News: Financial Aid

How FAFSA Completion Challenge Cities Made the Most of Partnerships

Tuesday, December 24, 2019  
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By guest blogger ASA Research

Partnerships were a required component of the 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge (FCC). The 25 city grantees – led by either school districts, community-based organizations (CBOs), or institutions/agencies of higher education – partnered with other sectors in their cities to expand their capacity to deliver FAFSA completion strategies. A survey of FCC cities and their partners revealed that these partnerships were valued and strong: 89% of the 55 survey respondents considered their primary partnerships to be strong or very strong.

ASA followed up with several cities to learn more about what makes these partnerships effective. A summary of lessons and advice from these cities follows.

Partnership Benefits

Cities interviewed for this blog highlighted the following benefits of engaging partners in FAFSA completion:

  • Staff time: Perhaps the most valuable benefit of partnerships is the staff time partners can contribute, particularly when the grantee organization does not have sufficient staff of its own, such as with small nonprofit CBOs and school counselors who may already have large caseloads and multiple responsibilities.
  • Expertise: Partners can also bring complementary sets of expertise; for example, several school districts partnered with organizations that specialize in FAFSA completion, such as community-based college access organizations or the financial aid office of a postsecondary partner. These specialists could supplement the expertise of counselors who were trained for a range of student supports but may not have had as much experience helping students complete the FAFSA.
  • Access: Partnerships can provide access to otherwise hard to reach populations; for example, Angelica Alvarez, manager, postsecondary readiness student & family engagement for the Puget Sound Educational Service District (the Kent, Washington, site lead) reached out to local organizations that serve Latino families in an attempt to better understand and reach that population.
  • Resources: In some cases, partners contribute financial resources through in-kind donations. The Austin Chamber of Commerce provided gift cards as incentives to Round Rock counselors since the school district does not allow the use of grant funding for gift cards. Survey respondents indicated that partnerships contribute space/facilities, events, and content/materials.
  • Ideas: Meeting with partners can bring more diverse perspectives to generate “ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of,” as LaToya Young, executive director of the Tyler Area Business Education Council (the Tyler site lead) shared.
  • Awareness: Young also noted that “everyone in the community wants to help” their communities with efforts such as FAFSA completion and college access, but individuals and organizations do not always know how to get involved. Forming partnerships helps spread awareness of initiatives such as FCC throughout the community, and opens the doors for broader participation and collaboration. Tyler has a strong relationship with its local Chamber, which has a large presence in the area and name recognition. The Chamber also has a large mailing list and sent event invitations on the site’s behalf to lend credibility and increased response rates.

Forming and Strengthening Partnerships

Tyler is a staff of one and relies on partnerships for its work. Young suggests taking the initiative to approach local organizations and get involved in person by attending open meetings, volunteering for committees, and offering to make presentations. Young found that local organizations are often looking for speakers on various topics to present to the community.

Alvarez recommends planning events with partners rather than looking for partners after an event has been scheduled. This way, you can ensure that the event timing and location is convenient for all parties. Young strengthened Tyler’s relationships with districts and colleges by planning event details for them. Once the time and location had been finalized, “all they had to do was show up,” leaving them more time for their other responsibilities. Alvarez follows up with partners after events to debrief and discuss ways to improve the next event.

Sites recommend planning ahead and communicating regularly with partners to ensure that programs continue seamlessly in the event of staffing changes. Dawn Cooper, assistant vice chancellor of college access initiatives, Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (the Savannah site lead), recommends having a team of several individuals from each partner organization at the table beginning with the kickoff meeting, including “everyone who will touch [about] any part of the work,” not just one representative of each organization. She suggests keeping the entire team updated on any developments, and being in touch at least monthly by phone. This way, if anyone leaves the organization, others will be informed and able to continue the work.

Partnership Examples

All non-district grantees partnered with school districts, since districts have easy access to counselors and students. Many cities partnered with colleges and universities to engage financial aid counselors who were able to provide FAFSA training, expertise, and assistance at events. Some unique partnerships are highlighted below.

Business Partnership Spotlight

Round Rock ISD partnered with both the Austin and Round Rock Chambers of Commerce, which lent expertise, support, training, communications, and help in coordinating events. The Chambers also acted as liaisons, connecting Round Rock ISD to other local chambers, foundations, and universities. Tyler found that being connected to a Chamber provides access to local city and county agencies that are part of its network. Christina Wiswell, director of counseling services for the Round Rock Independent School District (the Round Rock site lead), attends Chamber meetings regularly. This relationship initiated in 2005, when the Austin Chamber formed an education council with surrounding school districts.*

Community Partnership Spotlight

Alvarez partnered with the local library system by training its staff on FAFSA completion. Students created FSA IDs at Kent school events, and were then directed to the library the following week to bring additional information needed to complete the FAFSA. Kent also partnered with the local housing authority to spread the word about FAFSA efforts to families through a trusted source. In addition, Kent partnered with the United Way, which provided FAFSA assistance at tax sessions to help families on the spot.

Advocacy Partnership Spotlight

In addition to Round Rock’s Chamber partnerships, Wiswell partnered with the E3 Alliance, a regional advocacy group that has led equity efforts focused on K-12 education, and is now broadening its focus to postsecondary education. The local population has not always valued postsecondary education, and Wiswell is working with E3 to help emphasize the importance of postsecondary education (including short-term training) for all and increase awareness about available financial supports.

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*The Chamber connected Round Rock ISD with Harvard, which provided “summer melt” counselors as part of a national study (in addition to other support, summer melt counselors helped students complete FAFSAs).

(Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash)