Three years after implementing FAFSA as a graduation requirement, Louisiana improved FAFSA completion by more than 24%. The FAFSA Now Pilot, implemented in the 2020-21 academic year, was designed to not only help students complete the FAFSA, but to encourage them to complete it earlier than federal deadlines. Forty-one schools signed up to participate in the pilot, which moved the Louisiana FAFSA completion deadline from July 1 to Feb. 1. By the end of the 2021-22 academic year, two of the pilot schools reached 100% and 75% of the pilot schools exceeded the national FAFSA completion average.
When the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the FAFSA mandate in 2015, a joint FAFSA Task Force with representation from the Louisiana Department of Education, Louisiana Board of Regents, Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA), and postsecondary partners formed to provide support for students and parents attempting to complete the FAFSA. The following are lessons learned from Louisiana’s efforts that may help other states considering this requirement.
Meet Students and Families Where They Are
LOSFA staff began offering line-by-line FAFSA assistance through its on-site computer lab and school and community-based FAFSA completion events. In some of the state’s more rural areas, wireless access was a challenge, which necessitated providing laptops and Wi-Fi devices to assist students and parents. During the COVID-19 pandemic, staff transitioned to virtual office hours to assist students and parents statewide.
Families could receive support through virtual office hours, virtual events, text messaging, GEAUX FAFSA email support, phone calls and through connecting students to federal resources on the Federal Student Aid website. Schools also used daily announcements, reminders in virtual platforms, robocalls, personal phone calls, connecting FAFSA completion with senior activities and working with parents’ schedules for FAFSA assistance.
Staff discovered some parents were hesitant to share financial data to complete the FAFSA; others were reluctant to complete the FAFSA at all. Developing relationships and establishing parent trust became key in increasing parent buy-in. These relationships allowed parents and students to feel more comfortable discussing personal topics, allowing them to work together to find solutions.
Show the Benefits of FAFSA Completion
To educate students and parents about the benefits of FAFSA completion, LOSFA launched its FAFSA Now campaign. The campaign encourages families to complete the FAFSA to ensure they receive as much gift aid (free money) as possible to minimize loan debt. The FAFSA Now campaign also highlights the reasons students should complete the FAFSA. Namely, it’s free and students can possibly qualify for need-based, merit-based, special circumstance and/or institutional aid by completing the application. The campaign also reminds families to complete the form early, increasing the chance that students receive their college award letters sooner so they can know how much aid they will qualify for.
In addition, the Compete to Complete challenge encourages friendly competition among high schools in Louisiana. Schools and districts can use the portal to view FAFSA completion percentages and to see which districts have the highest completion rate in the state. FAFSA completion percentages are updated weekly by LOSFA staff.
Evaluate and Continue to Adapt
The partnership of several agencies plus continued outreach and communication campaigns have seen the percentage of students filing a FAFSA make a dramatic increase from 51.2 % to 77.1 % between 2017 and 2018. That increase resulted in 1,566 more high school students immediately enrolling in college after completing the FAFSA. Louisiana ranked No. 1 in FAFSA completion in 2018 and 2019 at 78.9%. It ranked No. 2 in FAFSA completion in 2020 at 78.9%. In May 2021, data from the NCAN FAFSA Tracker ranked Louisiana first in FAFSA completion for the third time. As of Aug. 6, 2021, 75.9% of 2021 high school graduates completed a FAFSA.
The Louisiana Department of Education also completes a State of Financial Aid in Louisiana report each year to break down FAFSA submission by subgroup. It found equity gains in the number of students from low-income households and students of color who completed FAFSA, which is a significant focus in pilots like this.
Louisiana will continue its mission to remind students that in spite of the unknown, it is critical to focus on what they can control: filing the FAFSA and enrolling in a college or university to obtain a certification, credential of value or a two- or four-year degree.