Counselors: 5 Creative Ways to Help with the Financial Aid Planning Process

Student and a counselor at College Depot, Phoenix Public Library.

Student and a counselor at College Depot, Phoenix Public Library.

This past spring, I had the pleasure of traveling out to Phoenix, Arizona to meet with various counselors, mentors, and college access professionals to learn more about how they are getting ready for the upcoming FAFSA season. With the FAFSA launching earlier this year on October 1, many of you have started to organize events and prepare to help students and parents through the financial aid process. As a former college counselor, my biggest piece of advice to you is to familiarize yourself with the Financial Aid Toolkit. It is a goldmine of information that can help answer many of your questions and assist with your financial aid planning process. Also, here’s some advice from a few of our key partners on how to make this process fun and exciting.

1. Involve your students in the planning process. They’re the ones who count.

In order for your events and outreach to be effective, engage students in the FAFSA planning process. Invite them to be involved early on and give them opportunities to participate or even lead efforts. Your students will know what works best with their peers. The Be A Leader Foundation has built a robust infrastructure of 33 Be a Leader Clubs throughout the Phoenix metro area that encourages students to participate in planning and leading various financial aid events. Every Phoenix metro-area school has a minimum of four club officers and anywhere from 20 to 80 club members. Karla Robles, Chief Strategy Officer, believes “engaging students not only creates excitement across campus but also ensures participation at all levels of the organization!”

  • Federal Student Aid Resource:
    Our 2017–18 FAFSA Messaging and Planning Calendar can also help with any outreach activities you’re planning! This document provides suggestions and resources to help you plan communications to students and parents for the 2017–18 FAFSA.

2. Step 1: FSA ID, Step 2: FAFSA

The FSA ID is a username and password needed to electronically sign the FAFSA. For some, the FSA ID process can be a bit tricky; but, the College Depot at Phoenix Public Library has an efficient system in place to help students (and parents) get their FSA IDs and complete the FAFSA. Judy Reno, Director of College Depot in Phoenix, says their model was designed to streamline their FSA ID and FAFSA completion process while still maintaining tailored customer service. This has led to almost 200 FAFSAs being completed in only two events! Their game-winning solution: set up events with financial aid work stations that are separated out by the FSA ID, the FAFSA, and “complicated situations.” A check-in team guides parents and students to a station according to their specific needs. Reno’s biggest piece of advice was to staff the stations according to level of experience and provide sufficient training before events.

  • Federal Student Aid Resource:
    Want to help encourage students and parents to create their FSA IDs? Use our FSA ID Digital and Social Outreach resources for tweets, Facebook posts, and more. All you have to do is click “share.”

3. Quickly connect with students via digital platforms, like text messages and social media.

Arizona State University’s ProMod project

Arizona State University’s ProMod project

Not everyone has time to go classroom-to-classroom searching for students and reminding them to complete their FAFSA. If you’re looking for a time-saving, tech-savvy option, take some advice from Arizona State University’s ProMod project which pairs students and parents with their own mentor. They use a two-way text message platform has been pivotal in connecting mentees and mentors with more than 80% of mentees responding to mentors via text message. Natalie Nailor, Project Director, has this to say:

“We would recommend integrating text messages into your campaign strategy to not only remind them about important deadlines, but more importantly, provide a real person on the other end of a support line to help students prevent ‘summer melt’ and successfully transition to college.”

  • Federal Student Aid Resource:
    Don’t forget: you’re always welcome to use our Federal Student Aid Information Center if you need additional help. Email, chat, and phone options are available whenever you have questions! We also have an entire list of Digital Outreach Resources, including videos, to help you promote everything from FSA ID awareness, FAFSA completion, and student loan repayment.

4. Have a fiesta. After all, preparing for college should be a blast!

Central High School's FAFSA Fiesta

Central High School’s FAFSA Fiesta

In partnership with College Goal Arizona, Central High School has found a way to make filling out the FAFSA fun and exciting through the power of school and community collaboration. Central’s annual FAFSA Fiesta is a daytime event in which students bring in the necessary documents (after receiving pre-event communication), to create their FSA IDs and complete their FAFSAs. Dolores Ramirez, Post-Articulation Specialist with Phoenix Union High School District, has the following advice:

“Know your students and their needs; never assume they know college-going language; and continue to engage your community.”

Ramirez worked with numerous restaurants for donations, community-based organizations for volunteers, and school administration. Once students completed their FAFSAs, they received raffle tickets for a chance to win cool prizes and receive a free lunch—tacos!

  • Federal Student Aid Resource:
    If you need a handout that explains the college-going process in plain language, for parents and students, then make sure to review our College Preparation Checklists. We have checklists for elementary, middle, and high school students—there’s even a separate checklist for adults and parents so that everyone is financially and academically prepared for college. If you’re working with Spanish-speaking students or parents, make sure to check out the Spanish version!

5. Keep celebrating. Have a scholarship search party!

AGUILA Youth Leadership Institute, Inc. doesn’t just stop at FAFSA completions. They recognize that the FAFSA is the gateway to federal, state, institutional, and/or organizational financial aid. AGUILA primarily helps first-generation, minority, low-income students find a way to make college affordable—even if they’re undocumented. AGUILA organizes many events but their signature one is called the Scholarship Overnight Search (SOS). This three-day, overnight experience gives students the opportunity to have a fun and educational school-based sleepover where they play games but also apply for scholarships and work on their résumés. CEO and founder, Rosemary Ybarra-Hernandez, has strategically scheduled two SOS events each year—the fall session coincides with the National College Fair and the spring session is held before spring break. AGUILA ensures a safe, culturally-accepting space for all students which has led to a greater level of understanding and comfort in the college-going process.

  • Federal Student Aid Resource:
    If you’re interested in starting a scholarship-focused event, check out the “Learn About” section of our Financial Aid Toolkit and glance through our “Hosting a Financial Aid Event” resource page. There’s also the Department of Labor’s Scholarship Search Tool that gives students information on how to apply for scholarships and individualized based on the profile they create. After all, who doesn’t love free money?

Ashley Harris is an Outreach Specialist at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.