At a time where school counselors are coming to expect the unexpected, you’d think we would welcome some news we could pretty much predict. Unfortunately, that news isn’t pretty.
A new report from the National College Attainment Network shows the number of students renewing the FAFSA since late February is down about 5%. The news gets worse when the report is dissected by socio-economic status, with renewals down by over 8% among students whose families make less than $25,000 a year.
It isn’t unusual for students to not renew the FAFSA, since many of them are under the impression that they qualify for four years of financial aid by filling FAFSA out once as a high school senior. But that statistic should be relatively consistent from year to year; there’s no real reason more students would assume a “one and done” attitude this year, so that doesn’t explain the decline.
Instead, the assumption this year could be based on other, more serious factors. Students whose financial situations have changed in the last year may not realize the amount of financial aid they receive could increase, provided they tell the college their need has increased. Other students may just feel their circumstances have changed so much that there’s no point in applying, while others may be required to take some time out of school to care for family or other personal situation.
The biggest problem in reaching out to non-renewing students is that school counselors don’t typically interact with most of their students once they graduate high school. The colleges where non-renewers attend are undoubtedly reaching out to the students, but that can easily become just one more email or letter from the college, institutions that can be known to drown students in communications at peak times throughout the year. On the other hand, if a student gets a note from their school counselor, saying “What’s up with the FAFSA?”—that might be unique enough to get their attention.
It’s time for some clever thinking, and we’re just the crew to do that. Try these ideas for initial outreach:
Communicate this need to your current students and parents. You may not see your graduates on a regular basis, but many of them are the neighbors, friends, and siblings of the students and parents you work with every day. If you get the word out that you want to help kids stay in college, that news will spread. Be sure to include your contact information.
Use your old texting trees to reach out. The added challenge of working with low-income students is the lower number who have access to the Internet. Happily, more of them have cell phones—so, as long as you’ve kept your old class lists from your Remind (or other) texting accounts, you can use those to reach out with a “Remember Me?” message. This also applied to any texting trees you have for alumni parents.
Reach out to faculty, too. I continue to be amazed by the number of alumni who are still in touch with their high school teachers. If there’s ever a time to make the most of that relationship, it’s now.
Once you have your plan together, the message you want to convey is simple: Your college wants to hear from you. It’s OK if your finances have changed—tell them how, and they’ll try and work with you. It’s not unusual for finances to change from year to year—that’s why you have to file every year. If you need to change schools, that’s OK—your new school has financial aid, too, but they can only give it to you if you tell them what’s going on.
This is too great a group of students to leave to chance. Reaching out will take more effort, but they are more than worth it.