FAFSA Completions Climb When Members Dissect Data

By Lois Bramwell, Co-Director, GEAR UP 4 LA; and Tae Kang, Assistant Deputy Director, Institution and Support Services, California Student Aid Commission

This past year the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) launched Race to Submit, a statewide campaign that aims to increase the number of California high school seniors who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and California Dream Act Application (CADA).

The Race to Submit dashboard allows all California high schools and school districts to monitor their FAFSA and CADA completion numbers. The dashboard is updated biweekly beginning Oct. 1. In addition to the publicly available school-level numbers, student-level data can also be monitored by designated school site personnel on the CSAC website.

But not only has the dashboard helped stakeholders examine financial aid application completion rates more closely – it has made those very rates more accurate.

GEAR UP 4 LA (GU4LA) is a GEAR UP grantee and NCAN member in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), also an NCAN member. They used the dashboard to disseminate weekly updates to one region in LAUSD containing 33 high schools comprising traditional and continuation schools. But school staff noted a discrepancy between numbers reported on the Race to Submit dashboard and the student-level data available to school personnel.

Subsequent discussions about the topic with CSAC personnel revealed that many of the students not reported on the CSAC dashboard were over the age of 19. CSAC, following federal guidelines, excludes all students over 19 from their application counts. This is because the FAFSA does not ask if an applicant is a high school senior; consequently, several criteria, including age of the applicant, are used to identify applicants who are likely high school seniors as opposed to applying after high school.

In LAUSD, 21 percent of students are English Language Learners, and some regions contain significantly higher rates. The California Education Code allows English Learners to remain in high school until age 21 provided that they are making adequate academic progress, but these students were left out of the CSAC data. To remedy this issue, CSAC expanded the age criteria to age 21, while maintaining the data integrity of the graduation cohorts by cross checking each applicant with their high school graduation date on file from other programs. By expanding the age criteria to 21, many of the high schools with older seniors were able to receive credit for their FAFSA and CADA submissions.

This change resulted in a nine-percentage-point increase to LAUSD’s FAFSA and CADA completion rates, and it also offered Los Angeles and California a more complete picture of completion. By exploring the discrepancies between data sources, the definitions used to create those data sources, and the characteristics of the population served, GU4LA helped to improve confidence in one of the data sources.

With the increased emphasis on FAFSA completion as a gateway to postsecondary education, it is in our field’s best interest to be involved in the development and improvement of the measurements that we use to assess our progress.

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