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Doing What Works for Today’s Students and Families

Education, General Foundation News

Mila Tappan

City: Augusta, Maine
Title: Manager of College Access and Outreach, Finance Authority of Maine (FAME)

A self-described “FAFSA geek,” Mila Tappan uses a variety of resources to help students and families with FAFSA completion. Short animated YouTube videos and Facebook Live events get critical information to students and families throughout Maine, where roughly 14,000 high school students graduate each year. Small incentives like coffee and gas gift cards make a big difference in getting families out to FAFSA events. Mila reflected on how life-changing FAFSA completion can be for students.

Kresge: Why is it important to increase FAFSA completion throughout Maine?

Mila: Maine is the oldest (average resident age) state in the nation. We are concerned that we don’t have enough students coming up through the workforce pipeline. Among the students that we do have, we find that our workforce doesn’t necessarily have the skills to fill the jobs that are coming in the next decade. Maine needs about 158,000 more workers with credentials to fill the jobs that we’re going to have in 2025.

FAFSA completion has huge connections to college-going. Ninety percent of students who file a FAFSA pursue higher education in the fall after graduating from high school. And if a student from a low-income household completes a FAFSA, he or she is more likely to go to college than their peers who do not. We want to make students aware of their opportunities and help them understand there is money out there to help pay for college. We believe that filing the FAFSA opens doors for many students who otherwise might think that going to college is not possible.

Kresge: What is an effective strategy in raising awareness about the importance of FAFSA completion?

Mila: With high school students, relationships make a difference. Having that school counselor or other adult in their life who is encouraging them to file the FAFSA is impactful. In addition to doing direct outreach, one of our key roles is to give school counselors tools and resources if they need help with the process. Maine has a great FAFSA portal. If a high school signs up and completes the agreement, they can access a list of their seniors, see who completed the FAFSA and who was selected for verification. This helps counselors determine where to devote their FAFSA completion efforts.

Mila Tappan (center) celebrates National School Counseling week with her fellow FAME colleagues.

Kresge: What brought you to this work?

Mila: I started as a college financial aid professional, but I was interested in connecting with students earlier in the process. In a financial aid office, you only see the students who make it to that point. Unfortunately, we lose a lot of students before they ever get there. I like helping to make this process a little easier for families, especially those who don’t have as much support. Our efforts focus a lot on first-generation students and students from low-income households.

Kresge: What challenges do you face in working to boost FAFSA completion?

Mila: One challenge is that the FAFSA, by design, is a federal form, which creates fear and anxiety in some parents. Sometimes we have parents who don’t want to go through this process for a variety of reasons. Another related challenge is parent engagement. I don’t think any of us like to ask for help, but we want families to know that’s exactly why we’re here. We’ve found gift cards to be a great incentive in getting people out to events. A $10 gas or doughnut gift card can really boost attendance at events.

Kresge: Can you recall a specific student or family for which FAFSA completion made a big difference?

Mila: I’m thinking of a student who graduated a few years ago and, for a variety of reasons, didn’t think she could pursue higher education. Her parents were very concerned about student loan debt, so she took a year off and worked a full-time job. Soon she realized that working was not enough. She needed more than that. She needed to pursue school. So she completed the FAFSA, applied to our local community college, and was accepted.

We met during the summer before she was to begin her studies, and she was concerned because she had not received a bill. We pulled up the student portal and noticed a negative number at the bottom. That number meant that all of her tuition and fees were covered with grant funds, and that she would receive a small credit to use for books, supplies and travel back and forth to home. Most importantly, she realized she could do this without borrowing any money.

The tears ran down her cheeks and they ran down my cheeks. Until she completed that FAFSA and until she got that financial aid award letter, she did not realize it was possible. Completing the FAFSA can absolutely be life-changing.

Kresge: What advice would you give to other professionals working to increase FAFSA completion?

Mila: Stay open to changing how to do things. This year gift cards are working well, but in the future, it might be something else. Debriefing with school counselors and students is also important. Hearing from them helps us understand what gets them to events and what resources are most helpful in demystifying the FAFSA process.

This year we’re trying a friendly competition. We’re going to award $500 to the two schools that have the most significant increase in year-over-year FAFSA completion rates. Just keep trying things, talk to colleagues, see who’s doing what, and see what is successful. If you’ve got something that works, great, but know that the students are always changing too.

We’re using social media more than we ever have before, but we know that we’re reaching different audiences with different platforms. Facebook Live events, for example, tends to attract parents. But our YouTube videos and Instagram posts are more likely to attract students.