Financial aid application rates now public to motivate more students to apply

A student in the Sacramento area gets help filling out the federal financial application.
A student in the Sacramento area gets help filling out the federal financial application.
Jon Waldrep/courtesy of California Student Aid Commission

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It used to be that only high school counselors and school administrators could see data about how many students had completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

“There was no ability to compare among high schools, counties, or a state how we were doing in submitting this information,” said Lupita Cortez Alcala, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission.

In anticipation of this Friday’s deadline for 12th graders to submit the application, the commission modeled their new Race to Submit campaign on an effort in Riverside County that increased application completion rates by double digits.

The state campaign uses a racecar-type dashboard and search options to allow anyone to see what percentage of students at a school, school district, or county have submitted the application. The idea is that by publicizing the data, schools can compete to boost their rates of completion.

Another part of the campaign tries to appeal to teenagers by including visible pop culture figures like DJ Khaled and Camila Cabello.

The statewide effort to increase financial aid applications comes as research shows that aid helps students earn their degrees. California is trying to increase the number of degrees it awards each year in order to fill a projected deficit of college graduates in the coming years. According to the commission, 30 percent of students awarded aid for the first time don’t use it.

It’s a competition officials hope will lead to more students with the funds to pay for college.

“It’s certainly for bragging rights,” said Val Verde Unified School District Superintendent Michael McCormick. “For us a little friendly competition, maybe a little side wager here or there is going to help our principals motivate their counseling staff and their teachers to really reach for that 100 percent FAFSA [application rate]."

His school district believes so strongly in helping the district’s largely working class student population, McCormick said, that the school board made filling out the FAFSA a high school graduation requirement starting this year.

According to high school counselors, many students don’t apply for financial aid because they’re unsure whether they’ll go to college, they don’t think they qualify for aid (even though many do), or their parents don’t want to disclose information about their finances.

Counselors see the competition as a way for schools to share how counselors are helping more students overcome those barriers.

“Because so often schools [are] in a little bit of a bubble and we don’t often understand how other schools are able to get their rates or have success that they’re achieving,” said David Marks, a college counselor at Sacramento Charter High School.

Sharing best practices is great, he said, but many schools have low application rates because they have few counselors who are responsible for helping hundreds of students with more immediate education issues in addition to helping them apply for college and financial aid.

“At our school I’m lucky that my main job is college counseling. At other schools it’s difficult for a counselor when you’re doing college counseling on top of regular academic counseling and social, behavioral stuff and you’re doing some administrative work,” Marks said.