Members Help Schools Achieve Outstanding FAFSA Completion Rates for 2017

December 4, 2017

By Shelbe Klebs, Graduate Policy Intern 

Students in high-poverty school districts do not always complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at the same rate as their lower-poverty peers. Large gaps in these rates exist between wealthy and impoverished school districts across the country. Overall, these gaps remained largely the same from June 2016 to June 2017, but it is possible to close them. Many standout districts across the country are achieving high FAFSA completion rates in spite of their high-poverty status.

NCAN compared these rates in an October report by Lindsay C. Page and Danielle Lowry at the University of Pittsburgh. As shown in the table below, certain school districts had higher FAFSA filing rates than what was predicted for them. These districts come from a wide range of states and are excellent examples of districts doing well.

State  District  FAFSA Completion Rate, 2017  Predicted FAFSA Completion Rate, 2017  Residual  Number of Students Enrolled  Percentage of Children in Poverty 
 AZ Yuma Union High School District 58.13  45.17  12.96  10,676  30.66 
 PA The School District of Philadelphia  72.81 57.48  15.33  134,241  37.51 
 OH Cincinnati City School District 80.0*   45.67 34.33  32,444  35.73 
 MO Kansas City 33 School District 67.56  49.45  18.11  15,386  35.61 

*Note: Data are from the U.S. Department of Education and NCES Common Core of Data. This district's actual FAFSA completion rate may be higher but, due to the U.S. Department of Education’s style of reporting, the highest possible value for FAFSA completion is 80%.

These school districts stood out for using unique and innovative methods to drive FAFSA completion. NCAN members in Yuma, AZ, Philadelphia, PA, Cincinnati, OH, and Kansas City, MO shared their strategies.

Yuma, AZ

NCAN member Arizona College Access Network (AzCAN) is very active in the Yuma Union High School District. Yuma has partnered with AzCAN and the Helios Education Foundation to participate in the College Knowing & Going initiative, which helps students with postsecondary planning and FAFSA completion. Yuma has worked diligently over the last few years with Helios to raise the quality of education within the district. 

The city of Yuma is located on the Arizona-California-Mexico border, hours away from the nearest major metropolitan area. It is primarily an agricultural community and there is only one nearby community college. Despite this isolation, Yuma exceeded its predicted completion rate of 45.17 percent and achieved an actual rate of 58.13 percent in 2017. 

The district initially noticed that FAFSA numbers were lacking and moved up financial aid events from midway through the school year to closer to the beginning of the year. “They are building on what they started last year,” AzCAN Director Linda Jensen said. They began targeted outreach to students using more one-on-one meetings and additional group events to provide opportunities to complete the FAFSA.

Additionally, the district was driven by its student-level FAFSA data, and has been using these data innovatively to achieve local goals. Through the federal FAFSA Completion by High School and Public School District tool, any district or state can view the number of locally submitted and completed applications for first-time filers under age 19. Jensen said the entire district has been “paying attention to numbers and curriculum and quality and service to students, and they are really seeing the payoff for that work.”

At San Luis High School, the 12th grade guidance counselor spends extra time working with the student-level data to develop individualized, targeted intervention plans to ensure students are not falling through the cracks. The other five high schools in the district are planning to adopt this method to achieve the same success. The district recognizes that achieving high FAFSA completions rates falls on everyone.

“The message has been very clear that we’re all in this together, and it’s not just the counselors,” Jensen said.

Philadelphia, PA

This year, The School District of Philadelphia staff began to think differently about their FAFSA completion events, which previously were scattered with low participation. They aimed to increase the meetings’ attendance and effectiveness, starting with an awareness campaign for a new competition between high schools. At the city’s College Signing Day, the school with the highest FAFSA completion rate received an award to emphasize that FAFSA completion is a top priority. For the current filing cycle, the district will expand to five awards.

Philadelphia is committed to its students’ academic success. The district and its superintendent recently committed to a goal of having 100 percent of their students ready for college or careers when they graduate. This goal coincided with a citywide effort to increase FAFSA completion rates with the FAFSA Completion Challenge. Philly made great strides in 2017 by achieving a 72.81-percent completion rate, well above its predicted rate of 57.48 percent.

