Let’s state the obvious: 1) Financial aid plays a huge factor in students’ college-going decisions and success (especially low-income students); and 2) Completing the FAFSA is essential for students to access almost all forms of financial aid. So, for a large urban district like DC Public Schools, where 77 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced price lunch, getting graduating seniors to complete their FAFSAs on time isn’t an optional task- it’s a necessary one.
In the fall of 2014, DCPS began a data-driven FAFSA Completion Initiative developed in partnership with our State Education Agency (SEA) and the US Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Programs Division (FSA). DCPS saw a 3 percentage point increase from year one to year two of effort, and are aiming for an additional 3 percentage point increase this year. Here’s how we made it happen:
- Access FSA’s FAFSA Completion Portal: In 2014, FSA granted SEAs access to student-level FAFSA completion data. Prior to this, we could only measure FAFSA completion by school, which wasn’t granular enough to act on in a meaningful way. DCPS collaborated with our SEA to allow us and school leaders access to the FAFSA portal data, which lets us see exactly which students had completed the FAFSA, and who had submitted the FAFSA with errors (and which ones).
- Make the Data Actionable & Accessible: At DCPS, we often say, “What gets measured, gets done.” Every two weeks, we format the FAFSA portal data into an easy-to-read summary table that we email to all school leaders, staff, and college access providers responsible for FAFSA completion. Here’s a sample, simplified version:
- Goal Setting: In our first year of the Initiative, we didn’t set goals. Big mistake! Our school leaders were eager for goals that were differentiated to their school – ambitious, but realistic. As we set goals, we take into account the school’s prior year graduation, FAFSA completion, and college enrollment rates.
- Follow Up, Follow Up, and More Follow Up: The biweekly email to school leadership with updated completion rates for all schools and the district provides helpful context on their progress compared to peer schools, generates some healthy competition, and serves as a nice prompt for school leaders to log-in to the Portal to see exactly which students have and haven’t completed their FAFSAs. We also follow up directly with schools who are lagging behind, or who have requested a strategy session to improve their completion rates.
- Get District Leadership On Board: Monthly, we share with district leadership a FAFSA completion summary; our leaders are invested in retaining our highest-in-the-nation FAFSA completion rate, and their support matters to the initiative’s success.
- Celebrate Successes: District leaders give shout-outs to schools meeting or exceeding their goals. Schools hold FAFSA completion celebrations. This year, we’re giving #DCPSGoesToCollege t-shirts to students who complete their FAFSA. It’s important to celebrate this milestone on students’ pathway to college.
We’re proud of our DCPS FAFSA Completion initiative, and the partnerships that led to it. What are your districts doing to promote FAFSA completion? Have any thoughts on how we can improve our model? Questions for us? Please share!
Dr. Bibo oversees Career Education, Work-Based Learning, and College Prep Programming for the District of Columbia Public Schools. She earned her Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park and her Master’s in Education Policy from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.