Many high schools have shifted to virtual learning during the pandemic, and they have also moved traditional Fafsa information events online. But the Fafsa asks for a lot of detailed information and while general advice sessions are a start, aid experts say, students often need one-on-one help to complete the form.
Business & Economy
Dec. 18, 2020, 8:46 a.m. ET
The pandemic and the shift to virtual learning have added to the challenge of helping students complete the form, said Nathan J. Daun-Barnett, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education at the State University of New York at Buffalo and an expert on college access. The university partners with Say Yes Buffalo, a local nonprofit group, and area schools on a Fafsa completion project, which recruits graduate students as paid interns to work one-on-one with high school students to fill out the Fafsa and related documents.
Before the pandemic, he said, interns met individually with students at local high schools to complete the forms. Now, students are able to schedule virtual visits with 42 interns, but sometimes technology can pose challenges. There have been cases, for example, in which a student is trying to complete the Fafsa from home on a cellphone, while also talking to the intern on the same phone. “It’s not an optimal way to complete the process,” he said.
Counselors at Leonardo da Vinci High School in Buffalo, which has earned recognition for its efforts to have students complete the Fafsa, say this year has been a challenge because their students have been learning remotely since April. But, they said, the university interns are a big help.
Cheryl Shul, one of the school’s two counselors, said they normally could just pull students out of class if needed and have them work on the form. This year, she and her colleague are relying even more heavily on phone calls, reminder apps, texts and email to nudge students. “We’re good at hounding them,” she said.
Counselors have also had to be flexible about normal workday boundaries. Last year, Ms. Shul said, she may not have responded to a text from a student with a Fafsa question late in the evening. But this year, she usually replies, knowing that waiting until the next day may mean it’s harder to reach the student.
Schools looking for ideas for reaching students can check the attainment network’s website, which offers a guide for Fafsa completion.