Adviser Perspective: FAFSA Completion - Thom Young


I’ve been hearing the proverb “It takes a village” thrown around a lot lately, and, in my work, it can’t be more true. What do you do, though, when the village won’t show up? As the adviser at Wilkes Central High School, and in conversation with my coworkers throughout Western NC, I’ve noticed that it has been especially difficult during this pandemic to connect with families of senior students. 

But, when it comes time to complete the FAFSA, unless you are dealing with those less common instances wherein the student is entirely independent, then you absolutely require parent participation. FAFSA can be an interesting topic to discuss.  A large portion of my work is helping families understand just what the FAFSA is and how it can support them.  When working with families from undocumented backgrounds, working through the FAFSA presents unique challenges.  There is also the larger challenge/difficulty in accessing families during a pandemic.  Connecting with families presents its own unique set of challenges.  In some cases, families have limited methods of connection, and I find myself calling home frequently, with some success.  I've found the best method is working on solutions with the student and have them then relay information back to the parent and pull them into a meeting with me later.  On those instances when this does not work, I start examining how to best support the family.

Time, now more than ever, is extremely valuable.  In my community, many students' parents work not one, but multiple jobs, sometimes for much or all of the day.  This can make being involved in schooling difficult.  Some guardians send their children to school and have a need to focus on work, while others are simply not as involved.  Others are able to be much more involved.  What comes up time and time again when talking parent-engagement strategies is that you're running into the most uncertain element:  human involvement. 

As I’ve mentioned, however, this year, that engagement piece seems especially perturbed by the pandemic. It is my belief that there is  significant burnout being faced by parents who are simply tired and stressed after over a year of hybrid and remote learning models, where they have become teachers as well as tutors. Parents and guardians have taken on more of their children’s education as their own responsibility.   It can make it hard to ask “one more thing” of parents and guardians.

With a 2019-20 FAFSA completion rate of In January, I proposed to both my school and all county high schools an initiative utilizing local media to increase the distribution of ideas, information, and facts to our county. We wanted all schools involved because we recognized that only featuring Wilkes Central, the county’s largest school, would open issues dealing with school rivalries and such. Beyond that, bringing in all five high schools would show that the schools were collaborating to get this out, possibly showcasing to the public even more the importance of the FAFSA. This proposal was broken down into a number of parts, including a radio component that has not been deployed yet as it is still in development, so I will conclude by discussing what we have done instead. 

With the assistance of GEAR UP, as well as the counselors and support staff at Wilkes Central, along with the input of the other counselors in the county, I drafted a flyer of information which our GEAR UP partner, Kathryn Wright, helped re-design as I am visually challenged. In preparation for the numerous FAFSA night events being held throughout the county, this double-sided flyer shared details of each school's events, as well as what families needed to bring, and why the FAFSA is so important to complete. 

After getting County Office approval, this flyer was printed with the help of additional college access staff, at a Staples in High Point. You may, if you are geographically inclined, be asking yourself “Why in High Point?” Well, in the planning stage, in my conversations with a staffer at the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, I was informed that the paper is printed in High Point, and that the flyers would need to arrive by Wednesday early morning of the week they were being printed. Having only gotten final approval that Monday, we had to have them printed and delivered within just 36 hours. Cue action sequence here as I raced against the clock to get this flyer out. 

Luckily, we were able to make the Staples order so that our order of 1000 was available on Tuesday. That morning, around 11 a.m., I drove about an hour and twenty minutes to High Point to pick them up, then went across town to the High Point Enterprise offices to drop them off. Having already run into the budgetary hiccup that the printing, despite Kathryn’s coloration, was to be done in black and white, my heart sank when I got to the door and it was locked with a sign indicating the office was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Feebly, I knocked on the door, maybe with a hint of desperation. A staff member came to the door, and I handed her the box of flyers. In the race to get them there, I only paid the distribution fee to the Wilkes Journal-Patriot on Thursday, when I got the invoice. It was a scramble of a procedure, but it all worked out in the end. 

Or, did it? Two weeks after I dropped them off, and a week after they were distributed in every eighth paper in the county, we had our FAFSA night. After three hours with five of us sitting in the Zoom space, no families attended. I was devastated by my perceived error in attempting this initiative in the first place. 

But, then I stepped back. First of all,  I’m still waiting for attendance numbers for all the other school FAFSA events, with the knowledge that this initiative was always meant to go beyond our school alone. It was a gamble, a testing of the waters, to even launch the initiative knowing 1 in 8 paper subscribers would get the flyer. And, I have already acknowledged the need to tweak the method of distributing this kind of information, as well as take a drastically different hands-on role modeled by Lila Sheon and Mountain Heritage High School (available in another Perspectives Post).  In the future, I will likely go for an advertisement as the overall cost is less and more sustainable. And, I do plan to continue using local media, even where they do not really report on schooling beyond sports, to do so (oh, and rest assured, these ads will hopefully land on those sports sections). 

Why keep at it? In the weeks after we made our FAFSA push, with additional work being done by GEAR UP, including direct mailers, we started to see a significant increase in FAFSA completion rates. I don’t have the exact numbers here, but I know it was around 15 more students completing it. This number may sound small, This was a big boost for our high school, and I’m sure it was a big boost for the others. As a result, our county has just made a big leap forward towards hitting our target FAFSA completion rate of 56%. Like they say, “it takes a village.”



Published: Mar 25, 2021 5:41pm