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Mesa Public Schools (Ariz.) wins top prize in 2018-2019 FAFSA Completion Challenge


Mesa Public Schools, Arizona’s largest K-12 district, won a $100,000 grand prize in the National College Access Network’s 2018-2019 FAFSA Completion Challenge. The winner was announced at the 2019 NCAN conference today in Indianapolis, where more than 1,100 college access professionals, researchers and advocates gathered for a series of workshops and seminars.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) helps eligible students access critical need-based financial aid for college, including Pell Grants. But many students and families don’t complete an application because they believe it is too complicated, that they are ineligible for aid, or are simply unaware that financial aid exists.

2019 FAFSA Completion Challenge honorees
2018-2019 FAFSA Completion Challenge honorees are recognized at the National College Access Network conference.

“FAFSA completion is the key to unlocking the entire college financial aid process, especially for students who are often underrepresented in higher education – students from low-income households and students of color,” said Caroline Altman Smith, deputy director of Kresge’s Education Program. “It is a critical gateway, but it’s also a huge bureaucratic and administrative hurdle that is very challenging for students and families to navigate.”

FAFSA completion is a key indicator of college-going among high school seniors. According to NCAN, 90 percent of seniors who complete a FAFSA attend college directly after high school, compared to 50 percent of FAFSA non-completers.

Mesa Public Schools enlisted the help of peer coaches to increase awareness about the importance of FAFSA completion among graduating seniors. The district also used data-informed outreach and communitywide campaigns to clarify and disseminate information about FAFSA completion.

Bill Moses, managing director of Kresge’s Education Program, presented the grand prize to leaders and college access professionals from the district and noted, “Mesa’s peer coaching strategy was particularly successful because the coaches had an authentic and nuanced knowledge of their peers and their community.”

Launched in 2016, Kresge supports the FAFSA Completion Challenge to help districts and communities in U.S. cities boost FAFSA completion. A $1 million grant from Kresge’s Education Program to NCAN helped the network administer the completion challenge.

In 2018, NCAN selected 25 U.S. cities to receive up to $40,000 each for a FAFSA Completion Challenge Grant. Each grant recipient then employed innovative strategies to boost FAFSA completion rates by at least five percentage points for the graduating high school class of 2019. To address equity gaps, the cities participating in the challenge had FAFSA completion rates below the national average.

Four additional districts or organizations were honored with distinctions and monetary awards:

  • First Runner-Up: Denton Independent School District (Denton, TX) will receive $25,000.
  • Excellence in Overcoming Barriers and Perseverance Award: Rochester Education Foundation (Rochester, NY) will receive $10,000.
  • Excellence in Community-Based Leadership Award: Citizens for Educational Excellence (Corpus Christi, TX) will receive $10,000.
  • Excellence in Training and Professional Development Award: Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority (West Valley City, UT) will receive $10,000.

The full list of 2018-2019 FAFSA Completion Challenge cities can be found at