PUHSD earns grant renewal to continue college financial aid efforts

High school seniors at Camelback High School fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, or FAFSA, during a FAFSA drive on Oct. 19, 2017. (Stephanie Morse/DD)

For many low-income students, access to financial aid to pay for college is available and crucial, but students are not always aware of the opportunities to receive aid.

Phoenix Union High School District’s latest efforts to connect students with financial aid have paid off in the form of a renewal grant for $25,000 from the National College Access Network this school year to continue its FAFSA completion and college attainment efforts.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is an annual form college students and their families can fill out to determine their eligibility for federal grants, loans and work-study programs.

Last year the district was one of 22 cities nationwide to receive $55,000 from the network through the FAFSA completion grant. Based on the district’s success increasing FAFSA completion rates, PUHSD was one of eight cities to earn additional money to continue its efforts.

PUHSD increased its FAFSA completion rate by 26 percent in 2017, completing 632 more FAFSA applications than the previous year, according to data from the district. The grant money supported the district’s college marketing campaign and FAFSA drives with the majority of the money going toward summer collaboration efforts with high school counselors to further fine tune their efforts.

“We want them to explore all their options so they can meet their goals,” said Rachel Claros, financial aid worker for ASU and one of the FAFSA experts at some district FAFSA drives. “There is a broad range of financial aid options regardless of student’s background or financial situation. There are endless possibilities.”

To access most of these financial aid options, students must fill out the FAFSA, making this form an essential aspect of college affordability. According to a 2017 report from Nerd Wallet, $2.3 billion of financial aid was left on the table during the 2016-2017 academic year because students did not fill out their FAFSA.

PUHSD has a large low-income population with about 81 percent of its students qualifying for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. These students often have the most financial aid to gain from filling out the FAFSA, but also have the most challenges preventing them from doing so.

These challenges include socioeconomic factors, a lack of education about college application and financial aid processes, and immigration status.

“We’re working with mostly first generation college bound students and a high minority population so students have not necessarily had college exposure,” said Dolores Ramirez, post-secondary articulation specialist for PUHSD. “They’re not having those conversations at home. It’s not that their parents don’t care or don’t want their kids to go to college, but parents may not have college experience and knowledge.”

Ramirez said the district first had to focus on education to make up for the lack of college knowledge in students’ homes. This included efforts to make students aware of the FAFSA form and convince students, who often had much bigger things to worry about, that this form is important to their future.

“It’s hard to say this is the most important thing when a student doesn’t know when they’re going to get their next meal or where they will be living next week,” said Camelback High School Counselor Sarah Lawrence.

The district created posters about FAFSA that spoke teenager’s language, with sayings like “Stop liking photos and fill out your FAFSA.” Other posters featured PUHSD graduates on college campuses with the headline “I am what college looks like,” to encourage high school students to envision themselves at college.

“Many kids in other school districts had their parents talking to them about college for 18 years,” Ramirez said. “We have four years to make up for 18 years.”

Ramirez said the district also had to work on educating students and their families about federal financial aid and other scholarship opportunities in Arizona to show them that college can be affordable.

“A lot of it was educating students about free tuition programs in Arizona and educating students and parents that college is accessible and affordable,” Ramirez said. “We’re educating counselors, parents, students, teachers, everyone.”

The district also focuses on providing individualized help to students as they fill out the form and navigate unique and challenging financial situations. This includes FAFSA drives at every high school in the district with volunteers from ASU, local community colleges and other community partners so students can easily ask for help as they fill out the form.

“A lot of the stories our kids tell us would be bring tears to your eyes,” Lawrence said. “We have kids living with parents who have never gone to college or parents who need them to work and support the family. The socioeconomic barriers are amazing.”

The district also expanded its partnership with the Be A Leader foundation to start the Postsecondary Matriculation Project, which focuses on increasing FAFSA completion rates and college attainment.

As a part of this program, the Be A Leader foundation shares FAFSA completion data with PUHSD so matriculation specialists can see which students have not completed the FAFSA and which applications have errors or have been flagged for verification. If a matriculation specialist sees a student did not complete their FAFSA or has some other issue with their application, they call the students into their office to provide one on one help.

“It’s informing and being proactive and actually making sure they get submitted and tracking that information,” said Karla Robles, chief strategy officer for the Be A Leader foundation. “So, if I’m a specialist on a campus and I have a list of 300 seniors, throughout the entire year I need to be making sure as many of those 300 seniors are not showing up on my do not complete report.”

Robles said the outreach was helpful, but once PUHSD and Be A Leader adopted this individualized, data-driven approach, completion numbers really started to improve.

“You can’t just have a FAFSA night with a PowerPoint and inform students about it,” Robles said. “It’s sitting down with them and filling it out and calling them in and tracking to see, ‘Hey, you submitted it, but did you know there’s an error on your application? Let’s call you in to fix that error and I’ll help you do this.’”

Ramirez credits both the messaging and individualized help with increasing rates. She said the outreach is working and told a story about a freshman or sophomore student who was excited about a FAFSA fiesta drive at his high school that included tacos.

“Now he already knows senior year if he wants tacos he needs to fill out his FAFSA,” Ramirez said.

Contact the reporter at Stephanie.M.Morse@asu.edu.