FAFSA Challenges - What did you do?! Coffee Talk

TracyLarimerTracyLarimer Posts: 46 ✭✭✭
First Compass Anniversary Name Dropper First Comment First Answer
edited April 23 in Grants & Scholarships

We had a great live Coffee Talk about FAFSA at the Foundant Summit Conference. Here are some comments from the participants, grouped by theme.

Please add thoughts & ideas of your own - We can revisit this next year when we do it all again!


  • We bailed on the whole FAFSA thing and instead went with an optional question to describe financial need.
  • We extended, extended extended...switched to an essay, and then tried to find matches for the need-based scholarship from that.
  • Allowed reviewers to give discretionary points based on financial need that came through in essays. In some cases, teachers just knew the student's situation and helped us.
  • We asked for gross income instead...but it became apparent that reviewers didn't understand gross income implications. Our reviewers tend to be higher earners, so most applications felt like a student in need to them.
  • We allowed students to submit the estimated SAI, results from an online SAI calculator and FAFSA calculator.
  • Essays often reveal financial things organically, and more authentically. For example, if they wrote about being the child of a single parent; a janitor is the sole earner to free 4 people; a parent was deported, leaving the barely-adult siblings to care for the younger ones.
  • @Ericao
  • rom Students First Consulting will post Proxy Indicators for financial need, such as TANF, anyone in their household getting aid).


  • Instead of changing questions, we changed the reviewer form to guide different types of recipients. For example "does it feel like the student put time into their application"
  • Asked a financial aid person from the local university do the reviewer training on FAFSA and what is going on so (1) clear it is not the foundation's fault, and (2) They could ask the questions without any perception of bias.
  • Section on the website with FAQs/info for reviewers, many who have heard of the FAFSA chaos
  • 35 reviewers from local retirement community, so they provided printed handouts with terminology & FAQs, and a chart with SAI comparisons & what they should gleen from the different scores. This also helped them recruit more reviewers!


  • Create a video to train applicants - they like TikTok - use that concept
  • Want to host training/help sessions for student/parents in future, but need it to be stabilized first.


  • We had FAFSA as first question and think it put people off, having most stressful part first. Next year we will have multi-select question on "how do you plan to finance college" with options that includes FAFSA. Ask the actual FAFSA questions later/only if they plan to use it.
  • Two organizations made decision to not talk to parents, said the student had to be the one to call and ask questions. It is good experience for the students, and reinforces that they need to do the work. Had situations of student calling, 5 minutes later the parent called trying to disguise voice as if they were the student.
  • Several got rid of 3rd party references
    • Found a teacher gaming the system (bad reviews) to help a particular student get the award
    • Don't want to punish the student because the adult/3rd party didn't do their part
  • 2 organizations felt like essay questions were causing the incomplete applications - draft applications stopped at the essay.
    • Allow students to submit an essay they wrote for another application. We offer 3 possible prompts, but also let them pick.
    • We removed the word "essay" and changed the term to "short answer" and we got better responses & it seemed less stressful for students. We give them a lot of characters to work with, so it effectively is an essay.


  • Every year since COVID the essays from students have been shorter and not as good.
  • Reviewers this year said the quality of student applications was worse they have ever seen - grammar, spelling, overly familiar/informal answers
  • Work with counselors and English teachers to provide feedback from reviewers
    • Essay supposed to be 2-pages, double spaced -- they write a single spaced paragraph. They are scoring low for not following directionseven though the content was good.
    • Position essays and applications as part of them proving they are ready for college.
  • AI-written essays so far are pretty obvious. Average GPA, but essay sounds like masters-level.
  • Work with counselors
    • Students don't realize what qualifies as work experience (babysitting, helping at family restaurant or farm)and volunteer work (helping at baskeball camp, honor club picking up trash...)

FEWER APPLICANTS THIS YEARReasons were both direct and indirect. Direct (FAFSA was messy/scary) and indirect - alternative approach was often essays which are difficult for students.Survey + data analysis of students that didn't complete applications. Surveys were sent to the applicant of several organizations that didn't complete the scholarship application.

  • The places they stopped : (1) Recommendations, (2) Essays, (3) Financial info.
  • Top reasons they didn't complete : (1) Not enough time, (2) Couldn't find recommenders, (3) Didn't think they would win.

Tracy Larimer | Foundant| Bozeman, MT | she / her / hers |

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