Case Studies on Early FAFSA and Change Management

January 30, 2017

By Dr. Barry W. Simmons Sr.

Dr. Barry W. Simmons Sr. is a (retired) Assistant Provost at Virginia Tech who has served as President (2012-16) at Project Discovery of Virginia, and President (2014-16) at Virginia College Access Network. He has also served at the College Board CSS National Council, as National Chair at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), and was Past President of Virginia Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (VASFAA). 

To paraphrase Charles Dickens from Dombey and Son, “Change is like the weather, we expect the weather to change.” Early FAFSA and the use of prior-prior year (PPY) income data have created real change within our access and success community. An improved application timeline and the ability to electronically retrieve tax information filed for an earlier year (via PPY) are giant leaps toward simplicity in the financial aid process. 

NCAN, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, initiated a study of Early FAFSA and PPY implementation at five NCAN member organizations: Denver Scholarship FoundationCollegeTracksCollege Now Greater ClevelandACCESS College Foundation (VA), and 10,000 Degrees. The goal is to understand how different organizations around the country have handled such a big change. Phase one of the study looked at the pre-implementation of Early FAFSA and PPY: planning, training, and resource allocation prior to the initiation of Early FAFSA on Oct. 1, 2016. Stage two of the study (currently in progress) is a midstream view Early FAFSA and PPY’s implementation, and stage three, beginning in late spring, will assess the end of the FAFSA season.

As an early advocate of PPY, I am delighted to report that it appears the access and success community is doing well in terms of change management and PPY implementation.

When President Obama announced the new Early FAFSA and PPY initiative for the 2017-18 FAFSA season in September 2015, a significant amount of panic struck various observers. Within our study group, panic ranged from little to moderate. One organization, for example, concentrated on assuring staff, “it would all work out.”

Things began to settle down in the spring of 2016 when several organizations adopted the “task force” model of planning and others went about planning in their normal manner. In this process, several organizations looked at Early FAFSA and PPY as an opportunity to try something new. One organization seized on the initiative as a chance to adopt an approach piloted the year before. 

Organizations began training and preparing their teams earlier to accommodate the upcoming changes. In some instances, college access novices were matched with career veterans to expand and improve the training process. One organization relied heavily on use of volunteers for training and preparation, while another expanded its use of “student ambassadors” in the delivery of services. Many organizations commented that this change provided opportunities to strengthen existing relationships with external organizations.  

In general, organizations rolled their calendars forward to begin their FAFSA efforts in September and October and adjusted their outreach approaches to raise awareness about Early FAFSA and PPY. For example, one organization moved FAFSA workshops and awareness events from after-school hours to an assembly event during the school day, while another compressed what had been a month-long series of FAFSA events into one week. A separate organization bussed all seniors from one district to a local arena for a FAFSA event. 

The logistics of resource allocation varied by organization, and to some degree, were influenced by the receipt of special grants. But in general, organizations in our study did not need additional resources. 

Overall, it appears that the access and success community is managing change well. There was positive anticipation that increased use of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool would lend support to simplification, and across the board, NCAN members within our study commented that they enjoyed excellent cooperation from the local campus and central office officials. There is, however, still concern with the FSA ID — which does not necessarily relate to Early FAFSA or PPY, as it predates both changes. 

Another area of concern that arose when talking with representatives within our study was the professional judgement (appeals) process at institutions, which allows a family to appeal their aid award based on a change in circumstances. Specifically, I asked, “How well do our providers understand and know the professional judgement (appeals) process at institutions?” Responses varied, but most said they would look closer at the potential for increased need for and use of professional judgement.  

It is crucial that our access and success community is familiar with the professional judgement process because the three additional months that the FAFSA is available are also three additional months in which “life can happen,” causing financial circumstances to change. Families should also be able to easily initiate the appeals process by finding it on college and university websites. 

Similar studies by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) are also underway to understand how postsecondary institutions are handling the major change. For example, NASFAA’s October 2016 report, Implementation of Early FAFSA and Prior-Prior Year: Recent Experiences of Four Institutions, highlights four distinct institutions’ implementation techniques, challenges faced, and changes made to priority aid deadlines leading up to the launch of Early FAFSA and PPY. 

All three of these studies provide insight into change management and the strengths and challenges of Early FAFSA and PPY. Continuing the dialogue within and outside of our community is important to ensure a smooth transition for upcoming years and ultimately, to ensure that our students are guaranteed the best possible opportunities.

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

Also, view our newly released Streamlined FAFSA — a user-tested, faster, easier, and more accurate model that proves FAFSA simplification isn’t just a pipe dream: We can #FixFAFSA!

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