Educators and nonprofits in Arizona responded swiftly to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the state’s high school seniors. Drive-in FAFSA support was a big part of that response, serving more than 800 students and families at twelve events in various locations from November 2020 to April 2021.

To apply for financial aid, students need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Even before the pandemic, Arizona’s FAFSA completion rate among high school seniors lagged behind that of other states. In the 2018-19 school year, 47% of Arizona seniors completed a FAFSA, compared to 57% of seniors nationwide. To address this challenge, a dozen organizations came together in 2019 to create Ask Benji, an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot that helps seniors navigate the FAFSA process.

But leaders at Access ASU, Arizona State University’s college access program and a recipient of the Pathways to Adult Success 2020-2021 Design Challenge, knew students and families needed more than virtual support—despite the demands of social distancing.

“Yes, the majority of students were given devices by districts to use while they were remote,” said Erin Chastain of Access ASU and a member of a PAS postsecondary working group. “However, that isn’t always an easy fix. Just because they had devices doesn’t mean they had reliable wi-fi connection.”

When Access ASU and the Arizona College Access Network heard about a drive-in approach developed by Get2College in Mississippi, they had to know more. Working with local partners, Access ASU collaborated with the Mississippi group to learn from their experience, and adapted the strategy to the needs of Arizona students. They knew they’d have to offer support for both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking families and that the November-April timeframe would offer milder weather.

In partnership with the Phoenix Union High School District, the first FAFSA support drive-in event was held in the parking lot of Carl Hayden Community High School. School staff and community organizations provided volunteers for setup, traffic control, greeters, tech support, FAFSA counseling, survey administration, and takedown. Despite an unseasonably hot day and unexpected connectivity challenges, the event was so successful that soon schools, districts, and non-profits reached out to request events in their communities.

Both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking local media picked up on the events, providing advance publicity and enthusiastic reporting. Students and families received reminders on social media from multiple partner support organizations, including College Success Arizona, Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, Ask Benji, and local community colleges. Every invitation reminded students and families of the paperwork (tax documents, ID) they needed to make the most of the opportunity.

“FAFSA can be a very intimidating and frustrating process,” said Chastain. “A lot of families could do it on their own but felt a lot better to come and physically have another human being there that can answer questions in real time.”

Through the learning experiences of the early events, the team developed a smooth, effective system. The FAFSA drive-in coalition held a virtual training and Q&A session to orient the many volunteers from different organizations, and recorded it for later viewing by those who couldn’t attend. Internet connectivity was double-checked in advance and volunteers used 2-way radios for communication. Services in English and in Spanish were offered in separate areas, and event staff learned to set up a third “either/or” flex station serving participants in either language as needed.

“Meeting families where they were, supporting them, having people who could speak their at home language with them, all of that made them feel more comfortable and willing to sit down and engage with the FAFSA process,” said Chastain.

Will the FAFSA support drive-ins continue post-pandemic? Yes! Access ASU’s Dr. Sylvia Symonds noted that a parking lot feels more accessible than a school building for many families. The organization envisions more large regional events at central locations in 2021-22. It also plans to target communities with especially low FAFSA completion rates during the coming school year. Some events may be held in easily accessible indoor locations as conditions permit.

For other groups considering a drive-in FAFSA program, Access ASU offers the following advice:

~ Just do it! The first FAFSA drive-in event will seem daunting, but after the first one it’s so much easier to do it again. Set a date, and it will happen.

~ Take all the help you can get—from partner schools, community organizations, etc. There are plenty of jobs for everyone!

~ Tap into every network you have to get the word out: schools and colleges; local newspapers, radio, and TV; and social media platforms.

Financial capacity is a driving factor of inequity in higher education and the complexity of the financial aid process is a major barrier to first-generation students and those from under-represented communities. FAFSA drive-in or walk-in events promise to be a powerful tool to overcome those challenges.

Providing students with the support and assistance they need to make informed decisions about their futures is a key part of the PAS framework. Access ASU shows how PAS partners are applying this core principle locally amid ever-changing circumstances and challenges.

Arizona State University
Preparing Arizona students to enroll and succeed at Arizona State University

Access ASU is dedicated to increasing access to higher education and preparing Arizona students for success through family engagement, strategic K-12 education and community partnerships. Access ASU’s programs and initiatives are designed to ensure all Arizona students graduate high school ready to thrive in college and the 21st century workforce.

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