District officials knew that achieving this ambitious goal would require a team effort. They partnered with NCAN member College Possible, as well as other active members in the area such as the Philadelphia College Prep Roundtable, to bring high-quality coaches into 19 high schools to provide one-on-one support for students attempting to complete the FAFSA. But not before the Office of Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Education Department, trained them as a group on how exactly to work with students.

College Possible coaches typically work in a cohort model, meaning each coach works with the same 40 students throughout the year. Coaches worked hard to raise awareness and spread information while also hosting completion events in English classes and after school when the district as a whole held events. For the current filing season, College Possible will expand beyond the cohort and use student-level data to target its approach for each school.

“College Possible puts forth extensive efforts to make sure that our students complete the FAFSA, in order to help remove financial barriers on their journey to higher education,” the organization’s Program Director Precious Mines said. “Over the past year, it has been a pleasure to partner with The Philadelphia School District at large with concentrated efforts to assist students across the city of Philadelphia to do the same.”

Cincinnati, OH

Cincinnati Public Schools is committed, as a district, to removing access and affordability barriers to postsecondary education. NCAN member GRAD Cincinnati has partnered with schools in the district to ensure that students have what they need to be successful. In 2017, Cincinnati achieved an outstanding 80-percent FAFSA completion rate, nearly double its predicted rate of 45.67 percent.

GRAD Cincinnati has a strong presence in many of the high schools, but one that stands out is Oyler School. The students there are primarily first-generation, so GRAD decided the greatest impact would come from one-on-one meetings through a “FAFSA Café.” Members of the college access team meet families for coffee in the GRAD office at least once before the families begin the FAFSA with help from the team. They provide this individual support while also hosting FAFSA Finish Nights and College Seminar classes. 

Cincinnati Public Schools and GRAD are committed to using data to drive change. At Western Hills University High School, a team comprising the school’s only school counselor, senior class faculty members, and other essential administrators to increase the completion rate using evidence-backed methods. “Team FAFSA” increased one-on-one financial planning meetings and was intentional about scheduling meetings in advance to improve logistics. Additionally, follow-up phone calls to confirm appointments helped families keep them. A detailed tracking document helps staff monitor the application process for seniors.

The district’s focus on having good data and family engagement has paved the way for achieve great completion results. "Family engagement is the key that unlocks the financial opportunities afforded to college-bound students through the FAFSA," said William Harris, the family engagement coordinator at Western Hills.

Kansas City, MO

In 2016, NCAN awarded Kansas City a FAFSA Completion Challenge grant as a means to raise the FAFSA completion rate by at least 5 percent among the district’s graduating class. The NCAN-member organization that administered the grant was the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), which partnered with Kansas City Public Schools to achieve that goal. In 2017, Kansas City saw a FAFSA completion rate of 67.56 percent, compared to a predicted rate of 49.45 percent. 

MARC brought together members of the College Advising Corps, counselors, and leaders within the district’s administration to discuss their challenges in FAFSA completion. The grant allowed MARC and the district to build relationships and because of this collaboration, they began to address those problems.

A large chunk of Kansas City’s population does not speak English and would benefit from translated materials, but the district lacked funding. With the help of MARC, the district created translated materials in Vietnamese, Swahili, and Spanish that were then distributed to families. The grant funding made this possible and helped bridge the gap with parents.

“We have to engage parents in a more meaningful way and needed more consistent language with other partners so there was no misinformation,” said Sheri Gonzales Warren, MARC’s community & economic development manager. Technical FAFSA language can be confusing for people who have never experienced it before. Parent engagement was key, so a January mailing explained the importance of the FAFSA using simpler language that was consistent across both organizations with the hope that this change would reduce confusion.

Additionally, MARC and the district partnered with the local community college to host a celebration party, which students could attend if they completed the FAFSA by the state priority deadline of Feb. 1, as well as a college application. The party location allowed students to spend time on a college campus and was very successful, with more than 500 attendees including the superintendent and other district leaders. Overall, an informed and engaged district leadership and efforts driven by student-level data helped lead to Kansas City’s great FAFSA completion rate.

These districts and members achieved great results during the last filing cycle and will continue to improve in the current and future cycles.

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