A Powerful Financial Aid Tool for School Counselors
The FAFSA is the most important application for college financial aid. It provides students with grants, work programs, and low-cost student loans to help pay for college costs, and it's free to complete. Unfortunately, many students still don't submit the FAFSA, and as a result, lose access to funding that could help them obtain a college degree. The good news? In January 2018, school counselors across the Commonwealth gained access to data that lets them know the FAFSA completion status for each student in their school, which in turn can help counselors encourage the right students to get their FAFSA submitted. Christine Luzi, K-12 Director of School Counseling for the Stoughton Public Schools, spoke to us about the new tool for school counselors, and how it helps counselors guide students through the financial aid process and college planning.
MB: What is the FASFA Completion Tool?
CL: The FAFSA Completion Tool is an online resource that allows school counselors to see which students have completed and submitted the FAFSA. The tool was piloted in some of the larger districts a few of years ago, and it helped us encourage students to do the FAFSA, which in turn resulted in more students receiving financial aid and going on to higher education. We saw students explore programs they wouldn't have been able to enroll in without financial aid. Then, unfortunately, the tool went away, and we didn't know why. Through the Reach Higher initiative we found out other states had access to the information. It became a priority for us in Massachusetts to reinstate it. Many people worked to make it happen. The Reach Higher Massachusetts State Leadership Team, with special input from Bob Bardwell, Director of Guidance for Monson Public Schools, and Catharine Chiu, Director of Guidance for Boston Public Schools, really pushed hard to let state leadership know we needed this information to help our students. At the 2017 Reach Higher Convening held at Framingham State University, we appealed to our keynote speakers, Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser and Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos E. Santiago. We really leaned on them. The tool became available again in January 2018. We were elated!
MB: How can school counselors access the tool?
CL: Counselors can log into Edwin, the Massachusetts education platform in the Executive Office of Education portal, and find the data there. Edwin is provided by the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) and it uses the Early Warning Indicator System (EWIS) to let counselors and administrators the students who may be having trouble. It includes attendance, suspensions, and grades. It is an important tool for counselors to have access to.
MB: What does the FAFSA Completion Tool exactly show you?
CL: There is a FAFSA folder within Edwin where you can find your district's information. It is here where you can find a district report or a student-by-student report, based on each student's FAFSA status (Complete, Incomplete, or Not Found). If you can't find FAFSA data for the student, it means the FAFSA hasn't yet been started. The tool includes reasons that a FAFSA is not yet complete, for example a missing signature or a Social Security Number mismatch. It is a fairly simple tool to use. If a counselor does not have access, I suggest the counselor ask his or her Director or high school IT person for help.
MB: How do you use the tool?
CL: By accessing this information for my students, I can guide my students through the steps needed to submit a correctly completed FAFSA. My colleagues and I can also target students to attend events like FAFSA Day, or other events where they can get free help completing the FAFSA.
MB: How did the tool affect your school?
CL: When I was able to access the data on FAFSA completion, I saw that only 46% (130 out of 253) of our seniors had completed the FAFSA. That was very disappointing to me. We do all we can to help students with college planning and financial aid, but we have a lot of other responsibilities. This data told me nearly half of our senior class weren't certain about their plans for after high school. Personally, this was not acceptable! In my opinion, this meant we weren't serving our community to the best of our ability, and confirmed my request during the budget cycle in October to hire a college and career counselor. When I shared this data with my district and school leadership, my request was honored, and we will have a counselor dedicated to supporting students around the college and career planning process in the fall. Having data is very powerful!
MB: As counselors use this tool, what steps can they take to help students with the FAFSA?
CL: Once you see that you need more students to complete the FAFSA, you can take school-wide action. You can plan a FAFSA night for your school. You can invite financial aid representatives from a local college or university to come help families complete the FAFSA. That's a win-win, as it offers free expertise and help to families and exposure for colleges. It's fun to have a FAFSA completion competition with a neighboring high school, or to have an "Opening Day" party when the FAFSA becomes available on October 1st. There's a lot you can do to get the word out about the FAFSA and financial aid. Parents are afraid of the FAFSA. We want to help families feel empowered, and to know that completing the FAFSA isn't difficult, especially with the help that's out there. It provides free money for college! We just need to educate students and families and provide them with the resources to take the fear out of the process.
MB: Any final thoughts on this FAFSA Completion Tool?
CL: I want to encourage school counselors to start using it. It's going to have a huge impact on students and families, and will open a lot of doors to higher education for a lot of students. Especially our first-generation and underrepresented students. We want our students to succeed and better themselves. This is an amazing opportunity to help them do just that. FAFSA shouldn't be a barrier to higher education, it should be a direct path to greater opportunities!
Christine Scafidi Luzi is the K-12 Director of School Counseling for the Stoughton Public School District and is on the Reach Higher Massachusetts State Leadership Team. Christine served as the Chair of the Reach Higher Massachusetts Convening in August 2017, and as Secretary of the Reach Higher New England Convening in 2016. Having worked in both school counseling and college admissions, Christine has served on the Governing Boards for MASCA and NEACAC, as well as many committees. She holds a bachelor's degree from Suffolk University, a master's degree from Suffolk University in School Counseling, and a CAGS from Suffolk University in Mental Health Counseling.