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Valley schools, ASU virtually promote completing FAFSA

By

Hannah Moulton Belec

Embarking on the path to college can mean overcoming a series of barriers, and often the first is financial. That’s why for years Arizona State University has partnered with local educators and organizations to increase high school seniors’ completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA.

The form can be intimidating to fill out, but it’s the key to financial aid for any college student in the United States since it can open the door to grants, scholarships and federal loans. 

As with every other aspect of education, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated FAFSA completion outreach this fall, yet the work continues because of the innovative approach that ASU community partners have taken to support students and meet them where they are.

Shifting from in-person events is tough for a form like the FAFSA, but Erin Chastain, ASU director of school partnerships, said that school districts have adapted and are collaborating with ASU to shift help online.

“We’ve seen school districts do everything from virtual panels to after-school workshops on what to bring to offering line-by-line help filling out FAFSA,” Chastain said.

Socially distanced events and virtual events have been creative, utilizing virtual breakout rooms and ASU experts. Sun Devil students have served as peer coaches to help students fill out the form, which Chastain estimates takes about an hour to complete when you have all the materials handy.

Knowing what to have on hand is a crucial piece of education as well: You’ll need students’ and parents’ Social Security numbers or alien registration number; federal tax returns and W-2s, bank statements and an FSA ID that you create during the process. 

Read more: 5 tips to help you submit your FAFSA

ASU staff and student teams work with Phoenix Union High School District, Glendale Union High School District, Tempe Union High School District, Tolleson Union High School District and Mesa Public Schools specifically on FAFSA completion, working toward a goal of 78% of high school seniors completing the FAFSA by 2030. Currently the statewide completion rate is 52%.

In November, Access ASU was even selected to receive a 2021 Pathways to Adult Success Design Challenge Stipend of $5,000 in support of virtual college application and FAFSA support. These funds will be used starting in December to support FAFSA and college application events in both Phoenix Union High School District and Tolleson Union High School District.

Chastain said that this fall’s strategy is a shift from the typically in-person help sessions but that schools have done an amazing job reaching more families virtually. 

“We’ve seen that having virtual events available has eliminated some barriers where maybe before parents couldn’t attend in person because of transportation, travel or maybe a sibling’s extracurriculars,” she said. “The counselors and other educators we work with have been amazing and are keeping students on track despite all the complications.”

Michael Garcia, director of opportunity and achievement at Mesa Public Schools, said that in Mesa Public Schools they continue to use a three-pronged approach to FAFSA outreach utilizing remote events that feature school counselors, community partners and peer coaches, who are Mesa Public Schools students. 

“Our own FAFSA peer-coach training sessions are my favorite because our student coaches are so engaged in this process, and that is wonderful to see,” he said. 

Garcia is proud of the 24 peer coaches trained and said the district is focused on meeting their goal of 55% completion this year. ASU has been a partner, he said, in supporting college nights, FAFSA nights and also supporting their work through GEAR UP and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grants.

“We highly value our ASU partners in these efforts,” he said. “We still believe the more students who obtain a college education can provide a community benefit for all to make Mesa and Arizona a better place to thrive.”

One FAFSA completion initiative that didn’t need to pivot was Project Benjamin, a collaboration between ASU, College Success Arizona and other community partners from around the state, which launched the Benji chatbot to answer students’ and families’ questions about FAFSA 24/7 with a simple text message. 

The tool was already reaching people virtually since its launch in October 2019, and it has only grown. Benji is now used in 27 Arizona districts — covering nine counties with new schools and districts added every week — and boasts more than 25,000 high school seniors as users. College Success Arizona Program Manager Heidi Doxey said that Benji’s multilingual knowledge base has been upgraded with Google Translate and has been a crucial educational tool during COVID-19.

“Benji is and always has been a virtual tool. … With education moving to remote or virtual learning, Benji has been even more essential as many students are unable to drop by their counselor’s office for a quick chat,” she said. “Benji can get them the answers and connect them with additional resources or support where needed. Additionally, Benji is completely accessible for any student or family with a cell phone.”

Though the overall goal of FAFSA completion is the same, ASU and community partners have proven to be excellent at investing in prescient tools and pivoting during an unprecedented time in education.

“The work of building college pathways can’t stop, and it hasn’t stopped. ASU and the remarkable organizations that work with us on FAFSA and so many other initiatives have spent 2020 finding new ways to open up higher education to Arizona families,” said Lorenzo Chavez, ASU assistant vice president for outreach partnerships.