In my eight years as a school counselor, I’ve found that the word “FAFSA” is about as scary to parents as the words “head lice” and “exam week.” Fortunately, it has gotten much more user-friendly since the days of mailing it to the government in an envelope and waiting six weeks to see if you qualify for anything. Today, the FAFSA is almost instant and much less painful.
6 tips to help students complete the FAFSA
1. Get competitive
Every fall, I’m asked by my administrator to come up with attainable and measurable goals that align with the needs of my student body. Each year, I make it a point to shoot for 90 percent FAFSA completion among my seniors.
As a very data-driven person (and a very competitive one), I like to run a weekly report in my state’s data storage system that tells me who exactly has or hasn’t filed the FAFSA. I reach out to the students who have not, and see how I can help.
2. Provide food
Every spring, I hold a parent and student FAFSA Night for juniors with the help of my local community college advisor, Amanda. She has a PowerPoint presentation that explains the financial aid process and we usually have about 50 percent of the class in attendance.
We provide pizza and college scholarship info in an informal setting and parents leave knowing everything they could possibly want to know about the FAFSA. Honestly, I think half of them are there for the pizza, but whatever it takes to get them in the door!
3. Use visuals and prizes
I started using a FAFSA thermometer poster to measure how many students have filed the FAFSA. I placed it strategically in the hallway to the lunchroom so that every student in 7th-12th grade walks by the thermometer every single day. The kids are constantly reminded that they need to file if they haven’t already, and parents see the thermometer at sporting events.
When a student files the FAFSA and shows up on my state report, I write his or her name on a strip of paper and tape it on the thermometer. It’s a simple and fun way to show progress.
Some schools also put students’ names into a drawing once they file the FAFSA. A friend of mine gave away an iPad to the lucky winner drawn from the FAFSA completion drawing.
4. FSA ID + College Application Month = FAFSA completion
During the state of Michigan’s College Application Month, we encourage our seniors to create a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID and to help their parents create one, too.
Remembering their username and password when they actually file the FAFSA is a whole separate struggle, but if they type the info in their phones or laptops, it is easy to retrieve when they actually sit down with me or their parents to file.
5. Identify your homeless or unaccompanied youth students
One of the biggest barriers for first generation college students or unaccompanied/homeless youth is little or no access to post-secondary planning. Being available to this population of students is so important. This is where school counselors can work their magic.
If a student is considered unaccompanied, he/she doesn’t have to use any parental income or information on the FAFSA. This makes filing very simple and easy. Oftentimes, the college or university will require a verification form be filled out by the liaison, but this is a simple form to complete.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is seeing an unaccompanied youth graduate from college. I have a few success stories, many of whom would call every year and set up a time to come in so I could help them file their FAFSA.
6. Don’t be afraid to multitask
This last year during parent/teacher conferences, I scheduled parents to come in and we filed their FAFSA right there during conferences. It jumpstarted my completion numbers right off the bat in early October.
Parents were relieved to have it filed, and I had the fastest parent/teacher conferences ever! Helping parents and students with this small, but necessary piece of the college-going culture is very rewarding. You can see it in their faces when you hit submit and see the Pell Grant and Expected Family Contribution (EFC) amount instantly. They are so thankful and relieved that it’s done.
Now they’re college-ready
Over the past five years, we have averaged over 80 percent FAFSA completion rate for our seniors. These tips have helped me ease the minds of my students and their parents when it comes to all aspects of the college planning process, but especially completing the FAFSA.