By Meghan Lustig, Director of Policy and Communications, Education Finance Council
Spring is typically a very busy time of year for college outreach professionals, with FAFSA completion assistance, high school events and seminars for rising seniors, and financial aid offer review for graduates. With in-person meetings and events canceled due to the COVID-19 national emergency, Education Finance Council’s (EFC) state-based and nonprofit members worked hard to adapt their outreach methods, continue to provide assistance for those struggling to navigate the FAFSA completion process, and address the increased demand for information and guidance.
EFC compiled the following best practices based on these efforts and what our membership found to be most effective to provide guidance for our members and other outreach organizations working through the challenges of this new environment.
The COVID-19 national health emergency has created challenges for students and families completing the FAFSA that can prevent them from accessing financial aid for college and other types of support. In this new environment, EFC members have adapted their outreach methods to play an important role in providing assistance for students and families who are struggling to navigate the FAFSA completion process. These best practices can be emulated in other states to help students and families during this unprecedented time.
Recommendation 1: Use multiple channels and methods to continue outreach to students and provide support for FAFSA completion.
Provide virtual advisement and 1:1 coaching online and over the phone. EFC members are using video capability and screen sharing to help families complete the FAFSA. They are also offering phone appointments for families without internet access. For online appointments, families can book through an online form or web portal. They are advised ahead of the appointment about what materials are needed to facilitate coaching and completion assistance. For example, the NHHEAF Network in New Hampshire has shifted from in-person FAFSA filing appointments to hosting virtual FAFSA filing appointments and is working with the school counseling community to promote this effort.
Convert in-person workshops and events to online events and record these trainings for future on-demand access. For example, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency has started to conduct statewide webinars and is working with community and school partners to promote this resource. Registration for the first two webinars was booked to capacity so more are being added, but the recordings of these events are also available to help increase access.
Partner with state universities and community-based groups to expand reach. As an example, Vermont Student Assistance Corporation has partnered with the University of Vermont and 4-H to host “QuaranTeen Time: Getting College & Career Ready,” a virtual event that offers weekly talks to help students get college and career ready. Georgia Student Finance Commission partners with Georgia Public Libraries, which provides free WIFI in their parking lots, to help students without access to internet at home get 1:1 assistance with FAFSA completion.
Coordinate efforts with other state and local agencies. In addition to FAFSA completion, New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority is coordinating with other state agencies to ensure students are also supported with housing and food assistance. They also partnered with agencies and schools in several cities to increase FAFSA completion rates in those areas. In Indiana, INvestEd contacted every school in the state with information and promotional items about free virtual FAFSA filing and funding college wisely expert help. They coordinated virtual events with interested schools and are hosting these on Facebook Live.
Use multiple channels to send reminders and alert families of changing deadlines, including more traditional methods like postcards and print ads to reach students and families who may not have access to internet. For example, Rhode Island Student Loan Authority’s College Planning Center runs a FAFSA campaign that includes ads placed in local and Spanish-language papers and Spanish-language radio scripts. Trellis Company in Texas is mailing postcard reminders and calling and texting students directly to encourage FAFSA completion and to help answer questions.
Create a one-stop-shop for online resources and tutorials that students, families, and other stakeholders can easily access at any time. The NHHEAF Network Organizations developed this webpage for school counselors and educators in New Hampshire to view available remote learning and college planning resources for students at each grade level. It includes videos, worksheets, and instructions to set up appointments, including options for help reviewing funding options and award letters over the phone and video chat. For students and families, the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority website has one page with key information on each step within the college admissions process that contains articles, videos, and other resources.
Leverage available resources and tools provided by the National College Attainment Network. The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) provides free Form Your Future resources, including the FAFSA tracker and a guide for families with answers to the most common FAFSA-related questions. NCAN also offers e-learning sessions for a small fee for non-NCAN members with FAFSA training for College Access/Success Advisors.
Use social media to share information, but promote chats and videos using other channels to bring in students and families who are not already following accounts. Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA) is hosting regular Twitter chats, Facebook live videos, and Instagram live videos. Outreach counselors also conducted Facebook live interviews with KHEAA’s student vloggers. These were advertised via social media, counselor and student/parent newsletters, partner organizations, and the KHEAA and Kentucky Goes to College websites.
Recommendation 2: Provide virtual training for staff and volunteers that assist students with FAFSA completion.
Iowa Student loan partners with the Iowa College Access Network, which is working to provide support to the more than 1,000 individuals statewide who have completed FAFSA Certification Training and are serving as front-line resources to help students in their local communities.
Recommendation 3: Collect and monitor data and adapt outreach practices as needed.
Track FAFSA completion by new and renewal FAFSAs to target outreach. The Minnesota Office of Higher Education is closely tracking FAFSA completions for both new and renewal FAFSAs to monitor college planning activity and sharing that information with stakeholders. Using this data, they ramped up social media outreach and added virtual FAFSA nights to respond to lower FAFSA filing numbers.
Survey stakeholders to tailor supports. The Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority surveyed school counselors and college administrators in order to understand the ways they can be most helpful to these professionals. They used this data to adapt their outreach and supports to accommodate their requests and ideas.
Recommendation 4: Provide FAFSA verification support to help students and families navigate the process and ensure they can access financial aid.
Trellis Company in Texas is providing services to help students navigate the verification process, including an outbound contact center to reach out to students that have been selected for verification, explain the process, and direct them to appropriate campus portals to submit documents. They are also employing a student coaching team that can meet 1:1 with students and families to assist them in acquiring and submitting the appropriate documentation.