Increasing FAFSA Completion in Arizona: A Playbook for Success

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Helios Education Foundation is dedicated to enriching the lives of individuals in Arizona and Florida by creating opportunities for success in postsecondary education. According to the National College Access Network, high school seniors who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are 63 percent more likely to enroll in postsecondary education than students who do not complete the FAFSA. Helios Education Foundation, along with many organizations throughout Arizona and Florida, has prioritized FAFSA completion as a key strategy to encourage all students – but especially those from first-generation, minority, and underrepresented communities - to pursue postsecondary education.

A collaborative partnership between Helios and Valley Leadership helps provide valuable information and resources supporting FAFSA completion in Arizona.

Overview

What is the FAFSA and Why is it Important?

Overview

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It enables students and families to apply for federal student aid, such as grants, work-study, and loans. Together, these types of federal student aid amount to the largest source of financial aid available to help students pay for college.

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It enables students and families to apply for federal student aid, such as grants, work-study, and loans. Together, these types of federal student aid amount to the largest source of financial aid available to help students pay for college. Completing and submitting the FAFSA is free and easier than ever, and it gives students access to the largest source of financial aid to pay for college or career school.

In addition, many states and colleges use FAFSA information to determine eligibility for state and school aid, and some private financial aid providers may use FAFSA information to determine whether students qualify for aid. To learn more, visit https://fafsa.ed.gov/

Benefits

Why Increase FAFSA Completion?

Arizona Attainment Rates

Currently, Arizona lags behind other states in the number of adults who have earned credentials or degrees past high school. A statewide goal to achieve a more highly trained and educated population ensures a brighter future for Arizona and for everyone. 

Arizona is at a critical juncture in determining its economic future.

  • Currently, only 40 percent of Arizona’s population holds an associates’ degree or higher.
  • For the Hispanic population, Arizona’s fastest-growing demographic, this proportion is even lower (22 percent) (See Figure 1 below).
  • According to the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, more than 68 percent of Arizona jobs will require at least some amount of postsecondary education by the year 2020 (Carnevale, 2013).
  • A critical question Arizona must answer is: How can Arizona increase postsecondary opportunities to further economic prosperity and viability?

Economic Benefit

Arizona's current goal of 60 percent attainment by 2030 will yield economic benefits. If Arizona met the 60 percent attainment goal, it would pump an additional $3.5 billion in personal income and tax revenue into the state annually.

One of the most obvious ways to increase economic opportunities is to increase the proportion of high school students matriculating to college after graduation.

  • Over the last seven years, college-going rates in Arizona have remained static.
  • In 2017, Arizona’s postsecondary rate was 52.6 percent
  • In 2013 the rate was 53.5 percent
  • Postsecondary enrollment rates among Hispanic, Native American, and African American graduates improved between 2013 and 2017, but those rates behind those of Asian, White graduates (ABOR College Enrollment Report, 2018).

Strategies focused on increased FAFSA completion are showing potential to increase postsecondary enrollment.

  • Research by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that roughly 90 percent of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA attend college directly after high school.
  • To contrast, 55 percent of non-completers attend college directly after high school.
  • This strong association between FAFSA completion and college-going has led many organizations and states to implement FAFSA challenges or completion campaigns
  • The National College Access Network led a 2016-2017 FAFSA completion challenge in 22 cities across the country, leading to an increase in completion by 10 percent in two years (NCAN Why Invest in Increasing FAFSA).

Increase in Income

Completing postsecondary education is correlated to an increase of lifetime earnings.

In Arizona, getting more graduates to attend and complete college has tremendous economic benefits for both each individual and the state as a whole.

