Opening the Door to College Aid

Opening the Door to College Aid

Six Communities Come Together to Apply Continuous Improvement Tools and Strategies to Increase Federal Student Aid Applications

At Highlands High School in San Antonio, Texas, 60 percent of seniors completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in the 2015-16 school year. That’s up from 50 percent in 2014-15, and the percentage is bound to be even higher this year.

At a school where nine in 10 students are Latino and where a roughly equal proportion come from economically disadvantaged families, the increase in FAFSA completions will open the door to tens of thousands of dollars in additional aid. The likely result is that more Highlands students will attend college and reap the considerable economic rewards that come with earning a post-secondary degree or credential.

Roxanne Rosales, a senior official with the local school district, said the uptick in FAFSA completions at Highlands High School is a direct result of her community’s participation in a pilot project organized by StriveTogether. The focus: supporting partners in San Antonio and five other communities across the country to apply data-driven, continuous improvement techniques to the work of getting more students to complete the FAFSA.

“Participating in that network really had an impact,” Rosales said. “We learned how to use data more effectively and how to apply some really useful tools for continuous improvement. And to have focused time to work with our community partners and learn from peers across the country was invaluable.”

Why FAFSA Completion?

Completing the FAFSA, which is used to determine a college-going student’s eligibility for federal grants, loans and work-study funds, increasingly is recognized as a critical step to post-secondary enrollment. A 2013 research project by H&R Block showed that the likelihood of high school seniors from low- and middle-income families attending college increased by 30 percent if they completed the application.[i]

But getting more students to complete the FAFSA can be difficult for a variety of reasons. Many students and their families simply don’t understand what kinds of financial aid are available for college, while others incorrectly think they aren’t eligible for aid. Add in the “hassle factor” (even though recent changes to the FAFSA were designed to make it easier to complete), and it’s not hard to see why just 45 percent of U.S. high school seniors complete the form.[ii]   

StriveTogether convened the Post-secondary Enrollment (PSE) Impact and Improvement Network to see if communities could boost FAFSA completions by applying a model for data-driven, collaborative work derived from the health care field.[iii] Called the “Breakthrough Series” model, it was developed by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement to support groups to work in teams to cure diseases. Under the model, people come together over a defined period to use data to make better decisions. During regular collaborative sessions, they learn how to apply continuous improvement tools and share successes, challenges and ideas. In between, they engage in “real work” aimed at making improvements with the help of expert coaching support. 

The PSE Impact and Improvement Network started its work in December 2015. Over the seven months that followed, teams from the six communities participated in nine learning sessions and monthly coaching calls with lots of “real work” in between. The group even visited the White House during a learning session in Washington, D.C., to share suggestions for improving the FAFSA with senior federal officials.

In Sync in San Antonio

The San Antonio area’s local cradle-to-career partnership, the P16Plus Council of Greater Bexar County, began working with five school districts in the county to increase college attainment among Latino students in 2011. The districts targeted by the Diplomás Project serve 78 percent of Latino students in the county’s public schools. When the opportunity to apply for the PSE Impact and Improvement Network came along, P16Plus and its partners were experimenting with a range of approaches to boost FAFSA completions across the five districts, which include 30 high schools.

The local partners had tallied some important successes in their FAFSA work, but “it was always a struggle to get people to make this a priority,” said Rosales, senior executive director for academic support with the San Antonio Independent School District.

Angel Guieterrez quote

Rosales was one of four members of the San Antonio team that participated in the network. Other team members included: P16Plus Data Director Ginger Walker; Belinda Cisneros, director of advanced academics with a rural public school district in the southwestern part of Bexar County; and Margaret Quintanilla, director of student access and support services with Alamo Colleges, the network of five community colleges in San Antonio.

As the network convened, the participating communities were urged to identify test campuses where they could apply continuous improvement tools and strategies to the work of increasing FAFSA completions among high school seniors. Highlands High School was selected as the test campus for the San Antonio Independent School District because it had relatively low completion rates compared to other high schools in the district.

“We chose Highlands based on data showing that less than half of seniors were filling out the FAFSA. That was unacceptable,” Rosales said.

A School Team Gets to Work

With the StriveTogether network offering a model for collaborative continuous improvement, Rosales helped convene a team at Highlands that would use the same data-driven approach to increasing the school’s FAFSA completion rates. As the Highlands team got to work, they developed a process and timelines for launching various activities, reviewing weekly and monthly FAFSA data, and revising plans accordingly. This process followed the “Plan-Do-Study-Act” cycle that participants learned about in the initial sessions of the PSE Impact and Improvement Network.

“That [Plan-Do-Study-Act] process really brings discipline and accountability to the work. It helps you make sure you are using data to see how you’re doing and where you need to improve,” Rosales said.

The value of this process was evident early on in the Highlands team’s work, after its members disseminated to teachers a list of seniors who had not completed the FAFSA. Teachers were encouraged to refer the students on the list to a school counselor so they could complete their forms. However, when the school team reviewed the data a month later, they saw that Highlands was still behind on FAFSA completions compared to the year before. This spurred a more deliberate focus on teacher engagement. In the weeks that followed, the team had meetings with faculty to make a more direct pitch for the work. With baskets of school supplies and other rewards, the team also publicly recognized teachers who were referring a significant number of students for FAFSA support. Within weeks of these changes in strategy, Highlands moved ahead of the previous year’s FAFSA completion rate. 

The Highlands team also organized other activities including a special pep rally aimed at getting the whole campus talking about the FAFSA.

