Increasing education access for all Floridians requires a community-wide approach. This is why building and sustaining local college access networks (LCANs) is central to the work FCAN does. For school districts looking to boost their FAFSA completion rates, LCANs can be an invaluable partner.
LCANs can provide increased capacity, connection to knowledgeable volunteers, and resources to help make FAFSA events more successful. For instance, LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network has priotized partnerships with area high schools to support their College Ready Florida initiatives. This includes collaborating with schools competing in the Florida FAFSA Challenge.
Identifying the Neediest Schools
National College Access Network (NCAN) research shows that the neediest students are the least likely to complete the FAFSA. To combat this problem, LEAP decided to prioritize its efforts on supporting the neediest schools.
Last year, they began working with Hillsborough County’s district counseling supervisor to identify five schools to focus additional support. They chose these focus schools based on their free and reduced price lunch rate and their previous FAFSA completion rates.
As a result, some of Hillsborough’s neediest schools saw their FAFSA completion rates rise by as many as 19 percentage points. The five target schools averaged nearly an 11 percentage point increase. Overall, Hillsborough’s county-wide completion rate increased by 8 percentage points. FCAN estimates this increase brought in more than $3 million in additional Pell Grant support for local students.
LEAP continues to build on these successes with the school district this year. Their goal is to help more students complete the FAFSA and get access to financial aid.
Finding Qualified Volunteers
Finding qualified FAFSA volunteers poses a challenge for many communities. FAFSA completion can be a complex and sensitive process for many parents. Because of this, counselors do not always feel they have adequate time to spend on the specific and often detailed questions parents have about the application. College financial aid partners are helpful, but the volume of families looking for help is great.
LEAP helps to fill this gap by recruiting and training FAFSA volunteers through multiple channels. One important partner has been the United Way. United Way Suncoast encouraged their Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) volunteers to cross-train on FAFSA completion. They have also produced a training video LEAP can send to volunteers who can’t personally attend a training.
Additionally, two active local nonprofits — Seniors in Service, and Encore Tampa Bay — give LEAP access to many older volunteers. These mature individuals are interested in helping the next generation pursue a college credential. LEAP has also coordinated with local businesses to train employees to become FAFSA volunteers.
In some cases, LEAP has found it helpful to target populations that are required to complete community service hours. For instance, one of their volunteers is a Stetson Law student who is able to log time spent on FAFSA completion as pro-bono hours. In the future, they are looking to partner with local fraternities and sororities for the same reason.
According to LEAP’s volunteer coordinator, Becky Gilmore, many of their volunteers are motivated because they, too, once benefited from filing the FAFSA. “They’re looking to give back because the FAFSA helped them to get where they are,” she says.
Work with an LCAN in Your Community
By working together, school districts and LCANs can boost FAFSA completion and help more students get access to financial aid.
Ready to start helping students in your community? Check out our information on Local College Access Networks to find out what change makers in your area are already doing. You can also read about how LCANs in Sarasota and Southwest Florida are helping students in their area complete the FAFSA.
No LCAN in your community? Let us know if you’re interested in starting a local college access network, and we’ll help with the next steps. Join the LCAN movement by visiting the Local College Access Networks section of FCAN’s website and filling out the brief form in the sidebar.
More FAFSA Resources
Don’t forget to check out FCAN’s free FAFSA resources to help you boost FAFSA completion in your community: