Filling out the FAFSA is one of the biggest barriers for students trying to fund their college education. The form asks more than 100 questions in an attempt to determine student aid eligibility, and while it only takes an average of 20 minutes to complete once the necessary paperwork has been assembled, U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell called that "19 minutes too long."1 Students and their parents get intimidated by the FAFSA's length and complexity, making it tempting to procrastinate until they miss deadlines.
High school counselors and educators can address this issue by informing students and parents about the FAFSA process and motivating them to get the form filled out on time.
Mention the FAFSA Frequently
The earlier students and their parents learn about the FAFSA, the better their chances of getting it filled out before the deadline. Mention the FAFSA when discussing SAT preparation and in parent-teacher conferences. Bring the topic up when students come in for guidance counseling. Don't hesitate to mention it on more than one occasion. The more you reinforce it, the better the student's chances of getting aid for college.
Host FAFSA Educational Events
In addition to guidance counseling sessions, you can schedule other events to educate students and parents about the FAFSA. For instance, you can host a college preparation "party" that includes a presentation about the FAFSA and an opportunity to fill out the form on school computers, but be sure to provide a checklist of documentation for parents to bring to the event. Other event ideas include senior orientation sessions, open house meetings and question-and-answer sessions for parents.
Schedule events early in the school year to encourage students and parents to complete the FAFSA early. Follow up with reminder events later in the year to prod procrastinators. Encourage students and parents to put their phone numbers and email addresses on a contact list, and then call and email them with follow-up reminders as deadlines approach.
Distribute FAFSA Packages
Give out FAFSA care packages at these educational events and guidance counseling sessions. This will reinforce the information you provide and increase the likelihood of students and parents taking action. Packages should include step-by-step instructions, reference materials and contact information for requesting additional assistance.
Share Online Tools
One thing your package should include is a list of URLs to online tools that can help with filling out the FAFSA form. Also send the live links out in an email, so recipients can just click and go. First and foremost, include the FAFSA website link.2 Additionally, FinAid's site provides a series of short video tutorials that breaks the FAFSA process down into seven steps.3 You can also show these tutorials and other online reference materials on a large screen during presentations at your FAFSA educational events.
Provide a Paperwork Checklist
Your package should also include a checklist that details the paperwork needed to complete the FAFSA form. Filling out the form requires the following paperwork from parents and students:
- PIN numbers or FSA IDs (obtainable from https://fsaid.ed.gov/npas/index.htm)4
- Social Security numbers
- Federal income tax returns
- Current bank statements
- Current brokerage statements
Once these materials are collected, it should only take about 20 minutes to complete the form. Emphasizing this can help overcome the anxiety and resistance students and parents may feel when faced with the FAFSA.
Emphasize Deadline Urgency
When discussing the FAFSA with students and parents, stress the deadline urgency and the consequences of missing the due date. Emphasize that students have the best chance of getting subsidized loans if they make the priority deadline. Also stress that if they miss the final deadline, colleges will not get their applications by the time everyone else has already turned theirs in, and they may miss federal loan opportunities and have to apply for high-interest private student loans. Make sure students and parents are also aware of deadlines for their individual state and school. Then as deadlines approach, remind them with phone calls and email.
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