Spotlight on Continuous Improvement: FAFSA Task Forces

Data Tools and PracticesNetwork Collaboration and LearningPostsecondary Readiness

As a network, we are committed to continuous improvement. Collectively, we seek to refine our efforts based on new data, learning, and needs. This month, we are sharing a blog series focused on continuous improvement through the lens of our Grade 9 and postsecondary work. We begin with this reflection on FAFSA task forces, highlighting the excellent results achieved at Maloney High School. 

As a networked improvement community, we are committed to pursuing new innovations, hypotheses, and change ideas informed by data-driven growth opportunities. When we commit to continuous improvement, exciting new strategies take root across our network.

One such strategy, which has been identified by RISE’s Postsecondary Success Team as a promising practice and continuous improvement focus area for the 2023-24 school year, is the FAFSA task force. The FAFSA is a vital tool to help students and families access resources to lower the cost of higher education and close access and opportunity gaps, and FAFSA task forces provide support to help those in need complete the form.  

Within RISE core network schools, coaches on the Postsecondary Success Team are helping educators implement effective FAFSA task forces. These efforts are led by a school FAFSA coordinator, who may be a teacher or a college and career coordinator, as well as FAFSA coaches hired by the school to work with a caseload of students. Together, their goal is to provide opportunities for students and families to meet outside school hours to receive guidance and resources for completing the FAFSA. 

The FAFSA task force itself meets on a bi-weekly basis, using the RISE Data Hub to assign students to caseloads and update student records with the FAFSA milestones they have completed. Student caseload data is tracked within the Hub, where the task force can identify trends, opportunities, and next steps, analyze sub-group data, and prioritize student supports based on their identified postsecondary plan (ie. two or four-year college). 

“Through the RISE Data Hub, educators have access to more data points about their students,” said Abby Marcantonio, RISE Postsecondary Coach and FAFSA Task Force Project Lead. “Through the Hub, educators are easily able to see which students have completed which steps, enhancing their focus on who needs support and why.” The Hub enables FAFSA task force coaches to sort by students’ plans, identify first-generation college-bound students, and determine if there are opportunities for students of color. 

“Teams can dig deep into who their students are and see either what can move them forward or what is holding them back,” said Marcantonio. “The Hub also encourages collaboration with the Grade 12 data team and school counselors, as all student information is in one place and allows them to be more efficient in their work with students.” 

Much of the strategy for the 2023-24 school year was informed by learnings and growth areas identified in the previous academic year. RISE and school FAFSA task forces have committed to a more regular meeting cadence to ensure that they connect consistently to review student data. In reflecting on previous years, we determined that attendance at regularly occurring meetings is important, and having strong protocols and intentional data conversations is critical to ensuring those meetings are successful. In response, we are continuing task force meetings bi-weekly this year and supporting facilitators with a more structured agenda and protocol to guide those conversations.

FAFSA task forces have also lowered the number of students assigned to coach caseloads to a maximum of 20 and increased their focus on personalized interventions for individual students. The goal behind this continuous improvement process is to implement stronger and more effective task forces to better support students and families. 

To that end, RISE hosted a Postsecondary “Role-Alike” session this fall to facilitate a greater understanding of continuous improvement, FAFSA task force strategy, and how each team could best implement this strategy in their unique school communities. Teams were presented with guidelines and an implementation guide, including goal-setting, outlining structures, and conditions for success. They also had the opportunity to celebrate successes, share learnings, and exchange ideas in cross-school groups. 

One RISE partner that had cause to celebrate was Meriden’s Maloney High School, which boasted the highest FAFSA completion rate among Network schools in 2022-23: an impressive 76.6 percent! “Pushing for a high percentage of our students to complete the FAFSA helps them understand financial options that they may have thought were not available or attainable,” said James Donewald, Assistant Principal at Maloney. “Completing the FAFSA has helped students who may have thought that a four-year school wasn’t an option because they couldn’t afford it realize that there are financial resources and ways of pursuing this pathway.”

Donewald attributes his school’s success with FAFSA completion to the task force strategy and an emphasis on data. “Through collaboration with the RISE Network, we have set FAFSA completion goals which we track closely throughout the year, and this increased monitoring and planning has helped us to understand different subgroups of students who may require additional support to complete the FAFSA,” he said. “The FAFSA task force has allowed for dedicated staff to work closely with the students who are struggling the most.” 

This speaks directly to the RISE Network’s mission of ensuring that all high school students graduate with a plan and the skills and confidence to achieve college and career success. A relentless commitment to continuous improvement, and the implementation of the FAFSA task force strategy specifically, are helping schools to do just that. Reflecting on the impact of these efforts in his school, Donewald noted that, “with increased numbers of students completing the FAFSA, we are seeing more and more of our student population with solid postsecondary plans and ready for life after graduation.”