This episode is part of our series highlighting lessons from Stacey Caillier’s “Ten Lessons Learned about Building Improvement Networks that Work”.
You can find all the episodes in this series here.
This episode highlights Lesson Four: Start With a Clear, Narrow Aim
The Hechinger Report article about FAFSA completion is here
You can learn more about the CARPE College Access Network (and apply to join) here
[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to the Project Essentials podcast from High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton. This episode is about a project that college counselors did in order to help more kids afford college. To be precise, this episode is all about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a form that you probably know is FAFSA. If you’re a senior in high school, you need to submit a FAFSA form in order to qualify for federal financial aid. It’s also a requirement for most state level and even school-specific scholarships. So it’s not great news that in 2018, only 61% of high school seniors submitted their FAFSA form across the country. Especially since, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the price of college rose by over a third between 2005 and 2015.
I remember the college seemed unbelievably expensive when I was applying. That was 1999 when, relatively speaking, a college education was a bargain. Now let’s be realistic. In the broad scheme of things, raising the FAFSA completion rate is not going to have a huge impact on social inequality, but it’s something concrete that a high school can do that will definitely help students go to college. For this story, I talked to Monica Hernandez, a college counselor at Calexico High School, who last year raised their FAFSA completion rate from 69% to 82%. Monica decided very early that she was going to become a college counselor.
Probably junior, senior year of high school where I was like, you know what, I’m having trouble figuring this out. My friends are having trouble. We need help. [CHUCKLES] I come from a rural community, [? Pier ?] County, mostly farmers. My mom was mostly a stay at home mom after I was born. My dad is a cowboy, which is not as fun as people think it is. I did everything in high school to get my good grades, top of the class, A through Gs, and I almost didn’t go away to college.
For a crazy reason.
It is kind of bad. But at one point, I was almost removed from my Spanish class and moved into a different class. And if that would have happened, I wouldn’t have had my A through Gs. And I didn’t know that until afterwards, so it kind of felt like maybe they didn’t think I was going to go to college because my older brother and sister didn’t go. I did have a good relationship with my first counselor, but then she left an after my sophomore year. But she’s the one who actually took me to a field trip to go visit a school, and that’s the school I ended up going to Point Loma Nazarene.
They took a group of students, and they also took parents, so my mom came with me. And we went there. We went to UC Riverside. And at first, I thought I would be going to UC Riverside, but when I was there, I was like, I don’t want to be here. Because the school I went to, my graduating class was about 100 students. So I needed a small community, somewhere I felt safe.
So with about 2,500 undergraduate students living on a small campus next to the Pacific Ocean, Point Loma Nazarene was perfect except for the cost.
I didn’t know finances were a problem until the summer when I went to school. So in my head, I was like, “Well, I’m low income. I’m like, “I can get all these grants, of course. And if I would have gone to UC Riverside or UCSD, I wouldn’t have had to pay anything.” But Point Loma is also a private university. So if I wanted that smaller community, I had to pay, and it was $10,000 a year.
So my parents took me, and we met with– I still remember his name– Dale Hudson. And I literally cried in his office because I was like I work so hard, and I want to be here. And I get emotional now, but he told me we’re going to find more scholarships for you, and then they kind of help me through the loan process, which I was 17 when I graduated. My parents had never done this, so I kind of blindly did that, but thankfully, I’m doing OK.
When Monica started in the fall, she discovered that there was one other detail about the school that she’d failed to grasp.
So I go to school, and unfortunately, when I did the school visit, it was during the break, so there weren’t any students on campus. And when I find out that I’m one of the few Latinas there, I’m like, oh, this is different. Because back home, it’s like the majority is Hispanic. So I did feel a little different. I worked at the cafeteria. So I hung out with the chefs from Tijuana. I worked at the bookstore, and I don’t know, I just figured it out. I have the soft skills for being able to ask for help.
I asked Monica if she considered dropping out at any point, and she said yes.
Sophomore year, roommate issues, and I was going home like I’m coming home. And my mom was like, OK, Mija, come back home. And my dad was like no. So I was like, OK, that’s what I needed to hear. I wasn’t going to do it, but I just needed to go.
