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Innovations in college aid: The FAFSA maze now includes drive-thru

A drive-thru is simple: Pull up in a car, roll down the window, and leave with what you need. Filing for college financial aid is anything but simple.

Combining the two might sound like doing your taxes at a fast food service counter – but college advisers nationwide are breaking barriers with innovations like this to assist in the complex paperwork a large majority of American students must complete to finance their college educations.

Hoping to avoid more undergraduate enrollment dips next fall, college counselors have hustled students through application cycles, cuing new urgency in completing forms for financial aid. College-access groups have offered drive-thrus, virtual guidance, hotlines, and incentives like gift cards and free meals.

Why We Wrote This

How is the pandemic altering equitable access to college? New initiatives strive to ensure that college-bound students aren’t held back by missing paperwork.

Unlike previous years, more of their targeted efforts have lasted into the spring to ensure more students, especially those in greatest need, find the aid that could sweeten the appeal of higher ed.

“We’ve been pushing hard … to say we cannot let the class of 2021 get left behind,” says Ann Hendrick, Get2College program director at the Woodward Hines Education Foundation. Her organization reimagined the drive-thru model to guide families through financial aid filing in locations around Mississippi.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens doors to financial aid at the federal, state, and institutional levels. That can take the form of loans, grants, work-study, or scholarships.

FAFSA completion is strongly associated with postsecondary enrollment following high school graduation, reports the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), which promotes access to higher ed for underrepresented students. Students in the lowest income brackets who complete the form are considered more likely to enroll in higher ed than their peers who don’t file – more than twice as likely, shows the latest available federal data gathered in fall 2013. 

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Yet less than half (47.8%) of the high school class of 2021 had completed a FAFSA as of April 23, a 6.1% drop compared with this time last year, according to NCAN’s tracker. Low-income and high-minority schools show larger declines in completion rates than other schools. 

Still, the gap is narrowing incrementally – a reversal of the “downward trend” after the pandemic hit last year, says MorraLee Keller, NCAN director of technical assistance.

“Supports this spring and even over the summer are going to be really necessary as students make their definitive post-high school plans,” she says, because students have delayed college-going steps this year.

Family finances may have changed since 2019 – the tax return year required for the current FAFSA – due to pandemic setbacks like job loss. But applicants can alert financial aid offices of such changes for potential adjustments to award offers. A fall survey of National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) member institutions found that over half of respondents reported increases in these professional judgment requests since the pandemic began. 

Though students should complete the FAFSA as early as possible, it’s never too late, says Rachel Gentry, NASFAA assistant director of federal relations: “[We] want to ensure that students are able to access every dollar, every ounce of financial aid that they’re eligible for.”

The FAFSA opened in October, but state and institution deadlines vary. For federal aid consideration this upcoming academic year, students must file by June 30, 2022.

A range of reasons could explain completion delays this year, say experts. Some parents may be reconciling finances that took a hit during the outbreak. And students may be reconsidering the value of higher ed if fall classes remain remote. A recent survey from an education consulting firm found almost 30% of low-income students who planned to skip the FAFSA didn’t think they’d qualify for aid. 

Getting peace of mind

The drive-thrus may not be perfect, but they’re fun, says Ms. Hendrick, whose program Get2College served 122 families in nine drive-thru FAFSA events in Mississippi; 13 more are planned. During the pandemic, the organization expanded remote services, assisting more than 2,000 students and families over the past year through virtual one-on-one FAFSA appointments.     

In the drive-thru program, drivers pull up to computer monitors with WiFi access to log into the online form – a particular help for rural families who lack reliable service at home, says Ms. Hendrick. During roughly 45-minute sessions, the screens are shared with masked staff, who advise while socially distanced on separate devices.  

Ereca Randle, mother of a high school senior in Meridian, Mississippi, says she hopes that, for affordability, her daughter will start her collegiate career at a community college. Still, Ms. Randle recognizes that submitting the FAFSA expands her daughter’s options. 

Ms. Randle sought FAFSA help at an April Get2College drive-thru event at a local community college that had to move indoors due to weather. The “amazing” helper, she says, reviewed her parent portion of the form and followed up directly with her daughter, who couldn’t attend. 

In less than 10 minutes, the assistance offered “peace of mind … just to make sure that we did it correctly,” says Ms. Randle, who left with a Chik-fil-A meal giveaway.

The drive-thrus also offer an opportunity for counseling, says Ms. Hendrick, especially for students who haven’t yet decided on fall plans. Rather than just a “pat on the back” for completing the FAFSA, she says: “It’s more of, ‘Let’s build a relationship … here’s our card, call us.’”

The group inspired a similar effort in Arizona: a dozen drive-thrus hosted in English and Spanish, says Heidi Doxey, program manager for community initiatives at College Success Arizona, which co-organized with Arizona State University and Be A Leader Foundation.

The events served around 800 students and parents, and included printer access for families who lacked one at home. If parents don’t have a social security number – for instance due to immigration status – they must sign and mail a physical copy of the FAFSA instead of filing virtually. 

Exit surveys showed “overwhelming” gratitude for “having a human here to help,” says Ms. Doxey.

Rewarding a finished form

Other programs incentivize submitting the form. North Carolina high schools compete for a $500 grant through an inaugural FAFSA challenge. Michigan students who check off the task get a $10 grocery store gift card.

Michigan College Access Network, which sponsored that incentive, hopes it promotes “excitement and conversation within schools and communities” for filling out the form, says executive director Ryan Fewins-Bliss. 

This year especially, he says, “Everyone is so committed to helping these students access college, and ultimately helping Michigan’s economy post-pandemic.”

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