2021 FAFSA Completion Challenge winners highlight promising practices for helping students complete the application during school closures
NEW YORK – Despite the challenges that came with supporting students with college financial aid applications while many schools were operating remotely, the 12 winners of Ed Trust–NY’s 2021 FAFSA Completion Challenge found innovative ways to support students in successfully completing FAFSA applications.
From hosting virtual workshops to scheduling one-on-one Zoom sessions with students and parents, these schools found innovative ways to help students stay on track to complete applications for financial aid, which can be a key factor in whether students from low-income backgrounds have the opportunity to attend college.
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, and 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.
This year’s winners can serve as models for other high schools across New York State, where overall the FAFSA completion rate dropped from 59.3% last year to 56.9% this year as of May 21, underscoring the critical need for high schools to support students and families with the application process.
“After more than a year of interrupted instruction, it is now more important than ever before to support our students with the resources they need to put them on the path to a bright future,” said Dia Bryant, interim executive director of The Education Trust–New York. “We applaud the efforts and success of this year’s FAFSA Challenge winners to assist their students in accessing the financial resources and supports that make a critical difference in whether they are able to attend college. We hope their efforts will inspire other high schools and educators to take similar steps to help their own students realize the promise of a higher education.”
The winners of The New York FAFSA Completion Challenge — 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. The scholarship recipient must be from a low-income background or a first-generation college student. The New York FAFSA Completion Challenge recognizes high schools with the highest FAFSA completion rates and for improvements in FAFSA completion rates since last year in 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): Central Park East High School
- Improvement (for schools with at least 100 seniors): New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science II
- Top performers (for schools with less than 100 seniors): Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts
- Improvement (for schools with less than 100 seniors): The Metropolitan High School
In the Big 4 School Districts (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers)
- Top performers (for schools with at least 100 seniors): Yonkers Middle High School
- Improvement (for schools with at least 100 seniors): Roosevelt High School Early College Studies
- Top performers (for schools with less than 100 seniors): Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School
- Improvement (for schools with less than 100 seniors): Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School
In All Other School Districts
- Top performers (for schools with at least 100 seniors): Sleepy Hollow High School
- Improvement (for schools with at least 100 seniors): Woodlands Senior High School
- Top performers (for schools with less than 100 seniors): Academy Charter School
- Improvement (for schools with less than 100 seniors): Heatly School
About the winners
In New York City
- During the course of the pandemic, the college team at Central Park East High School utilized senior seminar classes; remote office hours before, during, and after school; small application affinity groups; and individual meetings to support seniors through the college admissions and financial aid process. A team of 12 youth leaders also contributed to the school’s success with FAFSA completion. These selected leaders were trained in the application process through the school’s College Bound Initiative and were available to help their peers through the process. The college team also used social media to inform students and parents about college admissions-related tasks throughout the year. Kevin, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, supported the student body through the Peer Group Connections program and College Access: Research and Action Youth Leader program. He was also captain of the East Harlem Pride Soccer team and is a student who cares as much about the education journey as he does his grades. He is eager to learn and has challenged himself by taking some of the most rigorous courses offered at the school. Along the way, he has encouraged his peers to push themselves and is always willing to help. Kevin plans to attend Boston College.
- New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science II was intentional in its support of the Class of 2021 during the pandemic. The support for students in the Class of 2021 began during the spring of their junior year. The college counselor held weekly support meetings and also met with students one-on-one. In September, seniors began a college-and-career readiness class to learn about the college admissions process. The senior team collected financial documents from families and made one-on-one appointments with students and their families to complete the FAFSA, TAP, and a profile that allows students to apply for non-federal financial aid. The team maintained constant communication using emails, phone calls, and text messages to reinforce the importance of completing financial aid applications. Ingrid, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, plans to attend SUNY Stonybrook. Ingrid is an honor student whose commitment to her education, both while in person and remotely during the pandemic, was without bounds. Ingrid served as a school ambassador to support incoming students and their families. During the pandemic, she also supported the school’s operations team with their virtual open houses. Outside of school, Ingrid holds a black belt in karate and helps her mother care for a younger brother, who is on the autism spectrum.
- Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts coaches its students to practice self-advocacy and develop financial literacy skills, which help them understand college costs and navigate systems that allow them to access financial aid. During students’ junior year, the school hosts family workshops to help them organize their financial documents. Then in their senior year the school shifts its focus to FAFSA completion and helping families understand their award letters through workshops and one-on-one counseling. Adja, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, is the daughter of Senegalese immigrants who came to the United States from France when Adja was seven years old. At Success Academy, Adja has challenged herself with rigorous coursework, earning the distinction of graduating from the school’s STEM Academy and Humanities Academy. She has also been recognized by the College Board as an AP Scholar. Along with her academic record, Adja has a strong sense of service. She volunteers at her mosque and throughout the pandemic has served as her younger siblings’ primary caretaker. Adja will attend New York University.
- The Metropolitan High School in conjunction with Phipps Neighborhoods, a community-based organization that works with the school, created workshops and provided one-on-one opportunities for students to fill out their college and financial aid applications. Staff made schedules for students, sent daily emails, and pushed into advisory classes to ensure that students were up to date on the latest information regarding FAFSA. Faculty also made sure to communicate to support staff which students needed additional help around college and career access. Additionally, the principal and assistant principals held senior meetings where counselors and Phipps staff gave presentations about deadlines and next steps. Julia, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, has always been dedicated to academic excellence. Throughout her senior year, she faced and overcame many challenges, including battling coronavirus. Despite the challenges that came her way, she stayed on top of her homework as well as college, scholarship, and financial aid applications. Julia’s goal is to become an obstetrician and to help women begin the joyful journey of motherhood. Julia plans to attend Lehman College.
In the Big 4 School Districts (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers)
- Many students at Yonkers Middle High School are first-generation students, making it crucial for staff to guide and assist families with the college and financial aid application process. The process starts in students’ junior year, when counselors have “college chats” both in small groups and individually to help students understand the college application and financial aid process. The school also hosts a college night for juniors and their parents. During students’ senior year, the school hosts another college night and schedules one-on-one meetings with each student to ensure their privacy in the process. The school also hosts a financial aid information night, during which a financial aid officer from a local college presents to students and their families. The school was not able to host its typical FAFSA completion night because of COVID restrictions, so instead coordinated with local colleges to identify other opportunities to support families. The FAFSA Challenge scholarship recipient, who wished to remain anonymous, greatly values her education and her family. Throughout her time in high school, she was unable to participate in extracurricular activities because she was responsible for caring for younger siblings and taking care of the household while her mother worked. During remote learning, the student helped a younger sibling with school, while keeping up with her own assignments. “This was challenging, but I believe I handled the responsibility very well,” she said. The student will attend Mercy College and is considering majoring in education. “At this time education interests me because of all the supportive teachers I had during high school,” she said.
- The staff at Roosevelt High School Early College Studies in Yonkersused a variety of measures to help students complete the FAFSA this year, despite the challenges of remote learning and social distancing due to coronavirus closures and restrictions. Multiple counselors conducted outreach using Zoom calls and telephone calls. During these calls, counselors assisted students in completing their financial aid applications. Counselors provided students with detailed lists of the information students need to gather to complete the financial aid forms and held FAFSA completion events to assist students with the paperwork. Counselors also made themselves available for individual and small group appointments. Christian, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, has set himself apart by excelling in his classes and taking nine College Link courses, including pre-calculus and physics. Christian will be a first-generation college student. He plans to attend the University of Albany where he will study mathematics with the goal of becoming a high school math teacher. Christian looks forward to having opportunities to continually expose himself to new and different perspectives and to develop a better understanding of his community and the contributions he can make. He wants to use his experiences to help others, as he feels he was helped, through education.
- As the students were going through unprecedented times in their college preparation process due to COVID-19, Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School had to find unprecedented ways to make sure its students were ready for their next journey after high school. During the pandemic, staff tried to find new ways to help seniors complete their financial aid applications. Everyone pulled together to make sure students had access to help that they needed. The school held three different FAFSA workshops at different times of the day to accommodate all families’ needs. In collaboration with Buffalo’s FAFSA Completion Project, the school was assigned a college access specialist who assisted seniors with financial aid applications using Zoom. Students who preferred in-person meetings were able to see their counselor at the school building and completed the applications by following the CDC guidelines. The college counselor also made himself available on a few Saturdays to help students whose parents worked during the weekdays. The FAFSA Challenge scholarship recipient is a first-generation college student who will attend the SUNY at Buffalo, where she will major in computer science. The student, who wished to remain anonymous, has always been fascinated by the power of computers and how they bring the world together. During the pandemic, she kept herself motivated by picturing her life after high school. She always dreamed of attending a well-reputed university that would provide her with an ample amount of research opportunities.
- Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School prides itself on the college preparatory programs it offers and its work supporting students through the college admissions and financial aid process. The school does what it takes to ensure that students have an easy transition from high school to college, including helping them complete the FAFSA. At the start of the 2020-2021 school year and throughout the college application period, the school held virtual meetings with seniors and their parents to help them prepare their financial aid applications. Additionally, the school guidance counselor sent regular correspondence letting families know how he could help with FAFSA completion. He also suggested that students and families familiarize themselves with “Going Merry,” a free scholarship and financial aid platform that proves very successful in guiding students on how to complete the FAFSA, to apply for federal student aid and scholarships. Every senior was also provided with a document to help students complete college admissions and financial aid applications. Yhadia, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, possesses characteristics such as passion, confidence, composure, enthusiasm, the ability to be a team player, great analytical skills, and foresight. Yhadia is ranked fifth in her class. She will attend Syracuse University and plans to study neuroscience with a pre-medicine focus.
In All Other School Districts
- Sleepy Hollow High School in the Union Free School District of the Tarrytowns helps students complete the FAFSA with several events, including a Financial Aid Night, which was virtual during the pandemic, for sophomores and juniors. The school also hosted a virtual college night for Spanish-speaking families. Through partnerships, Sleepy Hollow is able to connect students who receive free and reduced lunch with a volunteer who assists them in completing the FAFSA. The counseling office also assists students with this process throughout the school year. Robinson, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, is a self-motivated and self- confident young man who has worked diligently during his four years in high school. Robinson enjoys participating in all school-related activities. He is an active member of the African American Heritage club, PAW “Promoting Animal Welfare, and STEP, “Science & Technology Entry Program”. He is also a peer mentor. Robinson plans to attend Manhattan College and will study pre-medicine.
- To assist students with completing the FAFSA, Woodlands Middle High School in the Greenburgh Central School District held two financial aid evenings to answer parent questions about the process. The school also receives support from two outside agencies who help families with FAFSA completion. Shamarie, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, is a caring student who is concerned with the well-being of his classmates. He has been a member of the school’s National Honor Society and participates in a number of other activities at school. He leads by example through his behavior and sound decision making, which is exemplary.
- The Academy Charter High School on Long Island began supporting its Class of 2021 and families with FAFSA completion in May 2020. The school’s college counselor met with students and families individually to review each family’s eligibility for aid, discuss estimated financial aid, and eligibility for opportunity programs. In October 2020, the college counselor began meeting 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 and what this could mean for potential aid from the colleges they were considering. Small group and individual family meetings continued into January 2021 to help ensure students were completing the FAFSA. Beginning in April 2021, the college counselor hosted financial aid review workshops and individual meetings so that students could be supported in analyzing their aid packages. Melanie, who will receive the FAFSA Challenge scholarship, will graduate as the valedictorian of the Class of 2021. She plans to attend Cornell University and will major in mathematics and economics. Melanie was an active member of the school community and was integral to building a positive student culture. She participated in yearbook club, National Honor Society, and newspaper club. She was also a member of the volleyball team and starred in high school theater productions.
- Heatly High School in the Green Island Union Free School District shifted its approach to FAFSA completion to meet students’ and parents’ needs during the pandemic. The school hosted whole group presentations for in-person learners. It also had individual Google Meets to address the specific needs of each student. Parents who needed support got that through individual phone calls or Google Meets sessions. The FAFSA Challenge scholarship winner, who wished to remain anonymous, is a hard-working student and person. She is driven to succeed and is committed to success. She gives her all in the classroom and when she leaves, she works part-time to support her dreams and goals. The student is pursuing her academic dreams at a SUNY school next year.
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 and help identify and elevate best practices to support students in completing 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.