Escambia Makes "FAFSA Challenge" Gains Despite Coronavirus

Jun 7, 2020

This is a file photo from UWF's 2018 Freshman Orientation. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step to securing financial aid that will help high school seniors pay for college or vocational training.
Credit Photo courtesy of University of West Florida

To date, Escambia County high school seniors have qualified for nearly $1.9 million in federal student aid for the current year. That’s a slight increase over last year, despite the fact that this year’s push to increase applications was interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak.

“We were able to conduct our FAFSA Challenge; it was our 2nd annual FAFSA Challenge,” said Kimberly Krupa, executive director of Achieve Escambia, pointing out that the 2020 Escambia County FAFSA Challenge began October 1 and wrapped up March 27, as the pandemic was taking hold locally. 

The local challenge is part of Florida's FAFSA Challenge, coordinated by the Florida College Access Network. The goal of the effort is to generate a friendly school competition to get more students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. Escambia County’s completion rate was 40.6%, an increase of 2 percentage points over 2019.

Achieve Escambia tried to duplicate the results of the 2019 FAFSA Challenge, where Escambia was moved improved district in the state for FAFSA completion and Washington High School was most improved school in the state.
Credit Courtesy Achieve Escambia

“Overall, nationally, we’re down 6% and in Florida, we’re down more than nationally,” Krupa said. “So, we’re happy that our county was able to pull ahead even 2% in the face of this pandemic. That translates into real money for local students. In total, Escambia County seniors, so far, have qualified for $1.8 million in federal Pell grants.”

Krupa says Pensacola High was number one in overall applications submitted, with their all-time high of about 54% completion.

“This year, the winner is Escambia High School. We’re so thrilled to see their improvement was 22%.  They were the most improved high school in Escambia County,” she proclaimed.

Washington High School, which was most improved in the state last year, finished in second place, by a slim margin.

“When we looked at the numbers last year, we were towards the bottom of the high schools in Escambia County,” said Escambia High School Principal Frank Murphy, noting his staff’s motivation.

“So, we did meet over the summer last year with our guidance counselor Wendy Bonal-Smith and we said we got to do better. We need to improve this.”

Thanks to the FAFSA Challenge, Murphy says the schools are more driven to help with the process of securing student financial aid, acknowledging that at the end of the day, the students and their families are the winners.

An official video explains what FAFSA is and how to apply. But, to help with FAFSA completion gains, Achieve’s Kimberly Krupa says much of their focus in working with the schools this year has been on “FAFSA for what, what purpose.”

“The FAFSA is the number one ticket to life after high school and we tell that to our seniors all the time,” Krupa declared.

“Life does not end at high school graduation; it actually starts after high school graduation and you need to be thinking about what is your plan after high school. And, in Florida, we know that a high school diploma is not going to be enough in the workforce of the future. You really need a credential. You really need a degree, a skill.”

The FAFSA Challenge is part of Achieve Escambia’s overall strategy to improve post-secondary attainment in Escambia County, with the ultimate goal of improving career readiness.

According to Krupa, after their first year improvement of nearly 6% in 2018, her staff couldn’t wait to get to work on the next go-round.

Achieve Escambia's staff, including continuous improvement intern Max Petion (center), met last summer to discuss strategies for the 2020 FAFSA Challenge.
Credit Photo courtesy of Achieve Escambia

“We actually started before the actual challenge date of Oct. 1. We started over the summer with some strategy planning, based on some of our successes last year, when we were #1 most improved county in Florida and Washington HS was #1 most improved high school in Florida,” she explained.

Krupa says much of the credit for the increase in FAFSA completions in 2019 went to a single person, Achieve’s continuous improvement intern Max Petion, who conducted school events and made weekly school visits.

“When we kicked off the challenge Oct. 1, we focused on building our FAFSA army,” said Krupa of their second-year strategy. “So, for the first time, we engaged a team of volunteers. And, most of them were awesome volunteers from Navy Federal Credit Union, who were dispatched to our high schools to work with our seniors on their FAFSA application.

“It’s been a great experience. This was my first year doing it and I heard about it through our school partnership program through Navy Federal,” said Jenilyn Enriquez, a process improvement analyst at Navy Federal, which was one of the community partners that helped to create Achieve Escambia.

She signed up for the challenge, with a goal of giving something back to her old high school.

This is some of the Navy Federal Credit Union "swag" handed out to students taking part of the FAFSA labs led by Navy Federal volunteer FAFSA navigators.
Credit Photo courtesy of Navy Federal Credit Union

“I ended up being a FAFSA ambassador at Pine Forest High School. So, it was great to see the students there and give them some one-on-one attention in terms of filling out their FAFSA.”

Enriquez says she had the Florida Prepaid Plan to fund her college education. But, she was familiar with the benefits of FAFSA and some of the challenges and frustrations involved in the application process.

“You saw that sense of relief when there was someone and I could say ‘Oh, I graduated here, and I could give that background and just showing them, ‘Hey you can go to college,’” Enriquez said about being a FAFSA volunteer navigator. “It’s possible for you to have that financial reassurance through FAFSA.”

“One of the strategies that I saw that was successful was taking a trained FAFSA navigator directly to a student, along with an advisor maybe from George Stone,” said Krupa. The objective is to reinforce their “FAFSA for a purpose” approach, with an explanation of benefits in realistic terms.

“(They) can bring to life how they can apply their aid to getting some sort of industry certification that would give them $50,000 upon completion of an 18-month certification program. And, then this is what that work-life looks like.”

Regardless of income or plans after high school, Krupa recommends FAFSA completion for all seniors. It’s essential to determining eligibility for most forms of student aid, including a maximum award of over $6,000 in federal Pell Grant funds.

“What we say is that if your family makes under $200,000, you will get something from the FAFSA,” she said. “Also, it could be that low-interest federal student loan or it could be work study, but don’t talk yourself out of the application. The application is designed, not just for the federal programs, but for local campus aid programs, as well, including merit programs.  

Although the FAFSA Challenge for 2020 is over, there’s still time to apply for the upcoming school year at www.fafsa.gov. The deadline is June 30.