2020 FAFSA Completion Challenge winners highlight promising practices for helping students complete the application during school closures
NEW YORK – The percentage of high school seniors who completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in New York dropped as the coronavirus pandemic forced school closures, according to analysis conducted by The Education Trust–New York, with even lower completion rates at the high schools serving the greatest shares of students from low-income backgrounds.
Still, across New York State, many high schools remained committed to helping seniors complete the FAFSA during school closures. For example, some of the 12 winners of Ed Trust–NY’s 2020 FAFSA Completion Challenge announced today hosted virtual workshops and one-on-one sessions to help students stay on track with their application and helped families coordinate with financial aid offices.
Completing the FAFSA makes students eligible for most financial aid – a key factor in whether students from low-income backgrounds have the opportunity to attend college.
“High schools have the power to make a dramatic difference in whether students and families have the support to complete the FAFSA and reach college, and despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic many schools maintained their commitment to helping high school seniors realize the dream of a higher education,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust–New York. “The steady commitment of the FAFSA Challenge winners helped protect their students’ ability to access higher education.”
“So many things have changed during the pandemic, but the enormous value to our students of completing the FAFSA has not,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa. “Many families have struggled with job loss or changes in financial situation during the COVID-19 emergency and, through FAFSA, students and their families were able to apply for financial aid and update their circumstances throughout the process. The Completion Challenge winners are examples of the dedication and devotion to students and school communities that we’ve seen from our educators statewide to make sure our children can pursue success in the future.”
“Submitting the FAFSA is often one of the first steps students take to make their college dreams a reality even, and especially, in this ‘new normal’ of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Interim New York State Education Commissioner Shannon Tahoe. “The Board of Regents and Department’s focus is on fostering equity for all of New York’s students, and the FAFSA is one of the tools we can use to ensure that high schoolers have the opportunity to pursue a college degree. Educators statewide have done heroic work during the pandemic by continuing to reach out to their students to make sure they don’t lose out on the crucial financial aid that FAFSA can help obtain.”
“Congratulations to this year’s FAFSA Challenge Winners. The impact of the coronavirus on education has been profound, but in spite of the challenges, educators have continued to ensure that students statewide have access to vital information that enables them to pursue their educational goals,” said Dr. Guillermo Linares, President of the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation. “HESC is pleased to continue our work alongside our academic partners, who share our common goal, to help high school seniors continue on to achieve a higher education. The FAFSA, which is the gateway to federal and state financial aid, opens up access to much-needed financial resources for many and helps move students closer to that goal.”
National research shows that 90% of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA go to college immediately after graduation, compared to just 55% of seniors who do not complete the FAFSA. High schools can make a significant difference in helping students who are low-income and first-generation college students complete the FAFSA and other financial aid for college applications.
Yet an analysis of FAFSA completion data showed that FAFSA completion dropped statewide during school closures. Among the findings:
- In the 2019-20 school year, approximately 61.7% of New York State public high school seniors completed the FAFSA by June 26, representing a decline of more than 2 percentage points in FAFSA completions compared to both the 2018-19 and 2017-18 school years, at 64.4% and 64.3% respectively.
- FAFSA completion data also reveal that schools that enroll the largest shares of students from low-income backgrounds have a completion rate that is 13% lower than schools that enroll the smallest shares of students from low-income backgrounds.
The winners of The New York FAFSA Completion Challenge are examples of schools that remained committed to helping students access financial aid for college. The winning schools — where at least half of students must be from low-income backgrounds — each receive $750 to award a scholarship to a graduating high school senior who is planning to attend college in the fall and is from a low-income background or is a first-generation college student. The New York FAFSA Completion Challenge recognizes high schools for high FAFSA completion rates and for improvements in FAFSA completion rates since last year in multiple categories based on region of the state and school size.
The winning schools are:
In New York City
- Top performers (for schools with at least 100 seniors): Queens Technical High School
- Improvement (for schools with at least 100 seniors): IN-Tech Academy
- Top performers (for schools with less than 100 seniors): Manhattan Bridges High School
- Improvement (for schools with less than 100 seniors): Bronx Prep Charter School (Democracy Prep)
In the Big 4 School Districts (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers)
- Top performers (for schools with at least 100 seniors): Yonkers Middle High School (Yonkers Public Schools)
- Improvement (for schools with at least 100 seniors): Gorton High School (Yonkers Public Schools)
- Top performers (for schools with less than 100 seniors): Leonardo Da Vinci High School (Buffalo Public Schools)
- Improvement (for schools with less than 100 seniors): Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School
In All Other School Districts
- Top performers (for schools with at least 100 seniors): Solvay High School (Solvay Union Free School District)
- Improvement (for schools with at least 100 seniors): Ossining High School (Ossining Union Free School District)
- Top performers (for schools with less than 100 seniors): Academy Charter School (Nassau County)
- Improvement (for schools with less than 100 seniors): Franklinville High School (Franklinville Central School District)
A description of FAFSA completion strategies at winning schools and the scholarship recipient they selected follows. FAFSA completion data for all New York high schools is available on Ed Trust–NY’s FAFSA tracker at NYFAFSAChallenge.org.
