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It’s easy to think the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, is just another obnoxious piece of paperwork getting in the way of keg parties and hanging out at the In-N-Out parking lot – or whatever it is cool high schoolers do these days.

Just the name makes you want to beat your head against a wall. But filling out a FAFSA, the form that determines whether a student qualifies for federal money for college, can actually be a big factor in whether a student goes to college.

Of those who fill out the FAFSA, 90 percent enroll in college, according to the 74 Million, an online publication. Of those who don’t fill out the FAFSA, just 55 percent enroll in a college.

As high schoolers know, correlation is not causation. But officials at the San Diego County Office of Education have determined that if they can significantly boost the number of students filling out a FAFSA, it will in fact significantly increase the percentage of students who enroll in college.

Shannon Coulter crunches data at the County Office of Education and, according to his calculations, there will be a 5 percentage point increase in the number of students who enroll in college for every 10 percentage point increase in the number of students who fill out a FAFSA.

If he’s right, the county has nowhere to go but up. Last year, 48 percent of high school seniors filled out a FAFSA. That was four points less than the statewide average, according to the California Student Aid Commission.

Pause with me on that number ever so briefly. There were 42,040 seniors in San Diego County last year. Four percent of that number is 1,681. And if Coulter’s calculations are right, and the County Office of Education can bring up our FAFSA completion rate to just the state average this year, then an extra 840 students will enroll in college.

In that sense, increasing the FAFSA completion rate even slightly could have a significant impact on the life outcomes of literally hundreds of people.

San Marcos High School is one of the best FAFSA completing schools in the county. Last year, 71 percent of students there filled out a FAFSA. If the county could bring its average in line with San Marcos’, an extra 4,834 students would ultimately enroll in college!

Tanya Bulette, the coordinator for counselors across San Diego at the County Office of Education, is heading up the first countywide effort to significantly improve FAFSA completion rates. As a school counselor, she’s seen the difference FAFSA can make, she said.

One student, who had a 4.2 GPA, came to her and showed her the results of the FAFSA. The student’s estimated family contribution – the amount a student’s family might anticipate paying – came back as 0, but the student didn’t understand the number.

“‘You know you can go to college for free, right?’ I asked her,” said Bulette.

“She said, ‘I was thinking about going to community college but now that I know I don’t have to worry about money, I think I’ll apply to USD.’”

“Because of FAFSA, the doors were open wider for her than she thought and she realized it in that moment,” said Bulette.

Bulette is pushing the roughly 1,000 school counselors across the county to track how many students are completing the FAFSA and emphasize its importance throughout the year. She’s staying in regular contact with the administrators who oversee counselors in each school district and trying to push them to make FAFSAs a priority.

(FAFSA isn’t just important for finding out how much federal aid a student might qualify for. It also needs to be filled out if a parent or student wants to get college loans. And some universities use it to determine who qualifies for internal financial aid.)

She’s also using a tool created by the California Student Aid Commission, which allows anyone to track how many FAFSA forms have been filled out within a given school in real time. She’s following up with schools that aren’t on track to hit at least 50 percent for the year and pushing them to bring their numbers up.

Sometimes, only one or two counselors at a given high school might realize the importance of the FAFSA, she said. The key is getting everyone on the same page and making a concerted effort.

What We’re Writing

  • Lisa Halverstadt got in on the education beat: She unearthed a consequential story about at least one family being forced to jump through extra hoops in San Ysidro School District to prove that they are homeless. San Ysidro recently implemented a new requirement that families show paperwork proving they are homeless every 30 days. When one student did not, she was booted from her school, which may have violated federal law.
  • Layoffs may be ahead for San Diego Unified School District, Ashly McGlone reported. The district recently gave across-the-board raises that now seem like they will have an impact on the number of educators the district can employee.
  • Check out our next-to-last episode of Good Schools for All for the year on school safety. We take a look at the new normal schools face of trying to deal with mass gun violence. We talked with managing editor Sara Libby about what it was like for her 1-year-old to go through an active shooter drill at his daycare; two older students who regularly go through the drills and reporter Kayla Jimenez.

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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