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Runners sprint toward a finish line that says “FAFSA finish” as dollar bills rain behind them

The education department is putting $50 million toward a late FAFSA completion push, and access organizations are eager for the resources.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Chris Ryan/Getty Images

In late March, as students were reeling from a wave of delays and errors plaguing the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA), Chandra Scott, executive director of the college access nonprofit Alabama Possible, sat down with leaders at the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) in Washington, D.C.

Alabama currently has the second largest year-over-year decline in FAFSA completion of any state in the country, at nearly 29 percent, according to data from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). When FSA officials asked Scott what she needed to boost FAFSA submissions in her state, her answer was simple: money.

With school years ending and counselors leaving for summer vacation, Scott knew there’d be increased demand for outside help filling out the form, and her five-person staff needed more help to meet it.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be community-based organizations like us who stand in the gap; most of us don’t have huge budgets, and we have very small staff,” she said. “I told them it would be nice if there was some more funding to support the work we do.”

The Student Perspective
Some students feel undersupported by their institutions' response to the FAFSA mess and think their colleges haven't communicated well about it. Read more here.

Last week, a little less than two months later, the Education Department announced it would be giving out that funding—$50 million of it. Organizations and state agencies helping students complete their FAFSAs could apply for a slice of the pie, and hopefully close a yawning completion gap that threatens to slash fall enrollments and push low-income students off of their postsecondary pathways.

But as of May 3, the latest data available, form completions were still down 20 percent compared to last year. Meanwhile, many colleges’ commitment deadlines have come and gone—including extended May 15 deadlines that institutions adopted to adjust to the delays—and high school graduations are right around the corner.

Is the cavalry coming too late to make a real difference?

“It is certainly later than we would like it to be,” said Kim Cook, chief executive officer of NCAN. “But it is not too late.”

Cook said the department’s announcement of the new funding has energized many college access organizations and school districts to ramp up their outreach efforts and resources for students in anticipation of receiving much-needed support to continue those into the summer.

“The department seems to be finally really respecting the urgency and the need with this process, and I have full faith that the access and success community, state agencies, and school districts are going to respond in kind,” she said. “Many of them already are.”

Jacqueline Moreno, chief service officer for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), has already submitted an application for a chunk of the funding. She agreed that there’s still time to raise FAFSA completion, which in her state is currently at 49 percent of high school seniors, a 21 percent decline from last year.

But she said the ideal window of time to engage those students—before they graduate and scatter to the wind—is quickly running out.

“We’re trying to reach people before graduation and it is consuming every minute of every day for us,” she said. “Some districts have already ended their years; this Saturday is a big day for graduations. It’s important we do all we can before then, because once students are out, they’re out, and it gets much harder to reach them.”

Repurposed Funds, New Urgency

Much of the money for the new student support strategy is not new. According to a department spokesperson, it’s being repurposed from an earlier initiative, the FAFSA College Support Strategy, which was announced in February to help colleges adjust to changes in the form and delays in the financial aid processing timeline.

The Education Department had planned to hand out up to $50 million to organizations that would then recruit financial aid professionals and provide technical assistance to under-resourced institutions. It’s not clear how much money was spent, but that initial pot has been whittled down to $10 million and split evenly between two organizations: the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the Partnership for Education Advancement, the latter of which supports minority-serving institutions.

The rest of the original funds—along with an extra $10 million—is going to the new student support initiative.

The department isn’t directly involved in determining which organizations receive the funding. That decision is up to the Education Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), a nonprofit and guarantee agency for some federal student loans. The money itself comes from a surplus in ECMC’s Federal Fund, which is typically returned to the Treasury Department but can be used for other purposes as authorized by the education secretary.

ECMC is currently taking applications from organizations looking to get in on the student support strategy and expects to start disbursing funds soon. Organizations can request money to hire more counselors, host FAFSA clinics, and beef up outreach and marketing campaigns, among other completion-oriented activities.

Catherine Brown, senior director of policy and advocacy at NCAN, expects that, unlike the college support strategy, most of this $50 million will actually be spent. Organizations that work with students on completing the FAFSA are planning and raising money to ramp up their work from hiring more staff or extending the hours of current counselors.

“I don’t expect any one grant to be tremendously large, but in combination, they could get a lot of money out the door quickly,” she said. “I think it’s great that they’re acting fast. They have no time to waste.”

Cook said there’s another way the FAFSA completion push differs from the college support strategy: It’s much better organized, and much simpler. She hopes the straightforward application will streamline resources to organizations working with students on the ground instead of getting caught up in red tape.

“I’m encouraged that this seems to be a very nimble process,” she said. “Right now, we need to throw some norms out the window … We don’t want bureaucracy getting in the way.”

Vying for a Piece of the Pie

The $50 million for student support will be distributed to “school districts, state, nonprofits and other public and private organizations” that apply through an online form, according to the department’s announcement. Organizations with “deep ties to students and families, which have the reach and capacity to help decrease barriers and increase FAFSA submissions,” will be prioritized.

Brown, of NCAN, said she hopes ECMC is quick but thoughtful in picking funding recipients; there’s no time to funnel it through advocacy organizations with no field experience.

“This money could make a huge difference … [but] it's most important that it goes to organizations that have relationships with students and have experience with helping students complete FAFSAs,” Brown said.

Scott said that Alabama Possible would likely use the money, first and foremost, to hire more support for her overworked staff, especially to operate the organization’s FAFSA Help Desk phone line. She said it has received more than three times as many calls and texts requesting support than in usual years, and employees are swamped.

After that, Scott said she’d focus on building a widespread marketing campaign—billboards, mailers, television ads, radio spots—to raise awareness and “meet students where they’re at” after they leave high schools for the summer.

Moreno, of ISAC, would take a different approach: Instead of funding their own operations, they’d siphon all the money to school districts.

“Marketing is great, media is great, getting the word out is important,” she said. “But we facilitate FAFSA data exchange, so we actually have the names of these students who haven’t filled it out. At this point, we need to be helping districts reach out to them directly.”

Moreno said ISAC has already examined its FAFSA exchange data and identified the largest high schools in the state with the highest FAFSA completion declines. If the agency received $1 million or even half of that, she said it is spring-loaded to offer stipends to counselors at those schools who could then work through at least June to help the students they know need support, with her statewide staff on hand for backup. ISAC officials would use any leftovers to incentivize students and families to come to them, subsidizing transportation and meals the same way districts do during the school year.

“We could host 400 FAFSA help sessions across the state and facilitate targeted outreach from high school counselors by giving them money to work past graduation and our data to know who to contact,” she said. “You need backbone organizations like ours to help make this money go further, faster.”

ISAC’s “very ambitious goal,” Moreno said, is to get FAFSA completions on par with last year’s before the end of the summer—an increase of 16,000 forms between now and September.

“It’s a reach, we know, but I’m cautiously optimistic that if anything is going to work, it’s the plan I just laid out,” she said. “There’s too much on the line not to go for it.”

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