Mesa schools win $100K for improving college aid access
October 7, 2019
By Jordan Houston
Mesa Public Schools has been awarded $100,000 for its efforts in boosting financial aid application completion rates among its graduating classes.
The district is the winner of the 2018-19 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Completion Challenge hosted by the National College Access Network, a nonprofit dedicated to sharing best practices for improving college access nationwide.
Last summer, the network selected 25 U.S. cities—all of which had prior completion rates below the national average—to receive a grant of up to $40,000 each to increase their completion rates by at least 5 percentage points for the graduating high school class of 2019.
With a goal of growing by 7%, MPS increased its completion rate from 38% to 48%.
“We were just completely shocked,” said MPS Director of Opportunity and Achievement Michael Garcia. “Everyone was very excited—not just Mesa Public Schools but the community. It has been a community effort.”
Garcia and other district representatives traveled to the 2019 NCAN National Conference in Indianapolis last week to receive their grand prize, which will be used toward continuing their efforts.
FAFSA can serve as the gateway to higher education for millions of students every academic year, the director told the Nearby News
But because of the complex and extensive nature of the application, he continued, students oftentimes feel intimidated by the process.
“From what we know from research, a student who completes FAFSA is 80% more likely to go to college,” he said. “If FAFSA leads to that, then FAFSA should be a priority.”
“There are also larger economic factors that are at play here as well. We know that students who complete FAFSA and do go to college end up contributing more to the local economy and providing profess services is to our community.”
To separate itself from the competition, Mesa got creative.
The district used a three-pronged approach, Garcia explained.
“Two of those were already existing parts of our completion rate process,” he said. “We’ve always had counselors hosting school FAFSA events and college readiness events.”
“Then there was the district piece of that, in which they helped with our office by providing leadership and training and the overall promotion of FAFSA,” he added.
But what really gave Mesa an extra edge was the use of its “peer coaches.”
High school senior coaches were recruited to spread the word among their peers about FASFA completion, its importance and where to get help with the financial aid application process.
They supported FAFSA completion events at their high schools, led information sessions at lunch and used social media to get the word out.
“These were high school seniors who learned how to navigate the FAFSA process and then they promoted FAFSA among their peers on each of the six high school campuses,” said Garcia.
Adding, “They supported students through consistent messages and provided them with resources when they got stuck.”
When it came time to determine who the coaches would be, MPS decided to recruit students that they felt “matched” their student body and peers on campus, Garcia explained.
He said the district really wanted the students to be “truly representative of their peers.
As far as incentives, the coaches were provided an $800 base salary and were able to complete for $25 gift cards along the way.
While the district is celebrating its success, Garcia told the Nearby News they need to find a more sustainable solution for the future.
“We spent $40,000 on that effort, so that money came from somewhere,” Garcia said. “But long-term, this is something that needs to continue and it needs to be funded. That $100,000 will last a while, but it will run out so we’ll have to address that.”
For the next year, Mesa hopes to increase its rates by another 7%, and is advocating for it by using the hashtag #Strive455 to spread awareness.