Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A New Approach to FAFSA Completion—Want Prom? Complete FAFSA!

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

There’s been a lot of exciting changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Thanks to some insightful planning, FAFSA can now be completed as early as October 1 of a student’s senior year in high school, and most of the financial information it asks for is already on file with the IRS, if the student’s family filed taxes in the previous year. This means students are more likely to know how much Federal aid they’ll get for college—and knowing more about your college budget can make a big difference in the college application process…

...provided, of course, the student completes the FAFSA. If they don’t fill out the form, they can’t get the information—or cash—they need for college.

This is a bigger challenge than you might think—after all, as adults, if someone wanted to give us cash just for filling out a form, we’d fill out twelve of them. But students don’t always pay attention to the cash part of college as much as they should; for some reason, they see this as Mom and Dad’s job. That means the real challenge is either to get the parents to complete the FAFSA, or to get the student to get the parents to complete the FAFSA.

This is where things get tricky. School counselors usually don’t see parents on a daily basis, so it’s harder to nudge them into action. In addition, many parents whose students would qualify for Federal aid are hesitant to complete the form, for all kinds of reasons. A program like College Application Week makes it easy enough to get a student out of class, sit them down, and help them complete an application for college. But can you do the same thing with parents and the FAFSA?

It’s time for some fresh ideas. Some offices are tying FAFSA completion workshops to parent-teacher conferences or sporting events, and those are having some effect. It’s even been suggested—but to be clear, not tried yet—that a high school could contact a local restaurant and build a FAFSA Completion Party to Happy Hour. High schools are already asking local merchants for door prizes for events held at high school (“Complete the FAFSA, Win a Big Screen TV”). Celebrating FAFSA completion by buying the next round isn’t all that much of a n additional stretch.

Another approach that’s been underserved is focusing on students. There are some key components of the high school experience no senior wants to live without. If there was a way to tie FAFSA completion to some, or any, of those events, there’s a good chance more seniors might hear the FAFSA gospel. While some of these key activities vary from school to school, what about:

  • Tying FAFSA completion to schedule changes. Want a different class? Great—have you finished your FAFSA?
  • Connecting tickets to the Fall Dance (Homecoming) or even Prom to FAFSA completion. You can say yes to the dress (or tux) as soon as we see your FAFSA receipt.
  • Permission to participate in an event outside of school. Students at my first high school were really into hunting. Imagine what would happen to FAFSA completion rates if the only way students were excused for hunting season was by finishing their financial aid forms.
There are undoubtedly other ideas out there, but you get the idea. Every high school has a “thing” that is THE event of senior year. If the ticket to that event is tied to the ticket to their college future, FAFSA completion will soar with ease.

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