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Perspective | Putting a little fun in FAFSA: Land of Sky FAFSA sweepstakes

With the common cause of widening college access at the forefront, a group of education partners in western North Carolina came together to get creative.

FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is an important opportunity for high school students. We proved the application process could also be fun. 

We at Land of Sky P20 Council and the College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC) teamed up with Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College student services staff Terry Brasier, Megan Triplett, and Melissa McKean.

We wanted to know where we could make the biggest difference. We began by diving into the FAFSA completion data for Buncombe and Madison Counties (the school districts within A-B Tech’s service area) using the CFNC FAFSA Tracker to compare historical completion data and see trends.

In Buncombe County, there were two high schools, Erwin and Enka High Schools, where the FAFSA completion rate had fallen from the end of the 2021-22 school year to the spring of 2023.

Enka finished the 2021-2022 school year with a 57% completion but was at a 32% completion in March 2023. Erwin finished the 2021-2022 school year with a 59% completion but was at a 36% completion in March. 

Madison County had FAFSA rates traditionally below the state average, with a 38% rate at the end of 2022 and a 39% rate in March 2023, so both schools in this county were included in the initiative. 

Brodie Brigman was on of the sweepstakes winners at Erwin High School in Buncombe County. Photo courtesy of Emily Nicholson

We saw an opportunity to incentivize both students and families to complete the process before the end of the school year to get some students across that FAFSA finish line before graduation.

With all these factors in mind, a FAFSA sweepstakes was initiated with four high schools. If a student, family members, or caregivers were on the fence about completing the form, perhaps the promise of immediate financial reward, in combination with the potential for future college funding, would help them to move forward. 

By submitting a 2023-24 FAFSA and sharing their results with AB Tech, students were automatically entered to win $100 in Visa gift cards for themselves and a parent or guardian who aided them in completing it. The gift cards were funded through the P20 Council, supported by the John M. Belk Endowment.

Example of a marketing poster for the sweepstakes. Courtesy of Emily Nicholson

The team supplied the high school counselors with a toolkit of resources to get the word out to families in addition to traditional marketing techniques. We created a public Facebook event page with many linked resources to aid students in completing the form.

On May 3, gift cards were presented to the students of Clyde A. Erwin, Enka, and  Madison High Schools. Although it was not a large initiative, it was a successful one in several significant ways. 

First, we were able to get resources into the hands of new high school graduates and their families. Second, the successful collaboration between the local high schools, community college, and education partners offers inspiration for future collaboration among this team and with others in the region.

Finally, the FAFSA completion increased in the class of 2023 at each school. While two of the high schools had modest gains in completion from last April, it is a testament to the power of multiple stakeholders coming together that one high school included in this initiative (Madison High School) increased their overall completion from 52% in 2021-2022 to 63% as of June 2023, and the month of April contained 200% more FAFSAs completed during the month than in April 2022. 

The student services staff at Madison High School chose to provide one last in-person FAFSA completion event, using the sweepstakes as incentive to attend for support in submitting and entering to win. The students who received prizes were excited to share their future plans for college and career, and doubly excited that they were able to earn some money to help them on their way.

Emily Nicholson

Emily Nicholson is the executive director of the Land of Sky P20 Council, which fosters collaboration among employers, educators, and community members in the spirit of enduring economic prosperity, through the alignment of innovative cradle-to-career skills and resources that lead to life-sustaining job opportunities in our 4-county region of western North Carolina.

Devon McCarthy-James

Devon McCarthy-James is the 828 Western NC Regional Representative for the College Foundation of NC, helping students and families with the college process.