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#FAFSABrightSpots: How Iowa is Stabilizing FAFSA Completion

Wednesday, July 29, 2020  
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By Nathan Svare, Elizabeth Yaddof, and Jamie Covell, Iowa College Aid

Iowa College Aid offers an array of programs for students, schools, and communities to participate in. The framework supporting these programs derives from our Course to College program, where we strive to build capacity of school counselors and college coaches, integrate a college-going culture within the school and community, and support five college-going steps – prepare, apply, finance, decide, and go – essentially building a college-going ecosystem.

Through the five college-going steps, we focus more specifically on FAFSA completion. We do this in a number of ways, such as providing automated student-specific reports to school counselors and virtual assistance to students.

In light of recent events, we have ramped up our virtual assistance services in multiple ways.

Texting Program

In January 2020, Iowa College Aid launched the Virtual Coach Texting Program that supports high school students, college students, and their parents. Our texting program offers personalized assistance to students who have opted in to receive our messages.

By using a combination of programmed texts and responses with individual assistance, we can not only send tips and nudges to complete college tasks, but we can take it a step further by engaging students in conversation and building relationships. Our unique approach allows us to assist students with specific questions and offer college advice, while also being a trusted ally to celebrate successes and help through challenging times. This service is especially beneficial to underserved students and those who are typically harder to reach.

We place high importance on FAFSA completion and renewals, since that is one of the strongest indicators of college enrollment and persistence. By utilizing our access to student ISIRs (short for Institutional Student Information Records), we are able to pinpoint students who have not completed the FAFSA, those selected for verification, and those who have errors.

We can reach out to students individually and assist them through the completion process. For those that need more assistance, we can refer them to other virtual options, such as AmeriCorps college access and success coaches, campus resources, or our GEAR UP’s virtual assistance.

GEAR UP Virtual Assistance

In response to COVID-19, GEAR UP Iowa launched a process to help students virtually. This required a reliable system, various resources, time, and employee capacity and knowledge.

We were able to integrate a Google Form with our Salesforce system and automate the process for virtual FAFSA support. Essentially, a student indicates, via the Google Form, that they are in need of FAFSA assistance and asks for a time for our staff to reach out to them. Within minutes, the form is uploaded into Salesforce where an email is generated and sent to a staff member to notify them that a student has asked for assistance. From there, we are able to respond to the student with mutual availability.

In order for this to be successful, we used a variety of resources including, Google Forms, Salesforce, Google Hangouts, Zoom, and our program website. Utilizing these resources has helped in keeping staff time focused on the student. The appointment takes a few minutes to set up for both the student and staff member. From there, appointments typically take about 30 minutes.

We currently have nine staff members who are assisting with this project, which has been more than enough to meet the needs of our GEAR UP students. All staff members have previously participated in a FAFSA completion workshop and been trained on completing a FAFSA. In addition, because our agency also administers state scholarships and grants, we have access to financial aid experts to assist with unique and/or challenging situations.

Overall, we are doing what we can to reach traditionally underrepresented students with these FAFSA completion strategies. Virtual assistance does not replace in-person support. Every year, our students become more technologically perceptive and our families are busy with work, extracurricular activities, or other life experiences. It can be difficult to identify times where practitioners, students, and their families are able to meet to complete the FAFSA.

What makes virtual assistance appealing is that as long as everyone is connected and has the appropriate technology, the assistance can happen anywhere at any time.

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