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Building Trust With Students and Families

Education, General Foundation News

Andrea Wyatt

City: Denton, Texas
Title: Lead School Counselor, John H. Guyer High School

At John H. Guyer High School in Denton, Texas, Lead School Counselor Andrea Wyatt makes FAFSA completion among seniors a top priority for the entire school. Counselors, teachers and staff work together to build trust among students and families while supporting students throughout the application process. The Denton Independent School District, which includes Guyer High School, was the first runner-up in the National College Access Network’s 2018-2019 FAFSA Completion Challenge. Andrea shared more about creative strategies, including FAFSA nights and raffles, that helped boost FAFSA completion at Guyer.

Why is it important for your community to increase FAFSA completion?

FAFSA completion is important because it can help provide more opportunities for more of our students to attend college. Through the years, we have found that some students do not see college as a true possibility because they worry about the financial obligations that come with going to college. Prior to the National College Access Network’s FAFSA Completion Challenge, as counselors, we touched on completing the FAFSA, but did not go in depth with ensuring that students and families were educated about the opportunities that could be possible with the completion of the free FAFSA application. In seeing the percentage of the 2018 FAFSA completion for Denton Independent School District, and knowing the importance of completing the FAFSA, we were fueled to do better for our students and their families by taking a different approach and really getting the word out about the benefits of FAFSA completion as well as myth-busting misconceptions of the FAFSA.

What is the most effective strategy you’ve used to boost FAFSA completion in your community?

Providing students and their families with one-on-one assistance in completing the FAFSA was an effective strategy, which was made possible in large part due to the partnerships with our community college institutions, to include North Central Texas College (NCTC), Texas Woman’s University (TWU) and the University of North Texas (UNT). Additionally, hosting FAFSA nights for families, where assistance in completing the FAFSA was provided, and utilizing time during the day to work with students proved to be successful in increasing our FAFSA completion numbers. Also, utilizing a FAFSA expert, to come to campus on Fridays, for what we coined as “FAFSA Fridays,” to help individual students with their FAFSA was invaluable. As counselors, we worked diligently in checking in with students, asking if they completed their FAFSA, and making sure they were connected to our community partners for help.

What do you enjoy most about helping students and families with the FAFSA completion process?

As a first-generation college student who was able to attend college due to scholarships and financial aid, this work is near and dear to my heart. I would not have had the opportunity to attend such an amazing school as Texas A&M University (Whoop!) without the assistance of financial aid gained through completion of the FAFSA. Thinking about the opportunities that students can have due to completion of the FAFSA brings me joy. I love interacting with students and their parents. Working on completion of the FAFSA provided another opportunity to build relationships with families.

What is one challenge you faced while working to boost FAFSA completion rates?

Tracking students who had completed the FAFSA proved quite challenging. We utilized the ApplyTexas Counselor Suite and the Federal Student Aid website in order to find out which of our students had already completed the FAFSA. We quickly realized that we were not getting accurate numbers. As a district, we moved to a more manual way of tracking students who had completed the FAFSA by creating a spreadsheet of each student in the senior class and made sure that we had individual conversations with students that were not accounted for by ApplyTexas or Federal Student Aid.

Is there a standout story you’d like to share about your students’ experience with FAFSA completion?

FAFSA became the topic of discussion amongst our seniors throughout the school year. I can recall several times hearing senior students discuss whether they had completed their FAFSA or not amongst themselves and sharing which prize they had their eye on that they wanted to be awarded. As incentives, we purchased items, such as a mini refrigerator, wireless Bluetooth speakers, smart TVs, universal charging stations, laundry tubs filled with detergent pods and towels, as well as Beats headphones; all things that students could take to college with them.

We also had a wall in the hallway closest to our counseling offices with pictures of students who had completed their FAFSA as encouragement for others to complete theirs as well. We utilized our counseling student aides to take the pictures of their peers. It was great to see them interacting while smiling and laughing together. Several little moments of joy, togetherness, and dreaming about their future knitted together is a standout story of pulling our campus together to achieve one common goal; senior students pursuing their post-high school plans with excitement and great expectation.

What advice would you share with fellow FAFSA completion professionals?

Utilize the relationships that you work daily to build with students in order to get buy-in from more students and parents. We found that the relationships that we work so hard daily to build with families worked in our favor when educating and encouraging students and parents to complete the FAFSA. We established a sense of trust with our families, which played a role in getting students and parents to follow through with the application.

Completion of the FAFSA is not just a counselor responsibility. Your school community will need to work together to improve FAFSA completion rates. It is important to get your staff on board in order to encourage students to complete their FAFSA. We would not have been able to as successful as we were without the help of our staff and our community partners. The work can be hard at times, but always remember why you are doing it and the impact that you are having on the futures of your students. Introduce the FAFSA application as an essential part of the college application process; as checklist item to complete in order to attend college.

What advice would you share with students who may be unsure of where to begin the FAFSA completion process?

Ask for help. Reach out to your counselors, teachers and administrators on campus for guidance. Talk with your parents about completing the FAFSA and let them know that this will need to be a collaborative effort as a family. Start with getting an FSA ID.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.