One of the most important, yet complicated steps in students’ plans to attend four-year and community colleges, and many trade schools is the completion of the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA). Completion of the FAFSA is one of the best indicators of whether high school seniors will enroll in college. In fact, high school seniors who complete the FAFSA are 84% more likely to attend college after graduation. That’s why Governor Ned Lamont and the State Department of education partnered with the RISE Network and other organizations to launch a statewide FAFSA Challenge in January 2021 for high schools across Connecticut with FAFSA completion rates below 55%. The challenge: Increase FAFSA completion rates by at least 5 percentage points. Participating high schools receive a modest grant based on senior class size and access to aggregate student-level FAFSA data to help educators target student support. The program is now in its second year.
Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, CT, one of 40 participating schools from 19 districts, has not only risen to the challenge, but currently sits in first place.
How they got there is no secret. McMahon set a goal for 60% of seniors to complete the FAFSA by the end of the 2021-22 school year, a six percentage point increase from the previous year. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, McMahon achieved a FAFSA completion rate of 74%, but like most schools, the difficulties brought by the pandemic led to a 20 percentage point drop in completion rates. Students and counselors were working to navigate remote and hybrid relationships, and far too many families experienced new financial pressures. Achieving 60% completion would represent a significant gain.
Assistant Principal LaShanté James at Brien McMahon High School took the FAFSA Challenge to heart. She paired McMahon’s competitive spirit with the Challenge objectives of improving student outcomes, closing opportunity gaps for historically marginalized subgroups, and pursuing creative ideas to promote completion of both the FAFSA and the Aid Application for Connecticut Undocumented Students (AACTUS). While the State is unable to track AACTUS completion, McMahon prioritized an equitable approach, ensuring all students have the opportunity to pursue financial aid. What was McMahon’s idea for change? The creation of a Financial Aid Task Force. This is an idea adapted from RISE Network partners at Platt High School.
AP James enlisted teachers and counselors from a wide range of backgrounds to become the school’s first Financial Aid Task Force. Each member of the task force receives training that prepares them to support their assigned caseload of students. They meet regularly to share ideas and stay motivated as they track quarterly progress of completion rates.
“I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with at least 25 BMHS students whom I never taught, coached or supported in any capacity,” said Shannon Bowley, a member of the task force. “There was something special about being able to support students in taking one more step toward becoming a college student. Most of the students on my caseload just needed someone to sit with them and confirm they were ‘doing it right’ and I felt lucky that I was someone who could help.”
As of March, McMahon has achieved their goal of 60% completion, making them the first RISE school to do so this year. In fact, they achieved nine completed FAFSAs in one week; the most completions in a single week by any RISE school in the last month. While their focus remains on the completion of financial aid applications, their tactics are centered around creating excitement and celebrating milestones. Every month, seniors who successfully complete their application submissions are entered into a raffle for items like an HP laptop, Beats® headphones or Apple® watches. Completed submissions are confirmed by either the task force coach or by the State report from the Department of Education’s Edsight portal. On March 18th, more than 230 McMahon seniors were celebrated with a pizza party for their completion of the FAFSA and AACTUS. These celebrations provide a fun way for seniors to take pride in their accomplishments, while building a postsecondary culture that is visible to all McMahon students.
“My options for after high school have widened. Not knowing where to start or where to go has always been a big problem for me; so to know now that I have many options to choose from makes me feel more comfortable. I don’t have to stress about not having a path to follow anymore.”
– Ryan, a BMHS senior
With three months left in the Challenge, McMahon is keeping up the momentum with a big push for their Senior Signing Day on May 11th, when they will host a celebration of the postsecondary plans of all seniors. In April, the Financial Aid Task Force shared their experiences and key learnings with other RISE educators during the RISE Network Spring Convening. For AP James, “My biggest learning from the task force is the importance of shared ownership – taking this work beyond the school counseling office or department. Our seniors belong to all of us, and their success in securing aid to pay for their postsecondary education is a shared win!”
Regardless of the final results of the Challenge, McMahon High School has already won by creating a strong postsecondary culture for high school students that is making a valuable contribution to a shared community of practice.