Liz Smith, assistant principal of instruction at Boone High School, accepts the school’s Florida FAFSA Challenge trophy. Orange County schools occupied eight of the Top 10 slots for “Most Improved” large high schools (more than 416 12th graders) in the state.

Financial Aid Nights, text messages, and free laptops.

Those are just a few of the ways Orange County Public Schools, Central Florida College Access Network, and their partners went about informing and incentivizing high school seniors toward completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Overall, Florida high schools improved FAFSA completion by 9.1% during the Florida FAFSA Challenge this past school year. By the end of the campaign on March 31, 54 school districts and 390 high schools had met or surpassed the statewide goal of improving FAFSA completion by 5% compared to the previous year.

While that represents a tremendous gain for the state as a whole, Orange County outpaced the rest of the state in terms of year-to-year improvement.

Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) topped all large school districts — those with more than 1,000 12th graders — by increasing FAFSA completion by 16.1% compared to last year. Additionally, all 19 OCPS high schools met the statewide 5% goal, and Orange County schools occupied eight of the Top 10 slots for Most Improved large high schools (more than 416 12th graders) in the state, including the Top 7 slots.

“We are very pleased about the increase,” said Barbara Jenkins, OCPS superintendent, in a press release. “It is the result of an intense focus on student achievement by our college and career counselors in every high school and the commitment of our principals and staff to lead our students to success.”

Click image to view full FAFSA Challenge leaderboard

Due to the increase, Orange County seniors will be awarded an estimated $5.5 million more in Pell Grant dollars compared to last year’s graduating class. Florida’s overall improvement in FAFSA completion during the campaign translated to over $37 million more in Pell grant dollars alone for graduating seniors to help pay the cost of college.

Central Florida College Access Network (CFCAN) organized a workgroup to increase FAFSA awareness and help bolster completion in Orange County.

“Our FAFSA workgroup developed timely reminders and links to helpful resources to support students in the transition from high school to college,” said Niurka Ferrer, director of transitions planning for Valencia College and CFCAN’s chairperson.

To that end, CFCAN worked with Orlando-based Heart of Florida United Way to launch the Going2College text messaging campaign, which provides financial aid information and resources throughout the FAFSA application process.

“Through the Going2College texting platform, we have developed easy to understand tools to answer questions and dispel myths about FAFSA and Financial Aid,” Ferrer said.

Gerri McCormick served as an outreach representative for the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Student Financial Assistance and Chair for Central Florida College Access Network’s FAFSA Workgroup during the 2016-17 school year.

She credits OCPS’s college transition counselors (CTCs) — district staff who help train college and career counselors at OCPS high schools — with leading the way for the county’s stellar FAFSA completion performance.

“These counselors are working hard, they know the importance of the work they are doing, and I want to make sure they get recognition they deserve,” McCormick said.

Nicole Gurley is one of OCPS’s five CTCs, and they collectively visit each OCPS high school on a weekly basis. The district also employs college specialists (CCS) who are at each high school every day.

As part of this year’s efforts, Gurley said:

  • Phone calls were made by both the district and individual schools to announce the importance of filling out the FAFSA, as well as informing people of FAFSA-related events throughout the district.
  • Each school organized a Financial Aid Night for their community, which featured a financial aid expert presenting pertinent information and answering questions.
  • CTCs and CCSs joined school counselors to visit senior classrooms and provide information about the importance of FAFSA completion. At most high schools, seniors began filling out their FAFSA during these sessions.
  • Every school hosted multiple daytime and evening FAFSA workshops to provide students individual support to accurately complete their FAFSAs. The workshops were offered through the end of the school year.
  • Parents from all schools were able to receive individual help completing FAFSA during monthly Parent Academies in the district. Each Parent Academy featured breakout sessions geared towards families of students filling out FAFSA.
  • Each school accessed the Florida Financial Aid Report, which indicated if students had an incomplete application or if students hadn’t completed an application. CTCs, CCSs and school counselors subsequently used this data to contact individual students or their parents.
  • After a list of students that received free or reduced lunch at each high school — but had not yet completed FAFSA — was generated in March, it was expected that each student be met with and each parent contacted to find out why they hadn’t completed the FAFSA.
  • The district provided cups or shirts for every student who completed their FAFSA. Students who completed their FAFSA were also placed in a drawing for a laptop, and each school was able to give out one laptop.

FAFSA Challenge efforts in Orange County also included FAFSA celebrations at various schools along with social media campaigns to raise awareness.

Despite this past year’s success, Gurley already has her sights set on the next FAFSA Challenge.

“We are doing a lot of analyzing this summer to make sure we are on top of this coming year too,” Gurley said.


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