The federal government, states and colleges use the FAFSA to determine need-based and some merit-based aid. Students, especially those from low-income households, miss out on billions of dollars in federal grants, work-study, subsidized student loans and state scholarships every year by failing to complete the form.
The stakes are high this year. Anemic tax revenue threatens state-sponsored scholarships just as many families find themselves grappling with job losses and furloughs. Applying early for financial aid gives students a better shot at first-come-first-serve state grants. It also means a jump-start on a process that will require a few more steps for families devastated by the recession to access the most aid.
Against that backdrop, college access groups and high school counselors are finding creative ways to reach students and their families. Some are holding FAFSA nights in parking lots with WiFi to let parents remain in their cars while advisers walk them through the application from a distance. Others are hosting virtual sessions through Zoom or beefing up websites with video tutorials and infographics for students.
“People are very concerned about so many other things right now, especially those from underserved communities,” said Shannon Grimsley, outreach program director at Get2College, a division of the nonprofit Woodward Hines Education Foundation in Mississippi. “We want them to know we’re here to get them over the finish line.”
While technology is essential for college advising this year, it can also be a formidable barrier. Poor broadband access in some of the rural parts of Mississippi has made virtual FAFSA workshops tricky as students get kicked off or screens freeze up, Grimsley said. Get2College has posted tutorials on YouTube that students can access from their smartphones and mailed fliers to students encouraging them to call with questions, but the team wanted to do more.