After she graduated, Monica moved back home to the Imperial Valley and commuted two hours each way to San Diego to get her master’s in counseling and get her credential. She made sure to do her work hours in the Imperial Valley because she still had the same goal she’d had in junior year of high school– to help kids like her navigate their way through the college admissions process. This brought her to Calexico High School, which has a graduating class of over 700, which has more students than had been in her entire high school.
Because I was in a very small town, no stoplight, everything’s stop signs. Calexico is just very big. Their graduating class right now, we have 731 seniors.
In August 2018, she and the rest of the college counseling team saw that they had a problem.
The counseling department got together, and we were looking at our senior data– the seniors who had just graduated– and we saw that 69% had completed their FAFSA. And the previous year was 74%, so we’re like, why did it drop that drastic? Financial access is really important for our population. Most of them are low income, Title I school. The more students that completed, the more students who will be getting that Cal Grant, so it would just begin to open up more opportunities for students.
In October, Monica found out that her school district was participating in [? Karpe, ?] a project focused on increasing college access for traditionally underrepresented students. I was like, this is perfect because this is going to support what we’re doing.
I should mention that the [? Karpe ?] project is managed by the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, the Center for Research on Equity and Innovation. But just to be clear, while this is the reason that we know about Calexico High School Story, it’s not the reason we’re telling it. We’re telling it because if the kids family can’t afford to pay for college, and that kid doesn’t submit the FAFSA form on time, that kid isn’t going to get financial aid, which means they aren’t going to college.
In California, you need to submit your FAFSA form by March 2nd because that’s the deadline for the Cal Grant. The Cal Grant is pretty awesome. College counselors call it the $50,000 prize because it pays up to $50,000 in tuition fees for schools in California. In order to qualify, you just need to be a California resident and meet the requirements for academic success. There’s a little bit of complexity in the formula. But basically, a family of 4 needs to have an annual income below $95,000, and the student needs to have maintain a GPA of at least 3.0 in 10th to 11th grade. And you need to turn in all your paperwork by March 2nd.
So while most problems were on college access and equity are pretty complicated, this one is actually pretty simple, which is different from saying it’s pretty easy. Here’s what Calexico High School did.
So we always start off by providing FAFSA workshops in the fall. We partnered up with Cal-SOAP. They helped us tremendously throughout the entire year, starting with the senior jumpstart. And that senior jumpstart is a family event on a Saturday. They come in and do their FSA ID, their FAFSA, college applications. They also do their personal insight questions. So they go to each session, and they sit down and complete it. We partner up with an Imperial Valley College, their financial aid office.
Their officers come in and help our students as well with some of the questions that maybe like us counselors, we’re not trained on that as much as them. It’s like a community in that we have pan dulce, coffee. Everybody’s just hanging out. They bring their little brothers and sisters or even like there’s some freshmen that are saying, oh, I’m going to do this in 4 years.
Next, come more workshops.
What we always do is just do classroom workshops where we take every student, we go to their social science class, and they do their FSA ID or FAFSA. If they don’t complete, that’s where the follow up comes in, and that’s where we did things differently this year. We were much more targeted, and we also worked with so many people on our team, and that’s because [? Karpe ?] brought us together. Previous years, it’s only been like, oh, counseling department. [? That’s ?] all I knew.
And it is a large class, and it can be a challenge when there’s a lot of things going on. But the team that [? Karpe ?] brought together, it includes special education, director, a migrant director.
Quick word on what the migrant director does, if you don’t know, which I didn’t.
[INAUDIBLE] overseas, the migrant specialists who work on our campus who does home visits and after school activities with migrant students.
And when she says migrant, Monica is referring to–
The student whose family just migrates due to crop seasons. They need that additional support because they’re not from our community. They’re not as connected. And so this is someone who’s checking in on them, helping them connect with the different resources available. They might not think to come to a school counselor, but that migrant specialist is going into their homes. They have that relationship with.