In New York City
- Queens Technical High School used every possible opportunity to help students complete their FAFSA application. The college counselor visited classrooms to discuss the timeline for completing the FAFSA and provide resources so students could create their Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. The school held office hours for seniors during lunch, when they could walk into the college counselor’s office and get assistance. Students and their guardians could also make appointments for after-school or on Saturdays to meet with the college counselor, members of the College and Career planning team, and a community-based organization the school partners with. Seniors who did not complete the FAFSA by mid-January could make appointments during Regents Week. And support continued through the spring with continued outreach by email and reminder phone calls from the college counselor, the school’s College Bridge coach, and a member of Creative Connections, which partners with the school. Queens Tech was also recognized in this category during the 2019 FAFSA Challenge. Dyasia, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, was part of the school’s cosmetology program. She plans on attending Clark Atlanta University and majoring in psychology. She plans on using both psychology and cosmetology in her life and is interested in pursuing a career as a clinical psychologist as well as owning her own salon. Dyasia’s love for psychology comes from years of wanting to understand the human mind on a deeper level and also helping those in need.
- In order to provide students the support they need during the college application process, including completing the FAFSA, IN-Tech Academy scheduled events and workshops throughout the school year. The school started by collecting parents’ income taxes and information during their child’s junior year and through the beginning of their senior year. They hosted afterschool and Saturday workshops in the fall and winter, and also hosted small group workshops and one-on-one meetings during students’ lunch and free periods. The school made sure to make laptops and snacks available in the office, and provided information through workshops to parents both in English and Spanish. By the time schools closed because of the coronavirus, the majority of students had already completed their FAFSA applications. During the time school was closed, the school scheduled one-on-one meetings with students to help complete additional applications and submit necessary paperwork to FAFSA and their colleges of choice. Maria, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, will attend Hunter College in the fall. The biggest deciding factor for her in choosing a college was financial aid. She decided that Hunter College was the best choice financially and allows her to stay close to home. Maria is interested in becoming a pediatrician and was attracted to Hunter College’s medical and science programs. She plans to major in psychology and focus on childhood development. It has been her dream to be able to help children and save lives. She is looking forward to getting involved in clubs and organizations at Hunter College, including the Caribbean Student Union and Generation Citizen Club.
- At Manhattan Bridges High School, parent engagement was critical to success with FAFSA completion. For the past several years, the college counselor has created schedules for parents and students to make appointments to complete the FAFSA with her support. The counselor was also available after school and on Saturdays, which was key for engaging parents who work in the mornings. Every student and parent had the opportunity to choose a date that was convenient for them. The school conducted FAFSA appointments from November through February. The college counselor also improved awareness of federal financial aid through in-classroom workshops and 1-on-1 counseling. Reminder announcements over the school loudspeaker system also helped nudge students to schedule their 1-on-1 appointments. Kimberlyn, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, was the valedictorian of the Class of 2020. Kimberlyn finished the year with a 98.20 GPA, the highest the school has ever seen. Kimberlyn came to the school from Spain four years ago and she has demonstrated an aptitude for academic excellence. She has taken five Advanced Placement courses: AP English, AP Calculus, AP Spanish Literature, AP Spanish Language, and AP Environmental Science. Kimberlyn plans to attend City College in New York City to study economics and business. Her desire is to be an accountant and to earn an MBA.
- Bronx Prep Charter School had an ambitious goal for FAFSA completion: the school – part of the Democracy Prep charter school network – aimed for all seniors to apply for financial aid within the first eight days of the application window opening. In order to meet that goal, school staff made sure to engage and support parents and scholars every step of the way to ensure that the application was successful. The staff supported students during in-class sessions and supported families with after-school and weekend sessions. The 2019-20 school year was different, of course. With school buildings closed, Bronx Prep staff used Zoom to connect with students and parents, answer questions, and complete financial aid tasks. They followed up with the entire class to ensure they were on track to matriculate to their college choice even with the circumstances of this pandemic, and they assisted any students who needed to reconsider their choices. Jessica, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, stands out for the degree to which she connects with others and commands attention and respect. In the classroom, Jessica is all about her academics. It’s safe to say that she has that “Mamba Mentality” as it relates to her academics. She also exhibits these traits on the basketball court and on the softball field. Jessica has the respect and admiration of the Bronx Prep community.
