“FAFSA State Champs!” our principal proudly hailed at an end-of-year staff meeting last year. While not entirely true, I am proud to say that Mountain Heritage had one of the highest FAFSA completion rates in the state last year, especially for a small, rural school. This did not happen overnight or by accident, but rather through years of trial and error in creating a college-going culture that I am fortunate to have helped create. Through collaboration with senior counselor Samantha McClure and former GEAR UP coordinator (current Director for IHE Partnerships) Eric Klein, this timeline strategy was developed and implemented. I am happy to share it with you.
Spring of Junior year: In turns, we call out every Junior to the Next Steps Center, my lovely computer lab office. Here we give them an overview of the process of applying to college, then we have them create their FSA ID, the username and password to complete their FAFSA. Picture about 20 confused-looking 16-17 year olds wondering why this is important to them. But it will be! We have them write down their FSA IDs on a document we created, which we then store tucked away under lock and key at school for retrieval Senior year. Boom. No more talk of “I forgot my password.” My biggest word of advice to students when creating their FSAID’s is: create challenge question answers that do not change. Last year a student was locked out of his account with the question: “Who is your favorite dog?” He audibly sighed and said “but I have ten dogs and they’re all my favorite!”
October 1st Senior year: Once again, every Senior gets called down to our computer lab in turns during the week of October 1st to start their FAFSA and RDS up until the parent/guardian portion. At that point, we stop and make a plan for them to complete it. This plan can include their parents/guardians coming in for an appointment or with their permission, bringing their parent’s taxes to school.
Throughout the month of October: We host weekly FAFSA family nights, where families can come in during the evening and complete their FAFSA and RDS’s. We often collaborate with Mayland, our local community college during these nights where they send a financial aid representative to help. We have also offered these nights in Spanish for our Spanish-speaking families through partnerships with Alikhan Salehi at AB-Tech, and Juanes Ramierez with CFNC.
College Application Week: Seniors are once again called down to the Next Steps Center to do a free application and check in about FAFSA completion.
Throughout the fall and winter: If a senior has not yet completed their FAFSA, we follow up with them to come in and complete it. Our teachers at Mountain Heritage are quite helpful, and give us a lot of room to pull students out of class for FAFSA appointments. As one math teacher put it: “Calculus is important. But college is more.”
May 1st: May Day! If a Senior has not yet applied to college, we pull them out of class and have them apply to Mayland.
Of course, this year looks a little different. We are unable to pull students out in groups for obvious, germ-related reasons, so my colleagues and I have gotten creative. We have visited classrooms, targeted students one-by-one, and continued to push out FAFSA completion in any way we can think of. Hopefully this timeline can serve as a blueprint for other advisers and educators to increase FAFSA completion.
A timeline like this ensures that every student at least starts the FAFSA and is armed with the knowledge of who can help them complete it. It’s always amazing to see a student’s eyes light up after they realize that filing a FAFSA can pay for their entire tuition and then some. Students who otherwise would not have reached out for FAFSA help or even know what it is benefit from this approach because they see that we are invested in their success. Completing a FAFSA, then, becomes the expectation, not the exception.