News: Financial Aid

FAFSA Completion Challenge Cities Weigh In On Effective Strategies, Challenges

Wednesday, October 23, 2019  
Posted by: guest blogger ASA Research
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A spring survey of 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge grantees and their partners requested input on effective strategies and partnerships, challenges, and lessons learned. Survey highlights follow.


Cities were asked to identify the strategies in which they engage from the following list:

  • Social media outreach
  • Community outreach
  • FAFSA school events
  • Staff/partner training
  • Peer coaching
  • Data use
  • Small group workshops
  • One-on-one assistance
  • Other (open-ended; responses included incentives/rewards, campus competitions, and FAFSA advisory board.)

Nearly all respondents indicated that their city holds schoolwide FAFSA events (95%). A majority have also implemented one-on-one assistance (81%), small group events or workshops (76%), community outreach (74%), social media outreach (72%), data use (64%), and staff or partner training strategies (62%). A smaller number, just over one-third, implemented peer coaching strategies (36%).

Figure 1. Active Site Strategies (n=58)

Number of Strategies

Nearly half of respondents indicated their site offers seven to eight FAFSA completion strategies, and the majority (85%) engage in four or more.

Figure 2. Number of Strategies (n=58)

Most Effective Strategy

The majority of respondents identified either school-based FAFSA events or one-on-one student assistance as their most effective strategy.

Figure 3. Most Effective Strategy (n=55)

What Makes Strategies Effective

The selected examples below illustrate why respondents find one-on-one assistance to be the most effective strategy:

  • “FAFSA [completion] requires a lot of follow up. You must build relationships with students to urge them to completion/make sure they remember you. You also have a captive audience this way, because you can send them passes and force them to sit and work.”
  • “This activity has been proven to be most effective when supporting students with financial aid [form] submission and completion. It allows for students to disclose/feel more comfortable disclosing any personal information and provides more time to answer student specific questions. I am able to create an individual list of actionable items for students to complete their financial aid applications.”
  • “Each student’s situation is unique and leans heavily into the relationship between student and staff.”

Although one-on-one assistance was identified by many cities as the most effective way to help students to complete the FAFSA, they faced challenges engaging parents. Some cities found that coupling one-on-one student assistance with family outreach can help ensure that all portions of the FAFSA are complete:

  • “The biggest barrier that our district has to face is convincing parents to provide their financial information to complete the FAFSA application.”
  • “One-on-one assistance, when coupled with effective family and community outreach, have shown to be most effective [strategies].”

The following responses illustrate why sites/partners found FAFSA school events to be their most effective strategy:

  • “I think the school events are effective because of … messaging throughout the schools, the ease of attending, the immediate available help, and the camaraderie/support of peers doing the same thing at the same time. Also, not only do the FAFSA school events educate students and families about the FAFSA and provide help in completing it, but the events also spread the word to underclassmen.”
  • “The FAFSA school events allow us as a district to reach many students while also using our community resources with the area financial aid experts from our hometown colleges.  Many students have unique family situations and we greatly depend on our community working with us toward the common goal of students completing their FAFSA.”

School FAFSA events such as FAFSA nights often include opportunities for one-on-one assistance:

  • “The FAFSA school events are the most effective because students and parents seem to like to have one-on-ones with our staff as they are able to interact with us and build a relationship.”

Site Strengths and Challenges

When asked to select their greatest strengths and challenges, the majority (78%) indicated that experience working with students is a strength, followed by FAFSA/financial aid knowledge (67%). Respondents identified family/community outreach as the biggest challenge they face, with 53% of respondents selecting this option as a challenge, and only 40% as a strength. Just over one-third identified data collection/reporting and staffing capacity as challenges (35% each).

Figure 4. Sites’ Strengths and Challenges (n=55)

Biggest Challenge

When asked to rank their challenges from largest to smallest challenge, respondents selected family/community outreach as the most common top challenge (36%), followed by staffing capacity (18%) and data collection/reporting (16%).

Figure 5. Sites’ Top Challenge (n=55)

Strategies to Overcome Challenges

Below are some ways that respondents addressed their top challenges. Many sites are still trying to figure out how to improve family outreach:

  • “We have several families who refuse to file FAFSA due to ‘making too much money’ or the belief that ‘I won't get anything anyway.’ We are trying to use our Peer Coaches to convince students it is still worthwhile to file a FAFSA. We are also calling in all students in the top 50% [of their class] for one-on-one appointments to help them start their FAFSA. They can get 75% through without a parent. Sometimes getting started helps.”
  • “We are attempting to reach parents/families by partnering with the United Way's Volunteer Income Tax (VITA) program which offers free tax preparation for families making up to $66k/year…however, since it is a new initiative, we have not had a great response.”

To address staffing capacity, many sites took an “all hands on deck” approach by engaging staff throughout the organization, and/or relying on partner staff:

  • “Our campus has only one counselor for the whole campus of 400 students, so I have partnered with a senior teacher to help with completing/answering FAFSA applications/questions.”
  • “Due to limited staff, we are attempting to utilize additional campus staff to help support our FAFSA completion efforts. This staff includes teachers, coaches, and staff who support extracurricular activities. We are using these staff members to help reach out to students and families.”
  • “[We are] leaning into partnerships to augment district staffing capacity.”
  • “With the staffing capacity challenge, it became imperative to utilize community partners to cascade messaging and to share in the implementation of community outreach. Most people don't have a vast knowledge about FAFSA and are intimidated by it. This guided me closer to our local higher education partners who work as financial aid advisors.”

ASA Research continued monitoring sites’ strategies throughout the end of the grant; a final report is forthcoming.

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