Improvement in Real Time

Thanks to frequent data monitoring, the Highlands team could see almost in real time how these activities were contributing (or not) to changes in the FAFSA completion rate. Borrowing from a tactic she learned in the PSE Impact and Improvement Network, Rosales worked with P16Plus to develop “run charts” showing the impact of various interventions on FAFSA signups.

After the final numbers came in and Highlands registered a 10-percentage-point gain in FAFSA completions for the year, Rosales started working with P16Plus to share the school’s successful strategies with others across the county.

“This is an example of one of the bright spot practices that we’re working to scale by sharing the data and lessons learned with the other four district partners committed to increasing FAFSA completion rates,” P16Plus’s Ginger Walker said.

Together with a regional education service agency that is a partner on the Diplomás Project, P16Plus also has organized a series of workshops based on the Highlands experience for high school counselors across the region. The workshops are designed to help schools use data and continuous improvement tools to increase their FAFSA completion rates. P16Plus also has developed a dashboard that allows all 40 school districts in the region to see their FAFSA completion rates by campus.

A Portland Partnership’s Success

Among the other communities participating in the PSE Impact and Improvement Network was Multnomah County, Oregon, where a loose partnership of nonprofits, school districts and colleges started coming together in 2014 to explore how to increase FAFSA completions in six school districts. Members of the group, Partners Accessing College Together (PACT), tightened their focus on using data to drive improvement after they were offered technical assistance and facilitation support by All Hands Raised, the Portland-based StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network partner.

Roxanne Rosales quote

Angel Gutierrez, senior coordinator of data with All Hands Raised, said the PSE Impact and Improvement Network came along at the perfect time. “People were just starting to dig into this work and trying to figure out how to really engage the schools around FAFSA completion, and the network was a great platform for doing that,” he said.

Gutierrez participated in the network alongside counselors representing two high schools, as well as a partner from a local community college. Like P16Plus in San Antonio, All Hands Raised helped support the formation of school-level “FAFSA teams” that could use data and continuous improvement tools to drive change on their campuses.

“That was one of the key results of this network: people at the schools really came to own the work,” Gutierrez said.

One of those people was Franklin High School’s Holly Vaughn-Edmonds, who was recently named 2016 Counselor of the Year by the Oregon School Counselors Association. Vaughn-Edmonds said her school’s ability to boost FAFSA completion rates to 84 percent in 2015-16 (up from around 60 percent the year before) was made possible by ideas and tools from the PSE Impact and Improvement Network. Located in Portland, Franklin High School serves a diverse population of more than 1,500 students; 53 percent are students of color, 56 percent are economically disadvantaged and 29 percent are English language learners.

One intervention that proved particularly successful was the engagement of government and economics teachers as ambassadors for the FAFSA campaign. The teachers even incorporated content about college financing and college debt into their economics lessons and provided class time for students to complete their FAFSA applications. The Franklin team also organized daytime FAFSA parties with pizza and other incentives to attract both students and family members. In addition, the team received support from community partners that regularly work with hard-to-reach students, including those living in severe poverty.

With each intervention, the team worked with All Hands Raised to use data and develop run charts to track the real-time impact of the work. “What really stuck from participating in the network was the importance of focusing on one or two things at a time and then using data to see what kind of impact we were having,” Vaughn-Edmonds said. “That gives you the information and the perspective you need to figure out what’s working and what’s not and then make adjustments.” 

Franklin High School’s 84-percent completion rate in 2015-16 meant the FAFSA opened the door to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the school’s seniors. Meanwhile, at Gresham High School, the second school that partnered with All Hands Raised and the PSE Impact and Improvement Network, FAFSA completions jumped by 7 percent from 2014-15 to 2015-16. Both Franklin and Gresham high schools showed gains that far outpaced the average improvement rate across all of the county’s high schools. 

Now, All Hands Raised is working with six additional high schools across the county to spread the best practices that surfaced in its work with these two schools. A key focus is creating school-based teams, with support from the district superintendent, to guide the work.

‘Time Well Spent’

In all, participants in the PSE Impact and Improvement Network supported nearly 31,000 students to complete the FAFSA in 2015-16. Five of the six communities increased their yearly FAFSA completion rates at the school level, four increased district-level completions and three tallied school-level gains of 10 percent or more.

Heidi Black, senior manager for innovation at StriveTogether, said increasing FAFSA completions was “a perfect focus” for piloting the Impact Improvement Network approach. She explained that one of the core components of continuous improvement is having frequently updated data. With school- and district-level FAFSA data easily available via the U.S. Department of Education, local partnerships can measure their impact on FAFSA completion rates on a weekly basis. 

Black added that schools and districts often do not have the resources or the staff capacity to make FAFSA completion a priority. By supporting community partners to work alongside school staff on this issue, the network demonstrated the power of collective impact to move the needle on important outcomes for young people. 

Based on the success of the PSE Impact and Improvement Network, StriveTogether recently convened a similar network to focus on reducing chronic absenteeism in K-12 schools. In addition, StriveTogether is supporting the creation of local impact and improvement networks in Dallas, Tulsa and other communities.

“We really think this is a promising model for supporting people to make real, measurable improvement on key issues,” Black said.

Holly Vaughn-Edmonds, the counselor at Portland’s Franklin High School, agreed. “Any time people get out of their siloes and can have conversations about the data and how to improve, that’s time well spent,” she said.

Info box

[i] Eric P. Bettinger, Bridget Terry Long and Philip Oreopoulos, The FAFSA Project: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment and Next Steps, July 2013. Accessed at

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