  • Every additional bachelor’s degree adds over $660,000 to the state’s economy over an individual’s lifetime, according to a report by College Success Arizona.
  • For the individual this translates to higher wages and greater financial opportunities. This means higher wages and greater financial opportunities for individuals.
  • According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, median wages in the United States for  persons in the following categories are: 
    • High school diploma and no college: $712 a week.
    • Associate degree: $836 a week.
    • Bachelor’s degree: $1,173 a week

Policies

Initiative to Complete

The State of Arizona and agencies are working with partner schools, school districts, and nonprofit organizations to create momentum and increase FAFSA completion.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education and state student aid agencies would partner to provide necessary data to identify individual students who have not completed their FAFSA. Previously, high schools relied on self-reported surveys to estimate their FAFSA completion rate, which were often inaccurate. Currently, Federal Student Aid (an office of the U.S. Department of Education) provides state agencies with data about their FAFSA submissions and completions so that schools can ensure higher rates of completion.

In Arizona, the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education (AZCPE) partners with the U.S. Department of Education to carry out both the goals of the FAFSA Completion Initiative and statewide goals from the Governor’s Office.

  • AZCPE coordinate the College Application Campaign (AzCAC) and College Goal FAF$A (CGF) events; provide student level FAFSA completion level data to schools as part of the FAFSA Completion Initiative; and coordinate opportunities to increase statewide completion to 50 percent as part of the AZ FAF$A Challenge.

Note: FAFSA completion is particularly important in Arizona because under the school’s accountability system each school can earn points to improve their letter grade based on the number of students who complete the FAFSA as part of each high school’s College and Career Readiness Indicator.

Not all schools access the AZCPE FAFSA completion data consistently, however, leading to inconsistent efforts around FAFSA completion.

  • We recommend that all schools regularly collect this data to monitor their FAFSA completion.

Incentives to Complete

Tennessee implemented its Tennessee Promise Program in 2014 and FAFSA completion immediately increased.

Some states like Tennessee have created state programs that incentivize students to complete the FAFSA. Under the Tennessee Promise program, which covers unmet financial need for students at the state’s community colleges, FAFSA completion is required for all participants. The program was introduced in 2014, and, as a result, FAFSA completions by Tennessee high school graduates increased from 31,000 to 45,000, where they remained steady in 2016.

Graduation Requirement

Louisiana implemented FAFSA graduation requirements. The results are promising. Other states are exploring the potential of requiring FAFSA to graduate. 

One of the newest trends aimed to increase FAFSA completion has been the decision by some states to require completion as a condition for high school graduation. Beginning in the 2017-18 academic year Louisiana became the first state to require FAFSA completion as a condition for graduation. Under this policy each graduating student has to complete the FAFSA in their senior year of high school or opt out with a non-participation form or waiver.

In its first full year of implementation, the Louisiana Department of Education announced a record number of graduates (25,803) that enrolled in the Fall of 2018. In addition, the state also reported an increase in the graduation rate, as well as an increase in the rate at which students earn early-college credit or state approved industry-valued career credentials. Overall, 57.4 percent of graduates of the class of 2018 enrolled in a postsecondary institution after high school.

Most recently Texas became the second state to require the FAFSA as a condition for high school graduation beginning in 2021. Like Louisiana, the Texas policy will allow students to opt out for good cause. In Texas, students can also satisfy the requirement by completing the Texas application for State Financial Aid. Other states such as Indiana are also currently looking at options for requiring FAFSA completion for graduation.

Tips

Dates to Remember

The FAFSA Cycle opens on October 1st each year and runs for 21 months.

  • Grant money and scholarships are limited so most universities and colleges have a FAFSA priority date so students can take full advantage of available aid.
  • Most priority deadlines require both a college application and completed FAFSA to ensure largest financial aid package.

Recent federal changes make it possible for families to use prior year information, when completing the  FAFSA, which is now available on October 1st

Plan Ahead of Time

Based on our review of state efforts and existing practices we recommend that those seeking to improve FAFSA completion rates incorporate the following steps into their work

Plan! Plan! Plan!

Like all good strategies planning is key in creating successful outcomes.  Through a combination of information, reminders, and assistance for students about financial aid, stakeholders can see an improvement in college entry, persistence and ultimately completion.  Based on our review of state efforts and existing practices we recommend that those seeking to improve FAFSA completion rates incorporate the following six steps into their work.

Make it a Challenge 

Creating a FAFSA Challenge competition can be a great way to fuel a little friendly competition among schools in a district or classes. 

