Helping Schools Promote FAFSA Completion

April 21, 2010

Building on a project that has helped increase the proportion of Chicago public school students who applied for federal financial aid, the Obama administration is inviting school districts around the country to undertake their own such efforts.

The Education Department sent a “Dear Colleague” letter last week giving secondary school administrators the chance to get federal data about how many of their districts’ students have submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The program, which will be available to about 20 school districts this year, is designed to help school administrators identify which students have applied for financial aid and which haven’t.

Armed with that information, school districts can better target their strategies aimed at encouraging students to be career- and college-ready, by focusing on those who haven’t already signaled their intention to go to college, says Greg Darnedier. He headed the Chicago Public Schools' college access efforts under then-Superintendent (and now U.S. Education Secretary) Arne Duncan, and now works in the secretary's office as his special assistant on college assistance.

In 2007, Chicago's school system worked with the Illinois Student Assistance Commission to develop a way to give high schools a weekly status report about which students had and had not submitted the FAFSA form. The first year's report revealed that just under two-thirds of seniors had submitted the form. That figure provided a baseline to help gauge the success of the school system's broad-based efforts aimed at encouraging college and career readiness.

Eighty-one percent of the members of the class of 2009 submitted the FAFSA, Darnedier said, and the figure for this year's class is expected to settle at about 90 percent.

Administration officials hope that providing a similar baseline to school districts elsewhere will help prompt similar improvement. "Our experience made us wonder if we could do something similar for the rest of the country," Darnedier said. The administration has made simplifying the financial aid process a central theme of its college access and completion efforts.

Under the Web-based system the administration has developed, high schools would gain a security clearance like the one that colleges now go through to participate in the federal student aid system, and an official at each school would enter limited information about each student (name, address, gender, etc., but not Social Security number).

The institution would then receive a simple "yes" or "no" on whether each student has submitted the financial aid form, which it could then use to reach out to the students to encourage them to apply, or to refer them to partner organizations that work on college access issues.

Numerous school districts responded almost immediately to the department's Dear Colleague letter, including some of the country's biggest systems, like Florida's Dade County and the New York City schools

Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Education, said via e-mail that the administration's proposition was "intriguing" because of the possibility of getting "real time data on our students' progress in meeting this important procedural benchmark of postsecondary readiness." While some individual schools within the system track FAFSA completion, New York does not currently have access to systemwide data. "This is clearly part of the appeal of the USDOE initiative," Kanner said.

"Better informing our schools, students and families on FAFSA completion rates," he said, "can only encourage greater awareness and development of better supports to help students cross this important threshold to postsecondary success."

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