News: Financial Aid

NCAN FAFSA Completion Challenge Kickoff: Pre-Implementation Challenges

Wednesday, September 19, 2018  
Posted by: guest blogger ASA Research
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NCAN recently awarded grants to 25 cities to increase their FAFSA completion rates. This 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge, funded by The Kresge Foundation and Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates, builds on the work of NCAN’s initial 2016-17 Challenge, which saw an average FAFSA completion increase of 4.4 percent across 22 cities.

The first FAFSA Completion Challenge identified several broad promising strategies, which current grantees are required to build into their own plans. These strategies include:

  • Accessing and using student-level data to improve the ability to track student progress to FAFSA completion.
  • Engaging with and coordinating a cross-sector group of partners to assist with improving FAFSA completion rates.
  • Strategic outreach through targeted communications and FAFSA completion activities to ensure that everyone has the necessary information to complete the FAFSA.
  • Building capacity to assist students with completing the actual form.

Current Status

NCAN kicked off the 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge with a summer institute convening city grantees in Dallas in June 2018. ASA Research, the project evaluator, conducted a series of focus groups with representatives from the grantee sites to gather information about their plans, goals, and any early concerns related to project plans. As the independent, third-party evaluator, ASA Research is currently collecting information and feedback from grantees as they begin implementing their Challenge strategies. Throughout the summer, ASA met with sites to learn more about their implementation plans. The grantee sites shared several early, pre-implementation concerns, which are summarized below.

Anticipated Challenges

The majority of the sites’ pre-implementation challenges fall into the following five categories:

  1. Reaching Parents/Families: Several sites expressed concern about reaching and engaging parents/families of students and gaining the buy-in necessary to help their students complete the FAFSA process.
  2. Working with Data: Many sites have never worked with FAFSA completion data (or any student-level data) and anticipate challenges around the grant requirement of reporting FAFSA completion rates and working with student-level data.
  3. Capacity to Help Students Individually: Some sites shared that, while they find one-on-one counseling to be the most effective method to help students complete the FAFSA, this level of support is not always possible due to limited resources.
  4. Partner Buy-In: Representatives of community-based organizations (CBOs) cited achieving buy-in from schools to be a challenge. CBOs would like to shift the mindset of school administrators so they understand that all students should fill out the FAFSA and have the opportunity or choice to attend college.
  5. FAFSA Knowledge: Sites expressed concern about project staff not having sufficient financial aid- or FAFSA-specific knowledge to answer students’ and families’ questions about the form and the FAFSA process.

Addressing Early Challenges

From this early information, ASA is identifying and reporting common themes or findings which NCAN, as the technical assistance (TA) provider, can then use to enhance its ongoing trainings and guidance to the sites. NCAN is providing TA throughout the Completion Challenge to help the sites address difficulties by providing information about promising practices, including those learned from the first Challenge grant. NCAN will help sites tailor the most appropriate strategies for each city’s unique set of strengths, resources, and demographic characteristics.

Evaluation Feedback Loop

During the initial implementation phase, sites will have the opportunity to adjust their strategies as initial FAFSA completion data come in  as well as results from ASA’s surveys and focus groups with site representatives. While these initial findings allow for adjustments and improvements to be made to sites’ implementation, the overarching goal of the evaluation is to identify promising practices, based on data collected throughout the year. Throughout the challenge year, ASA will use both quantitative and qualitative data sources to identify and report on strategies that appear to improve FAFSA completion rates. ASA will work collaboratively with NCAN to ensure that any challenges are identified and can be addressed through TA activities.

Idea Exchange

The sites voiced their appreciation for the opportunity to share and learn from one another during the focus groups. Sites shared their ideas and plans for FAFSA completion strategies, including engaging in friendly competition, training peer advisors, and integrating content into the curriculum.

Questions and Invitation to Share

NCAN is interested in hearing from the community! Please see the questions below and consider this opportunity to share which strategies have worked to help improve FAFSA completion rates for your students.

  • What strategies have you found to be effective for increasing FAFSA completion?
  • What documented evidence do you have that your strategy has increased FAFSA completion rates?