Arizona FAFSA Challenge 

The Arizona FAF$A Challenge is a statewide initiative to increase FAFSA completion among Arizona high school seniors while promoting friendly competition. The goal of the challenge is to increase the FAFSA completion rate to at least 50% for the current 2018-2019 school year and then gradually increasing the rate to 78% by the year 2030. A statewide FAFSA completion dashboard containing over 400 high schools throughout Arizona and a dedicated website to celebrate the accomplishments in FAFSA completion can be found at the following website:    https://fafsachallenge.az.gov/

  •         Be A Leader Dashboard

https://www.phoenixunion.org/Page/21486

          High School Completion Data Reports

https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/about/data-center/student/application-volume/fafsa-completion-high-school

Hold Events!

Events centered around students filling out and completing the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA) with the help of volunteers.

https://www.phoenixunion.org/Page/20010  (This example comes from Carl Hayden High School in the Phoenix Union High School District)

  •  Arizona's College Goal FAF$A is a statewide initiative that provides free information and professional assistance to Arizona students and families seeking college financial aid. High schools statewide are encouraged to host FAF$A events to provide students and families assistance in navigating the student financial aid process.  The FAFSA completion events are held during school hours, after school, or in the evening for their seniors and families.

https://collegegoal.az.gov/event-information

Additionally, College Depot holds workshops where families and students can learn more about the FAFSA and receive assistance with completing the application. 

Offer Incentives!

Across the country, there is wide variation in FAFSA incentives.  Some states, for example, offer free tuition when students complete the FAFSA (e.g., a free community college in Tennessee), while others offer increased scholarship dollars when students complete early. 

Arizona does not provide the above-mentioned incentives, but we offer a number of free and low-cost incentives that can be utilized.  

Free Incentives:

  • Free tickets to school sporting events
  • Free Prom or Homecoming tickets
  • Family Members present students their diplomas at graduation
  • Principal/Assistant Principal dress-up OR do something funny (i.e. Karaoke, Flash Mob w/ teachers, Pie throw, etc.)
  • Access to Principal/Teacher parking for 5 days (consecutively or random)
  • Detention OR Tardy Removal for referring students who have not completed their FAFSA applications
  • Free yearbook OR Individual student recognition in the yearbook
  • Movie day at school
  • King/Queen for a day raffle
  • Essay discount; Student has 20% taken off of the total essay length
  • Social media recognition
  • Free points on test/Homework
  • Free assignment redo
  • Coupons for local businesses (ask for donations)
  • Mid-day break (before OR after lunch; light snacks are a bonus!)
  • Photo displayed in the hallway (create collage for FAFSA wall of fame)
  • Certificate of Recognition
  • Admission to a game of Student VS. Teacher AND/OR Organize this Game (dodgeball, kickball, etc.) 
  • Homework Passes OR Extra Credit
  • School Fun Day (i.e. dress up, DJ/music @ lunch, carnival games, etc.)

Low-Cost Incentives:

  • Cap & Gown Vouchers
  • Free meals/Gift cards (i.e. Starbucks/Dutch Bros/Pizza Hut/McDonalds/Taco Bell/etc.)
  • School Supplies Backpack/Gift Basket
  • Movie tickets/Popcorn/Drink Vouchers
  • Ice Cream Sundae FunDAY
  • Field trip (students vote)
  • Breakfast (ex. donuts/coffee)
  • Bring food truck/coffee truck/vendor to serve the students
  • Mystery gift bag
  • Water balloon fight 
  • School store/bookstore certificate (students can buy snacks/t-shirt/etc. at school merchandise store)

Have a Deadline

An early filing deadline motivates students to prioritize completing the form. Use state university deadlines as reminders.

An early filing deadline motivates students to prioritize completing the form. Due to recent federal changes making it possible for families to use prior tax/income year information, the FAFSA is now available on October 1st.

