West Virginia Innovates to Meet New FAFSA Completion Goal

December 9, 2016

By Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern

College Foundation of West Virginia (CFWV) has raised its statewide FAFSA completion goal to 60 percent, up from the 58.5-percent FAFSA completion rate achieved last year. CFWV, which is managed by NCAN member West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (WVHEPC), made the announcement on Dec. 1, the same day the group revealed its new data-sharing dashboard.  

The FAFSA data dashboard allows the public to view statewide and local FAFSA completion rates across West Virginia. Stakeholders can view each school or county’s progress toward the 60-percent FAFSA completion goal, as well as their respective weekly FAFSA completion rates. The most innovative feature of the dashboard is the county heat map, which allows viewers to conceptualize the progress of each county — and of West Virginia as a whole — on a color-coded map reflecting FAFSA completion rates. 

Adam Green, WVHEPC’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, and Jessica Kennedy, its Director of Communications and Outreach, explained that their data-sharing method promotes healthy competition. The former noted the heat map in particular: “Friendly competition is always good … Schools don’t want to be red, they want to be green.” 

The heat map colors counties according to their FAFSA completion rates on a scale from red to green. Counties that have reached or are approaching their goal of 60 percent are dark green in color, while counties with the lowest FAFSA completion rates are dark red. Counties in the middle are yellow, with varying shades of red, orange, yellow, and green in-between, depending on which side of the FAFSA completion scale the county lies. 

When asked what FAFSA completion strategies worked last year before the data-sharing method was revamped, Green explained: “To be successful, one must understand that one shoe doesn’t fit all. What worked for one school, may not work in another.”  

With this insight in mind, CFWV and its partners have built a variety of FAFSA resources for schools to tailor to their needs. Their Financial Aid Workshop Digital Toolkit and Financial-Aid-101, for example, are comprehensive guides to help schools set up their own student aid workshops and help students navigate the financial aid process (respectively). 

Green explained that, collectively, the most effective strategy was targeting students individually. High school counselors set up one-on-one appointments with students, called homes to arrange appointments with parents, and hosted more than 200 workshops last year. 

Counties took to various methods to raise awareness about the FAFSA. Some leveraged a text messaging campaign to remind students of important events and deadlines. Others placed FAFSA reminder slides in local movie theatres, signs in local businesses, and ads on marquees. In Kanawha County — where NCAN’s FAFSA Completion Challenge grantee city Charleston is located — FAFSA events and reminders are advertised at football and basketball games. 

These FAFSA campaigns have been in place throughout West Virginia this year — and with positive results. The county heat map shows that two counties are darker shades of green: Wirt and Webster. These counties already have over 40-percent FAFSA completion rates. Green noted that these are GEAR UP counties, which could play a role in their high completion rates. 

Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) recipients receive competitive federal grants increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in college through early college awareness and support services. 

Wyoming County, also a GEAR UP one, follows closely behind with a 38-percent completion rate. 

In West Virginia, Greenbrier and Doddridge — both non-GEAR UP counties — are not far behind Wirt and Webster. Colored lighter shades of green on the heat map, these counties have FAFSA completion rates upward of 30 percent. Friendly competition could explain how these two counties are closing in on the GEAR UP leaders, Green posited.

College Foundation of West Virginia began the data collection and sharing process in 2012. At that time, the statewide FAFSA completion was at 47 percent. Since then, leaders within CFWV have been pushing to refine the process and make data more digestible for the public. “This huge update will bring us even closer to meeting and exceeding 60 percent [FAFSA completion],” Green said. 

And West Virginia is already one-third of the way there (22 percent as of Nov. 25). You can continue to follow their successes in real-time by visiting their FAFSA completion dashboard or connecting with them on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook

For additional resources visit Form Your Future, NCAN’s national FAFSA completion campaign!

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