In the Big 4 School Districts (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers)
- Many students at Yonkers Middle High School are aiming to become the first in their family to attend college. In the spring of students’ junior year, the counselors had “college chats” in small groups to introduce them to the college process, including how to apply financial aid. The school also hosted Junior College Night for the students and their families. As soon as senior year begins, the school reminds students and families about the process at Senior College Night. October is when the school hosts Financial Aid Information Night, when a college financial officer from a local college presents to families. In November, additional college financial officers come to the school for FAFSA Completion Night, when students and their families begin completing the FAFSA. The student who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship knows the challenges of being a first-generation student. Despite these challenges, the student is determined to attend college and go on to earn a master’s degree in early childhood education. Growing up, the student was aware of the potential obstacles to becoming successful. Yet, the student remained focused and driven. Outside of school, the student gained experience as an assistant in a child care program providing instructional teaching activities. The student also tutored elementary children, which included helping them complete their homework and reviewing lessons that they had difficulty comprehending in school. These events influenced the student to take on greater responsibilities and inspire younger children.
- Gorton High School’s keys to success in FAFSA completion were partnerships and persistence. The NYGEAR UP grant allowed them to partner with Yonkers Partners in Education and Fordham Talent Search to support the senior class. Through these partnerships, the school staff planned a variety of events from October through March, including FAFSA informational sessions for students via English classes and special events within the school day. The school’s most successful events were in October, when the district’s FAFSA Day allowed more than 70 families to complete their applications and a separate all-day event helped more than 100 students to complete their FAFSA. The school is proud that they were able to work with their partners to help families complete their applications on their own time, in their own way. The flexibility allowed for comfort and guidance to ensure privacy for all students and families. Julius, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, is one of four siblings and will be the first in his family to attend college. The road has not always been easy for Julius. In May 2017, his mother passed away and Julius moved in with his aunt and godfather. Despite the tragedy, he worked diligently to honor his mother and make her proud. Julius significantly improved his grades through a renewed commitment to his studies and graduated on the school’s Principal’s List. Julius will attend St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, New York, where he will study sports management. When asked what the most difficult part of the college process was for him, Julius said, “Choosing the right school for me and choosing the school that I know my mother would be proud of.”
- As a guidance team, Maureen Brett and Cheryl Shul of Leonardo da Vinci High School in Buffalo thrive off of a little competition. When da Vinci won this award in 2019, they decided to set a goal they would strive for each year to come. They started in English classes, setting up FAFSA accounts, documenting usernames and passwords, and making checklists for students’ individual appointments. With the help of College Success Specialists from the University at Buffalo, seniors were able to complete their FAFSA, and later go on to the application for the New York Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) in just a few class periods. Each week, the school counselors received a Financial Aid Completion Report from Say Yes Buffalo. They would cross reference that list with their own records, and clean up any discrepancies. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the counselors had to get creative. NYGEAR UP provided online sessions for students to complete their FAFSA, but it was hard to ensure the students were attending. School counselors had a lot of one-on-one phone appointments with students, parents, and sometimes three-way calls with FAFSA or college financial aid offices. Ultimately, they met their goal – and they only hope to improve in the future. Da Vinci was also recognized in this category during the 2019 FAFSA Challenge. Saima, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, plans to major in a medical field where she can help people. She moved around often growing up, but now is excited to pursue her dream of being a part of a medical team. Saima is very grateful for all the help she received from her parents, mentors, teachers, and friends.
- Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School (BuffSci) is a college preparatory high school that puts special emphasis on every student’s postsecondary readiness. For this purpose, BuffSci strives to cultivate a college-going culture with different activities starting when students enter 9th grade. By students’ senior year, BuffSci has had a College and Career Readiness class where students complete their college applications and financial aid documents, as well as learn more about college life from speakers that are invited to speak to the students. In addition to ongoing support from their college counselors, the students have also been able to attend FAFSA Completion Night, which the school organizes in collaboration with the FAFSA Completion Project. BuffSci’s counseling team also performed home visits and sets up weekend appointments with parents to accommodate the diverse needs of all of its families. Mudan, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge Scholarship, will be attending Canisius College this fall and plans to study psychology and biology. Ultimately, Mudan wants to be a family practice physician and even open her own clinic so she can help those in need. Mudan acknowledges that she didn’t have the best grades in high school, but she said her teachers and counselor believed in her and helped her grow. She is grateful to BuffSci for supporting her as a person of color and as a young woman. She is proud that she has made it this far, but she says this is not the end.