Priority FAFSA Deadlines for In-State State Universities Are: 

Arizona State University - January 15, 2020
Northern Arizona University - November 15, 2019
University of Arizona - March 1, 2020

Recognition

Overview

In Arizona, there are a number of exemplary high schools implementing FAFSA best practices. The following schools received state recognition for their work and were presented with the monthly Innovative Player Award for the 2018-19 school year. For each school, we highlight the types of best practices that have led to their success.

Millennium High School - Agua Fria Union District

 Large school size 400+ Seniors

Collaboration: The principal, counselors, and teachers collaborated to create a FAFSA completion campaign.

“I believe our success is a direct result of our counseling team working cooperatively with administration and classroom teachers”

– Jennifer Grumbling, MHS Counselor

FSA IDs 

Counselors, in groups of two, visited all senior social studies classrooms to help students create FSA IDs. The teachers reminded students in advance to make sure they had their social security numbers when the counselors visited and sent many reminders to the teachers about what students needed in order to create an FSA ID. During this activity, counselors passed out information about their financial aid night and district FAFSA completion nights. Counselors also passed out bracelets and stickers from College and Career Goal Arizona to hype up their students regarding college and our future events.


Monitor FAFSA Finish Line Data 

A designated counselor took the lead in monitoring student FAFSA Finish Line Data and pulled the data once a week to identify students who met the following criteria: a completed FAFSA application, incomplete/missing signatures or information, and students who are selected for verification.

Tolleson Union High School - Tolleson Union District

Large school size 400+ Seniors

Ensuring students know all of their post-secondary education options

When meeting with students, counselors ensure that students are informed about their post-secondary options including: colleges, universities, certificate programs, trade schools, and military. 

"Our Goal is to make sure that when our students walk across the stage at graduation, that they know what their plan is"

Andrea Wolochuk, TUHS Counselor

Hosting FAFSA Events in Fall and Spring with Community Collaboration 

Counselors coordinate FAFSA events in October to kick-off FAFSA season and in early spring to catch any students who may not have completed an application in the Fall. They also partner with local businesses to provide food for their FAFSA nights so that students and their parents can have assistance completing their FAFSA application while dinner is provided. 

Access and Resources for All Students

All counselors have a laptop in their office so that students can schedule an appointment with their counselor to complete their FAFSA, scholarship and college applications. This has allowed students to get the one-on-one assistance needed.

Partner with Be A Leader Foundation and Helios Education Foundation:

Tolleson Union High School District has partnered with Be A Leader Foundation and Helios Education Foundation to provide a College Transition Specialist on their campus 1-2 days a week that is dedicated to assist students in completing their FAFSA and college applications. The counselors at TUHS have expressed that their College Transition Specialist Cecilia has played a vital role in assisting with their FAFSA completion efforts.

Dedicated Counseling Department Website

Counselors created a website that provides easily accessible post-secondary resources for their students which includes information about scholarships, FAFSA, colleges and universities. 

Evaluating and Planning for the Next School Year

Currently, Tolleson is up 12% year to date in FAFSA completions compared to last year. The counselors and administration continuously evaluate their school data throughout the year and set FAFSA completion goals each school year. Setting goals assists in their strategic planning for the upcoming school year so that they can continue to offer innovative best practices that work for their students to promote post-secondary success.

Douglas High School - Douglas Unified District

Medium school size 101-399 seniors

Partnerships Cochise College partners with Douglas High School to assist at their on-campus FAFSA events and college-going efforts.

"Our partnership with Cochise College has been essential with all of the support that they have provided for our students."

-Diego Guerrero, DHS Counselor

FAFSA Training

Counselors and all senior advisory teachers participated in a FAFSA training workshop given by the Arizona College Access Network (AzCAN). This training was given at the beginning of the school year so that they were prepared to assist students with the FAFSA process when the application became available on October 1st. 

Creating a Plan

Counselors, teachers and administrators at Douglas High School create a plan each school year to ensure that their students have access to the assistance needed to pursue their post high school education goals.

Utilizing FAF$A Finish Line Reports 

Staff at Douglas High School utilize the FAF$A Finish Line reports frequently throughout the school year. Counselors use the data to follow up with students on their incomplete FAFSA applications during their student enrichment period.

