Educators and non-profits 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.

When data showed FAFSA completion among seniors at just 46% in 2019-20—placing Arizona 49th among the fifty states—a dozen organizations came together to address the challenges. Both urban and widely-dispersed rural communities needed help, so the creation of Ask Benji, a chatbot to help seniors navigate the FAFSA process, was a major strategic move.

But leaders at Access ASU, Arizona State University’s college access program, and the Arizona College Access Network knew students and families needed more than virtual support—despite the demands of social distancing! When they heard about a drive-in approach developed by Get2College in Mississippi, they had to know more.

Access ASU and AZCan staff went online with the Mississippi group to learn from their experience, then adapted the program to the Arizona context. 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.

Access ASU had developed a strong partnership with the Phoenix Union school district, where the first FAFSA support drive-in event was held: in the parking lot of Carl Hayden Community High School. School staff and community organizations offered person-power 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 were reaching 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.

According to Access ASU’s Erin Chastain, 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.

Participants were encouraged to sign up, but since only about 50% showed up at scheduled times, those without an appointment were always warmly welcomed—even if they arrived 15 minutes before closing. 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.

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 second event, held at the Mesa Convention Center on Jan. 12, was one of the most successful, so 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, higher ed. 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 (yours and your partner organizations’).

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.

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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