Did you know that students who complete the Free Application For Student Aid (FAFSA) are 84 percent more likely to immediately enroll in a postsecondary institution? With more than half of jobs in Tennessee requiring education beyond high school, declining FAFSA completion rates and Tennessee community college enrollment are a huge concern. To prepare Tennessee students for successful careers in an evolving workforce, we must make college more accessible for students.

Recognizing that increasing FAFSA completion puts more students on the path to college, Tipton County Schools and Clarksville-Montgomery County schools recently renewed their focus on FAFSA completion. With the annual FAFSA completion deadline extended this year from February 1 to March 1, the districts took advantage of that extra time by offering incentives and supports to help students access the grants and scholarships available through FAFSA. District leaders shared some of their innovative strategies with SCORE.

Incentives To Boost FAFSA Completion

Over the last two years, Marcus Heaston of Tipton County Schools has witnessed the impact of pandemic disruptions on students in the class of 2022. In response, Tipton County Schools established the “FAFSA Cup Challenge,” a competition between high schools to set the highest FAFSA completion rate in the county. To encourage student participation, every student who completed the FAFSA became eligible to win a $500 gift card.

The Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools approach included incentives and deadline awareness. Student incentives included a pizza party and breakfast for seniors who completed  the FAFSA. According to Amanda Farhar at Clarksville-Montgomery, one school held a raffle of school supplies to help students prepare for college and displayed a FAFSA Countdown in the lobby as a daily reminder of the March 1 deadline.

Building Support Networks To Improve Completion

Because completing the FAFSA can be daunting for many students, Tipton County Schools offered extended school days during which trained teachers and volunteers worked with students to complete their FAFSA after school. Heaston noted that some students are drawn to the appeal of immediately going into the workforce — even though the majority of advancement opportunities require some type of postsecondary credential. For that reason, he said a critical element of their approach was “helping students understand the why,” behind pursuing a postsecondary pathway.

Similarly, Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools developed a College and Career Readiness (CCR) team to build a network of college-going supports for students. The CCR team partnered with teachers to build in 30 minutes during English class to help with FAFSA and college applications. The CCR team followed up with individual students who had started but not completed their FAFSA submissions, set up a help hotline, made individual phone calls to parents, and used social media to remind students about the benefits of completing the FAFSA.

Collecting student level data was “a game-changer,” says Dr. Schanda Doughty, director of curriculum and instruction at Clarksville-Montgomery. This data allowed the CCR team to connect with students who had parts of their FAFSA missing and created reports to drive competition between high schools. By identifying students with incomplete FAFSAs, the CCR team helped students complete the missing portions to prevent obstacles down the road when they have less support from the schools.

Looking Forward

In the future, Heaston and Doughty are both prioritizing an earlier push for FAFSA completion to allow district staff more time to do outreach to students.

“We need to work on building more buy-in from the community,” Doughty says.

Both districts have reported progress in their FAFSA completion rates, measured by completers who applied for Tennessee Promise. Individual school FAFSA completion rates can be identified by going to the Tennessee Higher Education Committee’s data visualization map.

Sonny Metoki is a graduate fellow at SCORE. Dr. Richard Bailey is SCORE’s director of strategic practice and data.

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