FAFSA Challenge Paying Off For Escambia Students

Mar 19, 2019

Achieve Escambia intern Max Petion helps Pine Forest High School senior Khanh Nguyen make corrections to his FAFSA application.
Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media

The statewide push to increase the number of graduating high school seniors who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) wraps up soon.

Already, this year’s Florida FAFSA Challenge has been a great success in the Escambia County School District.

Locally, Achieve Escambia has been leading the FAFSA Challenge as a member of the Florida College Access Network. Achieve Escambia’s executive director Kimberly Krupa proudly shared the results of the latest data for a recent presentation to the Higher Education Coordinating Council in Tallahassee.

Computer screen shot of the data showing Escambia County as the most improved in terms of this year's FAFSA Challenge.
Credit Kimberly Krupa / Achieve Escambia

“And, I’m really happy to say that we are number one in Florida, most improved county,” proclaimed Krupa. “I was thrilled to be able to tell the council that Escambia County is the most improved school district in the entire state of Florida. We’ve increased by almost three percent of where we were in 2018.”

That’s a small bump up from 31.9 percent to 34.7 percent over the last 12 months ending March 1.

That same report showed that two of the district’s seven high schools, Pine Forest and Washington, already have recorded increases of more than five percent, with Washington second among all high schools in the state.

Krupa says the FAFSA Challenge falls under the umbrella of career readiness for Achieve Escambia, which has set an ambitious goal of increasing the county’s post-secondary attainment from about 42 percent to 60 percent by 2025.  

“So we’re looking at FAFSA to apply it to career and technical training, where students can get their FAFSA financial aid and actually pay for their living expenses, their room, and board, and their tuition, all while getting an industry certification, skill and trade, and then getting employment,” Krupa said.

With their partners, including school and district officials, Achieve has ramped up efforts to get more FAFSA applications completed throughout Escambia County, where eligible students left more than $2 million in free Pell grants on the table last year.

For all their strategies, Krupa says it appears face-to-face in school initiatives work best.

“Bringing actual tools into a school building, putting the word out to seniors that we’re going to be doing a FAFSA laboratory during, let’s say, their lunch hour and then showing up at the same time every week, consistently,” said Krupa.    

Max Petion is the continuous improvement intern at Achieve Escambia.

Over the past year, he’s worked on behalf of Achieve to help to get the FAFSA challenge off the ground.

“I’ve been going around to different schools in the county, doing FAFSA “Lives,” where I sit down and help students and parents complete the FAFSA form or start the FAFSA form and I’ve also, hosted or been a part of FAFSA Nights, where we have families comes in, ask questions, complete the form if they want to.”

On this day, Petion is at Pine Forest High School, holding a FAFSA lab in the school library. He’s helping graduating senior Khanh Nguyen with his application.

He reminds the senior to make check his Student Aid Report (SAR) to ensure that all of the information on the form is correct and that it is successfully processed.

Khanh and his parents are recently naturalized U.S. citizens from Vietnam. Even though he submitted his FAFSA application months ago, he’s here with Petion because some boxes on his form were flagged.

“I recently checked and there’s problems really arising, but luckily with the guidance of Mr. Maxwell, I was able to resolve some of the issues real quickly,” said Khanh, who is a Merit Scholar planning to attend the University of West Florida with the goal of becoming a nurse anesthetist. 

Petion gets the attention of students like Khanh by explaining how the financial aid process can leave more money in their pockets.

“The more scholarships you add, the more Pell Grant that you essentially get to keep,” said Petion, explaining that the extra cash can be used for a car, apartment or food.

In great part, Petion is trying to reach a wide range of seniors from those who want to go to college, but don’t know how they’re going to pay for it, to those who never considered college or thought FAFSA was applicable. In either case, he says access to free financial aid is a critical first step.

“As the National College Access Network reports, that students are 90 percent  more likely to go into post-secondary education if they complete the FAFSA, compared to 53 percent  if they don’t,” Petion explained. “So, that’s a big number and for us."

Also, it’s important to point that that the Pell Grant is not just limited to four-year institutions, such as the UWF, but also can be used at colleges such as Pensacola State and Northwest Florida State and vocational schools like George Stone Technical College.

As part of Petion’s awareness effort, he has pushed out messages about FAFSA on social media and he created his own short video tutorial.

Lacey Fowler, guidance counselor at Pine Forest High School, says her students have appreciated Petion's regular availability, "Even if they didn't want to do it on their own, they were like 'Oh, hey, I can at least go the library and ask this guy questions or have help."

Achieve Escambia’s Kimberly Krupa believes Petion has been the perfect hire for the job as FAFSA navigator, thanks to funding from the Higher Education Coordinating Council. She notes that Petion is wrapping up a bachelor’s program in Health Services Administration from Santa Fe College that requires him to work with real-time data.

“So we are able to get our FAFSA completion data every Friday, and Max- using some of his training in continuous improvement is able to adjust his schedule the following week to target some of the outcomes that he’s seeing that we need to improve in that data set that he gets every Friday,” explained Krupa.

Credit Achieve Escambia

Another successful strategy has been to target the five percent of students, who have errors in their applications.

As the 2019 Florida FAFSA Challenge comes to a close on March 31, there will a FAFSA blitz of sorts, to get as many applications completed as possible. The highest-performing schools and districts will receive awards for highest completion rate and most improved.

Krupa is excited about the results but says Achieve Escambia is already looking ahead to next year, with plans to begin priming middle school students for FAFSA.

“This is part of a broader strategy, Escambia County College Ready, college being inclusive of a career as well,” said Krupa of their desire to create a culture of college readiness from middle school to high school and then also with some of our adults and families also wanting to go back to school.

She says the future workforce depends on secondary credentials.

It’s estimated that by 2030, 65 percent of individuals entering the workforce will need credentials beyond a high school diploma.

On the upside, people in Escambia County who get their post-secondary credentials will have no shortage of skilled jobs to choose from.