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Boosting FAFSA completion through one-on-one conversations

Detroit, General Foundation News

Nina Stemm

City: Vancouver, WA
Title: GEAR UP District Coordinator, Vancouver Public Schools

Nina Stemm is known as the “FAFSA Expert” in the Vancouver Public Schools district. As GEAR UP district coordinator, she works with eight high schools to help counselors and school leaders build their FAFSA expertise. She routinely conducts focus groups with students to learn how they prefer to receive FAFSA-related information. Nina shared more about the importance of one-on-one conversations with students and families, and her efforts to develop a FAFSA peer coaching program for students.

Kresge: Why is it important to increase FAFSA completion among students in your school district?

Nina: FAFSA completion is one of the first indicators of whether a student is going to apply and persist in college. If a financial barrier is preventing a student from even applying to college, then he or she is not going to seek a postsecondary education. Access to financial aid is key. In our state, and certainly nationwide, at least 70% of the jobs and careers that will be available to graduating students will require some postsecondary education. Completing the FAFSA is crucial in our students’ ability to successfully enter a living-wage career. I want our students to be successful.

Kresge: What’s the most effective strategy you have used, or seen used in your district, to boost FAFSA completion?

Nina: Many schools have FAFSA events for students and families. Historically that’s what our school district did too. Some people came, but often, they were not the people that needed help with the process. The challenge was identifying how to reach more people. We tried having more events, having events at different times of the day, having them before school started, and even offering free doughnuts and coffee. But consistently, we had the same results.

This is not going to be a huge surprise to anybody. The best tactic for boosting FAFSA completion is just sitting down one-on-one with students and families and doing this work. It may be through scheduling appointments with families, either at school, the local Starbucks, the public library, the community center, or wherever it’s convenient for them. Those one-on-one conversations with students and families have been successful. It takes extra time, and that’s challenging. But it works.

Second, we’re trying set up a student ambassador program. Through the program, we’d train current seniors to help their peers understand the importance of filing their FAFSAs, do small classroom presentations, then sit down with students and families to guide them through the FAFSA process. We’ve found that a good number of students and families prefer having another student help them rather than a staff person. Sometimes that fellow student is from their community or speaks the same language. Those things can make the process more comfortable for families.

Kresge: What inspires your to do this work?

Nina: I do this every day because I care about our students and I want them to be successful. I have two daughters who attended Vancouver public schools. I care deeply about our students, the value of public education, and the value of postsecondary education in our society. I’ve spent my entire career working with children and teenagers. I don’t know how to do anything else. This has been my passion.

Kresge: Have you experienced any challenges in working to boost FAFSA completion?

Nina: One of the biggest challenges is that our school system doesn’t have the capacity to fully support college and career readiness efforts that are in addition to academic curriculum. We do a wonderful job of preparing our students for college and careers in terms of their math, science and electives. But when it comes to this other important stuff: financial aid, financial literacy, job readiness skills, we’re just stretched so thin. I imagine this is a common challenge in other districts as well. I wish that we could create positions that were completely dedicated to career and college readiness and life skills for students.

Kresge: Is there a standout story or experience related to FAFSA completion?

Nina: We had a young man who thought he would never go to college. No one in his family went to college. He wasn’t trying very hard in school and assumed he would get an hourly job after high school. He was in our GEAR UP program and one of the staff members formed a good rapport with him. Over time, he started doing better in classes. When the time came for him apply to colleges, he was resistant. He just kept saying, ‘No, no, no, I can’t go.’ But the GEAR UP staff helped him apply to schools and file his FAFSA. In the state of Washington, the College Bound Scholarship provides financial aid to students who attend a Washington state school. If they qualify, the scholarship covers full tuition at any of our public institutions.

The student filed his FAFSA and applied to a few local colleges. The whole time he thought there was no way he’d get in. I was in the building the day he logged in and learned he was accepted to Washington State University. He was in absolute shock, burst into tears, and hugged everyone. He recently completed his first year and is doing well. This is a student who may have graduated from high school and pursued a local manufacturing job. But simple tasks, including completing the FAFSA and a few college applications, helped him reframe what was possible.

Kresge: What advice do you have for professionals working to boost FAFSA completion in their schools and communities?

Nina: Educate yourself! In our district, I’m considered the FAFSA expert, but I didn’t give myself that title. I’ve been doing this work so long that I can answer FAFSA questions quickly. But this information is out there. It’s just a matter of taking the time to educate yourself. I would encourage fellow counselors, coaches and other building staff to do FAFSA trainings when they’re offered. I’ve done some focus groups with students. Many say they would rather receive FAFSA information from a teacher whom they trust and know well. No matter your role, if you have contact with students, you have the potential to help students with the FAFSA completion process.

Kresge: Any advice to students about the FAFSA process?

Nina: Students, please pay attention to all the college access and FAFSA instructions your teachers and counselors provide. Then, follow through and do the tasks. If you’re struggling with where to begin, find a teacher whom you trust and ask for help.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.