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‘Finish the FAFSA’ makes it easier for high schools to track FAFSA completions

This is the fifth piece in a series on the FAFSA. Follow along with the rest of the series here.

Any student who is interested in college should fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application opens the door for students to get help paying for college from federal and state governments as well as colleges and universities. Financial aid can range from subsidized loans to grants to scholarships and can be crucial in enabling students to pursue a postsecondary education.

To meet North Carolina’s myFutureNC attainment goal of 2 million working-age adults with a postsecondary degree or credential by 2030, the state will need to increase the number of students going to college. One way to do that is to increase the FAFSA completion rate among high school seniors. In 2019, 64% of high school seniors completed the FAFSA compared to 80% in neighboring Tennessee. As of May 8, just 50% of North Carolina’s seniors had completed the FAFSA this year.

One tool North Carolina school districts have at their disposal is a data sharing agreement between districts and the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA).

Finish the FAFSA data sharing agreement

The agreement, called Finish the FAFSA, allows NCSEAA to match high school student enrollment data from the Department of Public Instruction with FAFSA completion data to show districts which of their seniors have completed a FAFSA and which have not. No personal information is shared other than student names and FAFSA completion status.

To enable this data sharing, superintendents must sign an agreement and designate someone in the district to have access to the data, often a high school counselor and/or college advisor. Once the agreement is executed, that person can log onto a portal and see updated FAFSA completion information for every senior in their school or district.

“I have really enjoyed the Finish the FAFSA tool because when you ask students if they finished the FAFSA, sometimes they’ll say yes, because they think they actually have, especially if they’re first-generation college students whose parents may not know what it is,” said Pam Yelle, a counselor at Manteo High School.

In addition to letting districts know which students have submitted their FAFSA, the tool also lets them know whose FAFSAs are complete. “I can see who has submitted and who has completed, because those are two different things,” Yelle said.

If students submit their FAFSA without a signature, for example, it will not be marked complete until they have corrected the mistake. If they don’t correct the mistake, students will not be eligible for financial aid.

“I can go to the Finish the FAFSA report, find a student, look specifically at what we need to do to help them finish it, and then go over the paperwork and see if there are things that need their signature or specific documents they have to fill out, and help them get through that,” said Toni Blount, college advising and scholarships coordinator at Craven County Schools.

Finish the FAFSA also flags those students who have been selected for verification, meaning they are asked to provide additional documentation to colleges. Bob Obrohta, executive director of the Tennessee College Access & Success Network, said verification is the biggest barrier to FAFSA completion.

During Yelle’s first year at Manteo High School, the counselors did not talk to students about verification, she said. “Then, in the summer, we noticed there were kids in a panic because they hadn’t gotten housing because they had never responded to the verification request,” Yelle explained. Now, she uses the Finish the FAFSA report to see if students have been selected for verification and help them figure out what additional documentation is required.

According to Blount, this is often the step that keeps students from completing their FAFSA and ultimately enrolling in college.

“That step can often be the step that stops the student in their college process,” Blount said. “They give up. They throw their hands up. They say, ‘I don’t understand. I’ve done everything. I’ve given them everything, and it’s still not enough.’ And then they get their tuition bill, and they’re paying full price because they didn’t follow the steps that the college needed. And then they don’t attend.”

“(Finish the FAFSA) can make or break whether or not a student will attend a college or university, just because we can use it as a way to reach out to them,” Blount said.

Without the Finish the FAFSA agreement, people like Blount and Yelle can look at federal data to see how many students at each high school have submitted and completed a FAFSA, but they have no way of knowing who those students are and thus no way of proactively reaching out to help them.

Finish the FAFSA is only as successful as the people behind it

As of this writing, only three of North Carolina’s 115 school districts have not signed the Finish the FAFSA agreement: Haywood County Schools, Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools, and Whiteville City Schools.

When asked why they had not signed the agreement, Bill Nolte, Haywood County Schools Public Information Officer responded, “We are very protective of our students’ information.”

Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools and Whiteville City Schools did not respond to our request for comment.

However, just signing the agreement is not enough, Blount stressed. Districts need to have someone who is responsible for checking the report periodically and acting on the data. That can be hard, Blount said, when there are so many other things on high school guidance counselors’ plates.

“Postsecondary college awareness is one part of a high school counselor’s job. There are many other hats that they wear with social emotional health, special need students, peer mediation, bullying — all sorts of roles in the high school guidance counseling or high school counseling office,” Blount said. “And so to to thoroughly use this report, I think would require intentional dedication and devotion from that staff, whether that be one person leading that effort or a district person helping drive that engagement.”

“I think a lot of principals and superintendents are more focused on things that they’re measured on, which tend to be things like graduation rates, not FAFSA completion rates,” said Jenny Cahoon, a counselor at Millbrook High School in Wake County. That can be a roadblock for getting superintendents to sign the Finish the FAFSA agreement, she added.

Looking ahead

Marcia Weston is the associate director for outreach at the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA). In this role, she supports districts to increase their FAFSA completion rates, including encouraging them to sign the Finish the FAFSA agreement. Weston works directly with counselors and advisors like Yelle, Blount, and Cahoon. She sees their greatest impact as helping first-generation college students navigate this complex process.

“I think the greatest impact we’ve made is to focus on the needs of those populations that don’t have any experience with postsecondary education, and I think that we have made strides in helping first-generation families access financial aid, understand it, and navigate the process,” she said.

Weston is hopeful that North Carolina can continue to increase the FAFSA completion rate, but she believes they’ve got to do a better job of using data and increase statewide collaboration towards a shared goal.

“There are many different entities around the state doing this work. I think we have to do a better job at setting common goals and missions,” Weston said.

She also believes the state needs to do a better job of talking to parents and understanding the fears, challenges, and myths around postsecondary education.

Weston shared that one of her greatest life lessons came while she was doing this work in her home state of Maine. During a financial aid presentation in rural Maine, she realized her message was not resonating with the parents.

“I shut down my machine,” Weston said. “And I said, ‘OK, tell me what’s going on.’ And they said, ‘You have to understand that if our children leave to go to college, our community dies.’ And I thought, wow, I might as well have been selling them a cemetery plot.”

Talking to students and families and building trusting relationships is key to increasing attainment, Weston stressed, and those conversations should be starting much earlier than students’ senior year.

To learn more about the FAFSA, including how to complete the application and strategies for increasing the FAFSA completion rate, read the rest of the series here.

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and director of operations for EducationNC.