In the hopes of seeing more students go to college, Tennessee education officials are pushing high school seniors to fill out federal financial aid forms earlier than ever before.
The change in the timeline is a result of a nationwide change: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, opened in October this year, three months sooner than usual. So the state has followed suit, launching an initiative called FAFSA Frenzy in the fall rather than in January.
Education officials are training high school counselors on how to fill out the form and encouraging them to hold financial aid nights at schools. The governor — an active promoter of college completion — even made a promotional video about it.
The FAFSA is one of many forms that Tennessee high school seniors are encouraged to fill out: There's also the application for Tennessee Promise, the state's free community college program, and the ones for the actual institutions they might want to attend.
In previous years, there was a lull between the deadline for Tennessee Promise applications and the opening of the FAFSA. But with the earlier timeline, students can get all of their college-related applications out of the way at the same time, which might encourage more students to fill it out, says Kate Derrick, director of external relations at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
"There's this myth around the FAFSA that it's really hard to do and it's this scary thing, but the reality is it's really not that difficult," she says.
The state is relying heavily on school counselors to take the lead on helping students get past that barrier. For example, Sandra Taylor, a counselor at Trousdale County High School, sets up one-on-one meetings with all of her students.
"Instead of just giving them the information on how to fill that out, we actually sit down with them, get their parents' income and their income, if they have it, get on the FAFSA website and help them complete it," she says.
Trousdale County High School has a natural advantage: It's small — about 100 students in its graduating class. Not every school has the resources to do this kind of intensive counseling. But the state is trying to help more schools set it up, Derrick says.
"We hear a lot from students and families that when they'll filling out the FAFSA, they really want some individualized help," she says.
The state recently awarded nearly $2.5 million of funding for extra advisers at 30 Tennessee high schools with college-going rates below the statewide average. Those advisers will assist existing counselors and meet personally with students.
This past school year, Tennessee had the highest FAFSA completion rate in the country, due in part to the fact that the form is required to remain eligible for Tennessee Promise.