Pictured, from left to right: Troy Miller, FCAN associate director for research and policy; Steve Cantees, Sarasota County Schools executive director of high school education; Lori White, Sarasota County Schools superintendent; and Mimi Cirbusova, The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals Group coordinator.

By Allie Ciaramella, Communications Manager, National College Access Network 

NCAN members are always first to walk the walk when it comes to increasing college access and success. But talking the talk is critical, too.

For the 49 schools and one district that recently boosted their FAFSA completion rates by 5 percent or more during a Florida College Access Network initiative, communication was key.

“That seems to be, I think, the thing I’m hearing from virtually every school,” said Troy Miller, FCAN’s associate director for research and policy. “If you have a FAFSA night and students don’t know what the FAFSA is, that can be an issue.”

Some of the most successful participants in the 2016 Florida FAFSA Challenge — whose organizers are now drawing lessons from the program’s pilot year — didn’t just plan events (and then struggle to fill the room). They explained to students, families and community members why the events were important and how to participate, seizing on the messaging that seemed to resonate most strongly with prospective freshmen.

Just consider the facts in Florida: 87 percent of first-year students receive financial aid to pay for college, but the state ranked 48th in 2016 FAFSA completion as of April 15, with an estimated 28.3 percent of high school seniors completing the form. By failing to file, high school graduates there forgo more than $100 million in Pell Grant money annually. And a Sunshine State school’s FAFSA completion rate is its strongest predictor of college-going rates, according to FCAN.

One of the challenge’s most-lauded participants, Sarasota County Schools, had an entire targeted communications strategy that proved to be groundbreaking. Sarasota saw immediate and sustained results and finished the exercise as “MVP” of all districts, with a 36.4 percent FAFSA completion rate, 4.3 percent higher than a year prior. (Calhoun County School District took home the “Most Improved” trophy, for its 9.7-percent increase).

At Mater Lakes Academy, which won awards including most improved in its category, counselors used the messaging app Remind to pester students and parents about deadlines, events and other pertinent information.

Others started friendly inter-school competitions — for instance, where every senior takes economics, their teachers would vie for the most FAFSA completions per class. Not only did it diffuse the workload of that one school counselor among 500 students, it nudged schools and their staff to claim responsibility for the issue.

“Simply having the will to want to increase FAFSA completion by itself has not been increasing FAFSA completion,” Miller said. “It does look like a team effort — a comprehensive, sometimes a whole community effort is really necessary to move the needle substantially, and even as little as 5 percent.”

That’s where FCAN’s innovative data work comes in handy. For the last few years Miller has been honing the Florida FAFSA Finish Line dashboard, an online depository of completion data searchable by more than 600 public schools’ name, city, county and type. Filters can factor in statistics like graduation and free or reduced price lunch rates, and the tool tracks FAFSA completions over time.

Miller updated the data weekly throughout the challenge, which ran from Jan. 1 through March 31 because research suggests students who file the FAFSA in those months receive on average more than twice as much state and institutional grant funding as their peers who file later in the year. (For the 2016-17 academic year, with the form newly available in the fall, the challenge will run Oct. 1 through March 31. “If students are given more time to complete the FAFSA, we want schools to have more time to help,” Miller explains. “We’ll still emphasize the importance of completing the applications as early as possible.”)

FCAN draws the data from the U.S. Department of Education and Florida’s Department of Education, then matches it and cleans it up. It’s a time-consuming process, Miller acknowledges, but a worthwhile one — especially at a time when lots of people say they want to increase FAFSA completion rates, but no agency is charged with making sure that happens, or holding schools accountable when it doesn’t.

“Us being a clearinghouse for that data has really, really been instrumental in highlighting what the need is in Florida,” Miller said. “As time goes by and as we communicate and promote FAFSA completion better and more effectively, those numbers are really important — and they’ve increased each year.”

The data’s impact has been felt beyond state lines, too. In one city that the National College Access Network chose for our FAFSA Completion Challenge Grant — Bakersfield, California — the recipients are developing a districtwide dashboard based on Florida’s trailblazing project.

This post originally appeared on the National College Access Network blog.


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