Two masked ASU employees help a line of cars at the Mesa Convention Center check in for FAFSA help

Drive-in events help Valley families fill out FAFSA safely

By

Hannah Moulton Belec

A group of education leaders in Arizona aren’t letting COVID-19 stop them from pursuing an ambitious goal for making sure families have access to financial aid for college.

A series of FAFSA drive-in events are being hosted in Mesa and Phoenix starting this month to help high school seniors and their families complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which opens the door to grants, scholarships and federal loans. The average amount of grants FAFSA applicants receive per year is around $7,000, and total aid is nearly $13,000. 

A two-hour pilot event Nov. 18 at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix served 76 students and their families thanks to the Arizona Meta Network, a partnership between Access ASU and the Be a Leader Foundation, in partnership with the Phoenix Union High School District, Ask Benji, Phoenix College and AzCAN

At the event, vehicles were spaced out in a parking lot and applicants talked to helpers wearing face coverings. A Wi-Fi truck supplied by Phoenix College was nearby to offer connectivity and also printing and devices, if needed. Cox also provided Wi-Fi on-site for the event. Families were encouraged to show up in masks, stay in their cars and bring their own devices and all the necessary documentation, including student and parent Social Security numbers or other identification numbers, driver's license numbers, tax returns, bank statements and records for nontaxed income such as child support. Volunteers assisted families in every step of the process to complete what can be an intimidating application. 

The events were modeled after Get2College’s successful event in Mississippi, and Sylvia Symonds, Arizona State University associate vice president for outreach, said the coalition members believe these are the first events of their kind in the metro Phoenix area.

“Our mild winters luckily make it possible to bring these innovative events to reach Arizona families where they are,” Symonds said. “If students don’t fill out FAFSA, they leave significant funding on the table for college. FAFSA completion is so critical for educational opportunities, and it creates a ripple effect in families’ economic futures.”

The FAFSA drive-ins are part of a multipronged approach to achieve the Arizona FAFSA Challenge goals. Any other year, workshops and office hours would be providing in-person, individualized help to families to complete the form. This year, the efforts had to be switched to be virtual to be safe. The Benji chatbot,  which answers FAFSA questions 24/7 by text, and the 833-A-FAFSA (833-Mi-FAFSA) hotlines continue to provide support. 

The drive-in events are being marketed on social media in English and Spanish and have been featured on the local Univision affiliate. In addition, students receive a text from Benji inviting them to the drive-in. 

The AZ Meta Network supports the Arizona FAFSA Challenge, which aims to increase the number of students completing the FAFSA to 52% of high school seniors this year and to 78% of high school seniors by 2030. Last year’s completion rate was 46% in Arizona, 7% below the national average. 

Shayne Johnson, an outreach coordinator for College Success Arizona, was part of the planning, organizing and staffing for the pilot drive-in. Johnson helped people check out, printed documents and handed out prizes for participation. She said that the event is important because families need college prep information, and schools are currently overwhelmed meeting the basic socioemotional needs of students in a pandemic. 

“I think FAFSA and college next steps have been put on the back burner while everyone is adjusting. I think it was a great opportunity for us as a community to step in and provide support to our counselors and families,” she said. “Many schools are not doing in-person FAFSA events, and students are missing out on the in-person help. In order to stay safe yet still serve students we felt like a drive-in event allowed us to reach the maximum number of students.”

Johnson said she was thrilled to see so many families participate and that the demand shows how many people are being resilient in their education planning in a difficult environment. 

“Seeing the volunteers helping students was so encouraging, and I felt like our volunteers were so happy to be there and be involved and that goes a long way,” she said.

A second event at the Mesa Convention center on Jan. 12 reached 75 cars, roughly 225 people. Another was held Jan. 14 at Trevor Browne High School in Phoenix. The city of Mesa and Mesa Mayor John Giles were sponsors of the event, and the mayor was there to greet families and guide them around the resources. 

“I’m looking forward to seeing Mesa’s parents and students filling out the FAFSA, thanking them for taking this important step and talking about what’s next for them after high school,” he said.

Giles said the city recognizes FAFSA completion as an integral part of economic opportunity for city residents. 

“FAFSA completion helps our students decide what they want to do post high school. It gives them a financial road map of what’s available to them. Equipping our students for success after high school means a strong economic workforce for Mesa in the future,” he said.

Solio Felix, chief program officer for the Be a Leader Foundation, said that the drive-ins are especially crucial because although outreach has continued serving families virtually, FAFSA completion numbers for this year have been lower so far. According to the FAFSA Completion Dashboard, 25% of Arizona high school seniors have completed the FAFSA; this year’s goal is 52%.

“In conversations and learnings from the broader college access community, we began to explore the potential of hosting a FAFSA drive-through in our community with the right safety measures,” Felix said. “We saw the opportunity to bring this innovative support as state FAFSA numbers are lower in comparison to last year and knew we need to work as a community to create innovative spaces to support parents and students,” he added.

Felix helps plan and staff the events as well as coordinate resources. He said that he’s excited to see the events expand and mentioned future events may be planned for Flagstaff and Tucson. Additionally, Felix emphasized the important role community organizations play in creating innovative solutions to the challenge of offering FAFSA completion resources to students and families.

“None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the amazing collaborative spirit in our community. From the onset of the pandemic, we rallied as a community to see how we can maintain service levels to our students as we closed on the 2020 academic year and leading into 2021,” Felix said. “It certainly has been challenging for all of us, but in the long term it all comes down to what are we doing to better support students and how can we collaborate to build innovative outreach solutions.“ 

Families can reserve a slot at upcoming drive-in events. Limited slots will be available for those without an appointment. 

 Upcoming dates include:

  • 3–6 p.m., Feb. 3, Central High School, North Parking Lot

  • 3–6 p.m., Feb. 24, Academies at South High School

Follow Access ASU for more updates on FAFSA drive-ins and other FAFSA updates.