In All Other School Districts
- Each fall, Solvay High School has hosted a Financial Aid Night for its seniors and families, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Its counselors also met regularly with seniors to help them work on the forms. They reached out to families to get the necessary documentation and do everything possible to get the students’ paperwork together. During the pandemic, the school staff also worked with a local community college to help with the process. The counselors also met one-on-one on Zoom with students and their families to help get the paperwork in order. Michael, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, had an overall average of 96.30, and he has been very involved in programs throughout his four years at Solvay. He participated in the National Honor Society; Science Olympiad, as its president; Spanish Club, as its president; Concert Band, as its secretary and treasurer; Jazz Band; Vocal Jazz; Chamber Choir; Concert Choir; and Drama Club, as its vice president and treasurer. He has also been a part of seven all-county groups, two Area All-State groups, the 2020 All-State Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and the 2020 ACDA Eastern Region Honors Choir. He will be attending Ithaca College in the fall as a music education and performance major, with voice as a major instrument. Music has always inspired Michael, and he said he’s honored to have the opportunity to teach other students through music education and to perform music as well.
- At Ossining High School, the school counseling office met with first-generation students and their families during their senior year to help them fill out the FAFSA. Counselors made sure parents know what documents to bring to the meeting and worked with students to create their FSA identification. When the school closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, counselors communicated with students via emails and phone calls, and used Google Meet to assist students who still needed to submit their application. Dayan, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, is a first-generation student who will be attending CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College and majoring in Business Administration in Applied Science. Dayan maintained a 3.0 average throughout high school and participated in a diverse course of study that focused on the arts. She also worked 35 to 40 hours a week throughout her senior year. Dayan envisioned making art a career, but with her work experiences coupled with a Business Administration degree, she ultimately wants to become a product manager for a business. She is also excited in becoming a mentor for the youth, specifically students of immigrant parents.
- Franklinville Central School pulled out all of the stops to help its students complete the FAFSA. Toward the end of September, a representative from St. Bonaventure University participated in a financial aid night for seniors and their families. The presentation was sent home to families who cannot attend in person. The school sent other information home, too, including notices about area college fairs and reminders about completing the FAFSA. Computers in the guidance center were available to students and parents to fill out the FAFSA with help from the college counselor and the office secretary. During the pandemic, the college counselor gave her personal cell phone number to every student and parent, and she also reached out to each of them multiple times to make sure they had everything they needed. Lucas, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, has moved frequently, all the while living with his grandmother and attending Franklinville Central School. During his junior year, he went to BOCES in Ellicottville for part of the day to take media communication courses, which led to an interest in audio engineering. He took an online class to learn more about the field. He now wants to further his skills and learn more advanced methods in audio engineering, so he will be attending the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Arizona, this fall.
- The Academy Charter High School began supporting seniors and their families with FAFSA completion in October. The college counselor met with families in small groups and provided guidance on how to access and complete the FAFSA. Upon submission, students and families were supported in analyzing their Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and what it could mean for potential aid from the colleges they were considering. Small group and individual family meetings continued into January. Once the school transitioned to remote learning, its college counselor hosted virtual financial aid review workshops and individual meetings so that students could be supported in analyzing their aid packages. Each student had a tailored checklist that the counselor supported the student in monitoring to help ensure that students completed the necessary items to successfully transition to college. Kimani, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, graduated this spring as the valedictorian of the school’s inaugural class. He will be heading to Harvard University, where he plans to major in government. Kimani was an incredibly active member of the school community and was integral to building a positive student culture. He served as Student Body President for two years, volunteered as a Peer Tutor, and was a member of the debate team. In addition, Kimani was the leader of his youth ministry and developed programming to engage his community of peers in meaningful activities. Kimani endeavors to utilize his education to prepare for a career in public service. He wants to work alongside his community to advocate for equitable and quality resources to ensure that future generations live choice-filled lives.
The Challenge was part of The New York FAFSA Completion Project, a statewide campaign launched by Ed Trust–NY to encourage public high schools to increase the proportion of eligible low-income students who complete the FAFSA.
Explore data for each high school in the state, read more about FAFSA completion strategies being used at New York schools, and find additional resources at NYFAFSAChallenge.org. Complete Challenge rules can be found here.
About The Education Trust–New York:
The Education Trust–New York works to eliminate the gaps in equity, opportunity and achievement that hold back too many students from reaching their full potential, especially those who are low-income or students of color, in order to enable all students in New York State to achieve at high levels — from early childhood through college completion. Learn more at www.EdTrustNY.org.