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Community Partnerships Help Students and Colleges

The rollout of the updated FAFSA form has been fraught with challenges and is posing a risk to colleges across the nation.

One of the biggest unknowns for colleges, as they move between academic years, is how many students they will have for the following year. How many students will they retain, and how many new students will be coming in? In one word…enrollment. Enrollment drives funding. Enrollment drives staffing. Enrollment drives course offerings. And the FAFSA delay is further compressing an already cramped timeline.

The challenge for communications and marketing is keeping your school top of mind, especially during a time when the audience is uncertain about their future. We were finalizing a blog about a local joint FAFSA event organized to help students navigate the new application when news came out that the Department of Education would not send FAFSA data to schools until March – data that was expected in late January.

Now that the full implications of this delay are being realized, we are reflecting on lessons learned from this event on how to ensure your student outreach is impactful and meaningful as college marketers work the long game to engage prospective students before they commit.

The FAFSA form has a reputation for being complicated – so complicated that it can be a barrier for many students in attending college despite being an essential process to provide students with income-based grant and scholarship funding at the local, state, and federal levels. The botched rollout of a revised FAFSA on New Year’s Eve – two months after it was typically available – decreased confidence in the supposedly positive changes and increased anxiety for students.

In Roanoke, Virginia, where AccessU is headquartered, a unique partnership developed in anticipation of confusion and questions regarding the new form. Representing public universities, small liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and the regional higher ed center, this consortium of institutions came together to support students in completing the FAFSA form with confidence. More than 80 people gathered on a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon in January to receive help navigating the new form, either as new or returning students. The goal was to help students and families get motivated, get started, and build confidence to navigate the paperwork on their own. Given that the new form was dramatically shorter, many families were able to complete the FAFSA while at the event.

While many of the organizations had held FAFSA events before, this was the first time all groups came together for a single FAFSA event. Uniting as a team facilitated assistance to additional families, distributed the responsibility of organizing, and boosted event turnout by shifting the focus to encompass all students rather than just those bound for a specific school.

AccessU was a proud sponsor of the event, and we are eager to provide key insights into what made this event so successful.

  • Events that meet a need will always be appreciated. Encouraging attendance at a special event can be tricky, especially when asking teens and families to give up time on a weekend to complete paperwork. The FAFSA event met a specific need in a timely way by offering personal help for completing a necessary but cumbersome form.
  • Communicate early and often. Event communication is about more than date and time reminders. Communication should always prepare your audience for the event, including actionable items or checklists. The communication goals for the FAFSA event also included how to prepare the audience to make the most of their time. This meant giving instructions on how to obtain verified login information, or an FSA ID, before the event so they could log in to the system. Families who did not have this information in advance would not have been able to complete the FAFSA at the event.
  • Staff your event appropriately. The FAFSA event was staffed with financial aid counselors who have specific knowledge about the form and about the impacts of the form on financial aid offers. This increased the value of the event for attendees and ensured that attendees could receive the support that they needed.
  • Be flexible. In addition to completing the FAFSA form, some attendees had more specific financial aid questions, knowing that financial aid experts would be on hand. The college and university representatives were flexible and available to help all students regardless of application status.
  • Incentives should be relevant. Incentives, prizes and raffles are all designed to encourage attendance. Finding the right incentive is about considering your audience. For the FAFSA event, the group awarded four book scholarships to students who attended. Organizers thought through what would be of benefit to those attending.
  • Planning is key. Planning for the FAFSA event started a year before it occurred. The planning partners trusted their instinct that families would be seeking help for the updated FAFSA form and executed a successful event that supported and empowered students and their families.

As colleges wait to see how delays in FAFSA processing might impact fall enrollment, the relationships built at events like this one maintain and enhance the reputations of the organizations that attended.


AccessU wishes to thank Carla James, Ph.D., from the Roanoke Higher Education Center, and Chad Sartini, Ph.D., from Virginia Western Community College, for their time and insight into this event.

About the Author

Brenda Drake

Brenda is a seasoned communications professional who is passionate about education and how it transforms lives. For more than 19 years, she helped educational institutions tell their stories to stakeholders in compelling ways. Brenda continually aims to assist organizations in making a significant impact. Her experience in education prepared her...

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