Now that that’s clear, let’s get back to the rest of the FAFSA team. A lot of people in the district office, administrators, a senior class advisor. And so when we were sharing the data by pulling up the CSAC and WebGrants reports, which we hadn’t done before. And those reports will tell you– these are the students who have completed the FAFSA. You can find a report if there’s any students who have a mismatched application. So you can target the groups that need to still complete their FAFSA. Other years, you just keep asking students, come in, come in, but you weren’t sure. Like, did you complete it, or did you not? And this time around, it was like, I know you already completed yours, but you haven’t. You’re coming in.
We would merge reports with our student data, and we would segregate like, oh, these students are special education. Let’s send out an email to the case managers who have meetings with parents. Let’s send out this report to the migrant specialist who’s going to be doing home visits so that she can inform the families. We added it to our clearance list. So when seniors are checking if they’re cleared for the senior activities, it’s like, hey, you haven’t done your FAFSA. It’s on here. So they’re hearing it from everybody on campus.
Just consistently targeting the students and making sure that they have the time during the school day because we would try to have after school workshops, but maybe not all students were coming in because they had other activities. We had morning workshops, evening workshops, during the school day workshops, or just any time that would fit the family. Catholic charities came in to bring information about DACA and the DREAM Act. Also, we were focusing on the matching because there were students who were like, why do I keep getting this invitation if I already finished my FAFSA?
So then pulling up that mismatch reports and telling them like, hey, there may be an issue with your FAFSA. Come in.
But as the March 2nd deadline loomed, the numbers were still worryingly low.
I believe we were either high 60s or low 70s, and our goal was 80, so we start getting nervous.
So they went big.
So we do a phone-a-thon. Our assistant superintendent is there, our principal, vice principal, which is everybody from [? Karpe ?] team’s coming in, counselors, teachers, and calling the families. Like, hey, you’re son or daughter still hasn’t completed the FAFSA, and the parents were like, oh, well, thank you for letting me know. I thought they had it done. So it’s just that additional communication, and so they were starting to come into the workshops as well.
We also had a CHS, Calexico High School FAFSA fest to help the students have that peer pressure. So that their friends would be like, hey, we’re at 78%. Like, have you done your FAFSA? And there was also a video made by the senior class president and vice president that was shown in all the classes to promote that.
By the end of March 2nd, 600 seniors have submitted their FAFSA forms. That’s 82% of the graduating class.
So it was very, very exciting.
That’s a huge jump from 69% just a year earlier, but what was going on with that remaining 18% that still didn’t submit?
There’s about 7% who are going to the military. And through the phone-a-thon, there were times where we were talking to the parents, and they’re like, oh, well, he’s going to military. He doesn’t have to do it. It’s like, yes, but we just want to make sure they have a plan B available. So that messages didn’t hit home, and that might be one reason. Another reason is that if they still haven’t completed taxes, so there could be those issues as well.
Yeah. That hadn’t occurred to me before. But in order to submit a FAFSA form, you need to finish your taxes over a month before they’re due to the IRS. So it’s no wonder families need help figuring all this out. This is the kind of stuff that 17-year-old Monica Hernandez was talking about when she said that she and her friends needed help applying to college and decided she wanted to become a college counselor. But with all the different interventions she and her team tested out this year, I wanted to know what turned out to be the most important. Here’s what Monica told me.
So definitely using those reports, CSAC and WebGrants. That’s going to guide your efforts in the best way. And having this whole team, where it’s not just the counseling department, but it’s going to become the school’s culture where everyone’s available to not necessarily walk the students through the FAFSA but be like, hey, did you finish [INAUDIBLE]? I saw you on my list. You’re not done with FAFSA. When are you going to get in there?
So there you go. The secret to FAFSA success is good data and a good team. Thank you so much for listening to the Project Essentials podcast. This episode was written and edited by me, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by brother [? Herschel ?] with additional music by [? Bren ?] [INAUDIBLE]. You can find out more about Calexico High School’s FAFSA drive in our show notes, along with an article from the Hechinger Report about those FAFSA stats I talked about at the beginning of the show. So long.