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The percentage of seniors in Hawaii public high schools who apply for financial aid in preparation for college has been slowly increasing, due in part to a state effort to boost application rates.
Education officials hope an increase in financial aid applications at the front end will result in more students going to college the following fall, especially those from lower-income families.
Over 58 percent of this year’s public high school seniors completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as of May 17, an increase of 2 percent over a year ago, according to the state Department of Education.
The application rates vary widely by area and individual schools.
Application rate data was released by the DOE in partnership with Hawaii P-20 — a University of Hawaii initiative — as part of its Cash for College program, which aims to have 70 percent of the class of 2019 complete the FAFSA by the June 30 deadline.
Expanding from just lower-income schools to all of Hawaii’s public high schools this year, the Cash for College program worked with the Hawaii-based Castle Foundation and some local banks to encourage applications by offering cash prizes to schools that had the highest rates of FAFSA completion or the biggest increases over last year.
The prize money was intended to be used for senior class activities such as proms or graduation parties.
Lesli Yogi, communications and engagement specialist at Hawaii P-20, said while the state might not have enough time left to reach the 70 percent threshold, this year’s results are “definitely promising.”
“I definitely think what we’ve implemented this year has helped to move us forward,” Yogi said. “We definitely want to continue the work and hopefully be able to increase FAFSA completion even more … allowing students to be able to afford college and go on to higher education.”
Students from lower-income families who might be eligible for the most financial aid are most often the ones who lack the necessary support to complete the FAFSA, missing out on financial assistance as a result, said Sheryle Proper, financial aid policy and strategy specialist at the University of Hawaii.
“That’s why these efforts by the Hawaii Department of Education, P-20, and UH are so important,” Proper said. “We want students who need this assistance to be able to apply and receive the aid that they’re eligible for.”
The push is part of a larger DOE initiative to have 55 percent of all working-age Hawaii adults earn a college degree by 2025.
While public high school graduation rates are increasing in Hawaii, college enrollment remains stagnant, hovering around 55% of graduating seniors since 2012, according to P-20.
Financial assistance can be a significant factor in college enrollment. Seniors who completed the FAFSA were 63 percent more likely to continue their education than those who didn’t, according to the National College Access Network.
Several challenges could discourage students or their families from completing the FAFSA, such as a fear of revealing sensitive financial information, Proper said.
Additionally, Proper said that families selected for verification by the U.S. Department of Education may not have the additional financial information needed to finish the application easily available.
Molokai High School had the highest rate with over 81 percent of its seniors completing the FAFSA so far this year.
Konawaena High School on Hawaii Island and Hana High and Elementary on Maui saw the largest improvements in FAFSA completion from last year, increasing 16 and 15 percent, respectively.
For bigger high schools — those with at least 200 seniors — Roosevelt High in the Honolulu district area ranked highest with a 74 percent FAFSA completion rate, while Castle High in the Windward district area increased the most with an 11 percent improvement from last year.
Kealakehe High on Hawaii Island had the lowest completion rate at 42 percent, a 9 percent decrease from the previous year. Nanakuli High in Oahu’s Leeward district area had the largest decrease of 16 percent.
Kaiser High in the Honolulu district area experienced a significant decrease in FAFSA completion — 11 percent lower than last year despite having the state’s second-highest college enrollment rate in 2018.
Kealakehe principal Glenn Gray and Kaiser principal Justin Mew did not respond to requests for comment.
Dayna Kaneshiro, post-high school counselor at Roosevelt High, said the FAFSA preparation process at her school starts at the beginning of the school year with an information night for parents hosted by the Pacific Financial Aid Association, a Hawaii-based nonprofit that supports college financial aid offices.
Her office was involved with one-on-one guidance, answering questions and leading families through the FAFSA process, especially if the parents did not speak English, Kaneshiro said.
Kaneshiro said student government leaders took the initiative in pushing themselves and their peers to prepare for college — speaking with classmates about the importance of the FAFSA, producing videos guiding fellow students and families through the application process and even offering raffle prizes to those completing the FAFSA.
Kaneshiro said while she was glad that Roosevelt has met the state’s 70% goal two years in a row, she was unsure how her school would reach the DOE’s next goal of 90% FAFSA completion by the 2020 school year.
The FAFSA completion data suggest that a school’s district area and enrollment size may affect the percentage of students who successfully complete the FAFSA.
Out of Hawaii’s six district areas, the Maui district — which includes the islands of Maui, Lanai and Molokai — had the highest completion rate at over 66 percent, a 9 percent increase over the previous year.
The Kauai district area’s rate was only 46 percent, a decrease of 1 percent from the previous year.
Proper said that this gap between islands may stem from a difference in the portion of experienced financial aid counselors and “proactive” families in each community.
“We’ll look into what was done, where were we successful, where were we not as successful as we wanted to be,” Proper said, “so that we can identify what tactics worked better than other tactics and replicate those successful tactics in other communities.”
Larger schools generally had lower FAFSA completion rates than their smaller counterparts.
Schools with more than 200 students in their senior class this year had a 58 percent completion rate, while schools with fewer than 200 seniors had a 61 percent completion rate.
Additionally, changes in enrollment from the previous year may affect FAFSA completion rates.
Of the 10 schools with the biggest rate increases compared to last year, nine experienced decreases in senior enrollment over the same period. In contrast, seven of the 10 schools with the largest decreases in completion rates increased their senior class size this year.
“We’ll look into what was done, where were we successful … and replicate those successful tactics in other communities.” – Sheryle Proper, UH
Kealakehe High, which had the lowest completion rate, and Kaiser High, whose completion rate decreased by over 11 percent, both saw increases in senior classes this year by 49 and 19 students, respectively.
Proper said that a higher college counselor to student ratio — more students per counselor — may be responsible for the lower FAFSA rate.
“Some people need one-on-one assistance,” Proper said. “And that’s certainly easier when you have the staff and you can provide that type of assistance.”
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