Keeping Up the Momentum

FAFSA and college-going events are planned throughout the year. Douglas High School counselors plan FAFSA events in the Fall and Spring in order to ensure that all of their students have the opportunity to complete the FAFSA. Events are held during the day and in the evening to accommodate parent work schedules.

Douglas High School - Douglas Unified District

Medium school size 101-399 seniors

Partnerships Cochise College partners with Douglas High School to assist at their on-campus FAFSA events and college-going efforts.

"Our partnership with Cochise College has been essential with all of the support that they have provided for our students."

-Diego Guerrero, DHS Counselor

FAFSA Training

Counselors and all senior advisory teachers participated in a FAFSA training workshop given by the Arizona College Access Network (AzCAN). This training was given at the beginning of the school year so that they were prepared to assist students with the FAFSA process when the application became available on October 1st. 

Creating a Plan

Counselors, teachers, and administrators at Douglas High School create a plan each school year to ensure that their students have access to the assistance needed to pursue their post-high school educational goals.

Utilizing FAF$A Finish Line Reports 

Staff at Douglas High School utilize the FAF$A Finish Line reports frequently throughout the school year. Counselors use the data to follow up with students on their incomplete FAFSA applications during their student enrichment period.

Keeping Up the Momentum

FAFSA and college-going events are planned throughout the year. Douglas High School counselors plan FAFSA events in the Fall and Spring in order to ensure that all of their students have the opportunity to complete the FAFSA. Events are held during the day and in the evening to accommodate parents' work schedules.

Moon Valley High School - Glendale Union District

Medium school size 101-399 seniors

"I've learned that one-on-one conversations is the most important factor in getting a student to complete his/her FAFSA."

-Jennifer Emanual, MVHS Counselor

Hosting Multiple FAFSA Completion Workshops Throughout the School Year

Moon Valley High School has hosted over 12 FAFSA completion workshops for their students and parents to attend. They held 8 in the month of October and continue to work with students to ensure that all seniors complete a FAFSA. They also collaborate with college reps on hosting next steps workshops for admitted students.

Innovative Themes 

They created fun themes for their FAFSA events to encourage students to attend, such as "FAFSA and Donuts". They also created fun posters to display around campus to remind students to complete their FAFSA and market their college-going events.

Communication 

Communication is key! Counselors keep parents informed by sending e-mail announcements every two weeks informing them about upcoming FAFSA and college-going events on campus. Counselors also reach out to students individually about completing their FAFSA and remind them about upcoming FAFSA events on campus.

College T-Shirt Day 

Once a month MVHS teachers, counselors, staff and students are encouraged to wear their college/university t-shirts to create a college-going atmosphere.

Campus Tours 

The Career Center Specialist coordinates college/university campus tours for students to attend. During these tours, students have the opportunity to learn about the different campuses and program offerings. So far they have visited over 5 different college campuses throughout Arizona

FAFSA Announcements 

Social Studies/Government teachers set up a designated bulletin board in their classrooms for all things FAFSA and college and career related announcements.

Washington High School - Glendale Union District

Medium school size 101-399 seniors

Personalized Communication

The College and Career Specialist at Washington High School utilizes FAF$A Finish Line data to send personalized e-mails to students regarding their FAFSA completion status. For example: if students are missing a parent signature, she sends an e-mail to the student informing them that their parent signature is needed to complete their application as well as directions on how the parent can submit their signature by using their parent FSA ID or submitting a signature page.

Marketing and Promotion 

The school's DECA (a club for business, marketing and management students in high school) and marketing students at Washington High School were recruited to create videos that would promote FAFSA and college-going events on campus. The videos are aired during the Monday morning announcements so that all students and staff are aware of the exciting upcoming events. 

Family FAFSA Events 

Keeping family work schedules in mind, Washington High School organizes FAFSA and college-going campus events after school, and early morning on late start days. Washington High School also provides dinner and childcare at many of their evening events so that students can make it a family experience without their parents having to worry about childcare or planning dinner after the event.

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