Even though the path to college might seem murkier than usual, it’s more important than ever. And still accessible thanks to scholarships, grants, loans and more. But for students to access many of these resources, they first need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA).

There are millions of dollars available for students to pursue higher education. In fact, two out of three who complete the FAFSA will receive financial assistance as a result. High school leaders know the impact a FAFSA application can have on whether a student continues their education beyond high school, so many are devoting a combination of virtual and in-person resources to help families through the complex process.

FSA ID + FAFSA = Money

At San Luis High School in southern Arizona, where the graduating class has more than 600 students, students are on campus a few days per week. When planning for the year, school leadership knew that learning would still likely be virtual, so they created a campaign that would educate and encourage students. FSA ID + FAFSA = Money includes step-by-step instructions, so that students and their caregivers can go through the process as if someone was there with them. The accompanying checklist ensures that no vital steps are missed.

Last year, the school hosted a FAFSA night where they were able to gather on campus and help families in person. However, this year due to COVID-19 restrictions they converted the event to a drive-thru FAFSA Fiesta. With support from local businesses, San Luis High was able to give vouchers and other prizes to students who completed their application. They’ll follow that up with FAFSA Posada in December. Paired with a soccer game, the school will make the event a fun-filled activity for families who haven’t yet finished the FAFSA. To create ongoing resources for future years, San Luis is in the process of creating videos to cover the advantages of completing the FAFSA, disadvantages of skipping it, common myths, and more.

In a school where 99% of students are Hispanic and most are first-generation college-goers, helping with the FAFSA makes a big difference. The counseling team engages with English teachers and gets support from Arizona Western College so that each student who needs individual help can get the guidance they need. This year alone they’ve had 30 students engage with one-on-one help sessions. They also share resources related to scholarships, since they know parents in their area are hesitant of loans. So far this year, they have higher completion rates than most other large high schools.

Cultivating a culture of college-going

Ash Fork High School is so small that they held this year’s FAFSA night in-person. Many of the graduating class of 18 students gathered for pizza, prizes and expert advice. There were representatives from Northern Arizona University onsite, as well as Yavapai College and Grand Canyon University, who attended virtually.

Thanks to a College Knowing and Going grant from the Helios Education Foundation, Ash Fork High has new resources this year. But they’ve been working for three years to improve college and career awareness among students. This year’s FAFSA night saw students gather in two rooms – one for those who are more experienced with the process and one for those who need more guidance. There were plenty of helpers available to ensure students were able to have their questions answered. After FAFSA night, the school’s counseling team will be able to engage with those who didn’t attend to help them understand the benefits of completing the FAFSA and how to do that.

They’ve found that because many of their students are first generation college-goers, the school needs to help them understand what the FAFSA is and how it could benefit them. Money is often one of the biggest stumbling blocks to pursuing higher education, but it doesn’t have to be. Many of their students will qualify for the full Pell grant.

Using virtual tools to boost completion rates

At Millennium High School in Goodyear, the school counseling team is hopeful that this year’s virtual efforts will bring even more students to the table. High school seniors need to work with parents/guardians to complete the FAFSA, and they are hoping that completing the FAFSA will be even easier to do from the comfort of their home. It will also enable virtual one-on-one meetings with experts without having to leave home.

This is Millennium’s third year participating in the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education College Goal FAF$A Program and the counseling team works in tandem with the school’s college and career specialist. They’re sharing the myriad resources that are already available to students, to ensure that families can take advantage.

In previous years, they’ve been able to give customized in-class lessons on the FAFSA. But since that wasn’t possible this year, they developed a video presentation that became part of senior advisory classes. This was enabled partly by the fact that each of their students has a Chromebook already. They hosted a virtual FAFSA night, where more than 70 families received help in both English and Spanish. They used the time to walk guests through the process, share key resources and answer questions. And to help drive participation, Litchfield Kiwanis donated the gift cards that students could win.

Thanks to athletic coaches encouraging students, and prizes for students who attend or complete the FAFSA, the school is doing well so far, and their efforts are helping get students college and career ready, since they know that those who complete the FAFSA are more likely to attend college. All students, regardless of family income, are encouraged to complete a FAFSA since many colleges base financial aid decisions on that information.

Show me the money!

In Tucson, Sunnyside High School is already doing better than they were this time last year. But with more than 400 graduating seniors, they have a lot to do.

FAFSA efforts this year look very different, since they can’t see students in-person. To help get their attention, the counseling team put together a fun video, complete with “show me the money” clips from Jerry Maguire and Cardi B’s “Money.” The memorable video talks about what FAFSA is and why students should care. The Sunnyside High team is pairing that with incentives for students who complete the FAFSA.

During a virtual senior counseling night, the team shared key financial aid and college application dates to help them prepare for the year. And since every student already has a Google email and device, the team can reach them directly or through each cohort’s Google Classroom.

Continuing on last year’s tradition, Sunnyside with host monthly FAFSA support nights where families can ask questions. Thanks to plenty of PPE and plastic desk dividers, they’ll be able to do this in person. They’re also providing training to teachers so that they feel comfortable answering questions.

The team at Sunnyside knows first-hand the importance of FAFSA completion, because many of them relied on Pell grants to pay for schooling. They know those added funds have a big impact and make college more accessible. And their efforts are paying off – college attendance rates have improved.