in order to decrease apprehension associated with helping students complete financial information.

Raising Awareness through Media and Cross-Sector Partnerships

 All three organizations have committed fully to raising awareness about the FAFSA and helping students complete the form through their established cross-sector partnerships with nonprofits, local government, higher education, and various media outlets. AzCAN, in collaboration with NCAN member Helios Education Foundation, and UNITE-LA also have implemented a text messaging system to remind students about important deadlines and FAFSA events.

For their FAFSA campaign LA Cash for College, UNITE-LA and the LA Area Chamber of Commerce have developed a strong partnership with Univision K-MEX, a local Spanish-language television broadcasting station, as well as several English-language media outlets including the Los Angeles Times, KCRW, Power 106 FM, and The Sentinel newspaper. To raise awareness before the launch of Early FAFSA, UNITE-LA and the LA Area Chamber of Commerce participated in a press conference with the mayor, conducted a studio interview on Univision, held a public affairs radio show on Early FAFSA launch day, and hosted a phone bank together with Univision to answer live questions about the FAFSA and California Dream Act process.

Phoenix utilizes two special groups to increase FAFSA awareness: families and students. Community volunteers and bilingual parents spread the word of college-going events prior to Early FAFSA’s launch via Arizona State University’s American Dream Academy call center. And last year, student government teams and campus-based clubs of NCAN member Be a Leader Foundation generated buzz around FAFSA completion through students’ original marketing idea of “I Applied—I’m College Bound” stickers for each FAFSA completer.

A great thank you to: Paola Santana, UNITE-LA and LA Area Chamber of Commerce Director of Education and Workforce Development; Linda Jensen, Arizona College Access Network Director; and Yamira Flores Rodríguez, Kinesis Foundation Programs Director and Isabel Soto Cruz, Kinesis Foundation Financial Aid Coordinator, for making this blog possible!

If you would like to share your FAFSA completion challenges and strategies with NCAN, contact Graduate Policy Intern Courtney Argenti.

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