By Lori Ellis and Kristin Vreeland, HECC Office of Student Access and Completion
I am sure that you can all imagine our excitement when we found out that Oregon’s FAFSA Plus+ program was nominated and selected to participate in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher FAFSA Convening at the White House on October 21st. There was much celebration here at OSAC amongst our colleagues, shared the excitement with our esteemed colleagues at the HECC, and best wishes from our FAFSA Plus+ and ASPIRE sites across the state.
For those of you who missed the recent press release about this program, FAFSA Plus+ program is a pilot initiative launched in spring 2014, which resulted in a 5 percent increase in Oregon high school students at 42 participating high schools across the state completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
In the days leading up to the convening, the hustle and bustle here at OSAC never slowed with ASPIRE site visits, the annual ASPIRE Fall Conference, outreach at college fairs, and Counselor Conference presentations. There wasn’t much time to revel in our anticipation because we were all so busy!
On the day of the convening, the excitement and prestige of participating in such an exciting event finally sunk in. We were incredibly proud and honored to share Oregon’s success in expanding the number of students applying for financial aid, and excited to hear about other states’ work to eliminate barriers for first-generation students.
We arrived at the White House in the morning, and the sun was shining bright with a brisk breeze. After the required security checks, we joined Greg Darnieder, senior advisor to the secretary on the college access initiative and a strong supporter of ASPIRE, as well as other FAFSA completion initiative program leaders in the Eisenhower Executive Building. It was amazing to meet our counterparts from other states with whom we have been communicating through email and through the FAFSA online Professional Learning Community led by Colorado. We presented on Oregon’s FAFSA Plus+ program, sharing how the program was started, some challenges the program has experienced, and the technical support we provide to the sites. We highlighted the terrific bipartisan support that Oregon has had for college and career readiness. OSAC administers the Oregon ASPIRE program that has received strong support from educational leaders across the state, and the program has built a strong, sustainable infrastructure. Using the success of ASPIRE, we modeled our FAFSA program around this solid program. There were many questions and comments about how we were able to receive such strong buy-in for the program, and requests to see our program materials.
Oregon’s innovative work with schools was truly appreciated and we should be proud of our achievements so far in FAFSA outreach, but we like many states still have much work to do to improve pathways for first generation students. We were there to learn best practices with others across the nation, and we did. For example, Utah has an excellent training platform that they use to train people accessing the student level FAFSA data. Other states have agreements with their state departments of education to make the data upload process more streamlined. We will be forever grateful for this opportunity to learn from other states and share the developments that we have made here in Oregon to increase FAFSA completion on a national stage. We left the convening newly energized by what we learned from other states, and ready to reach higher.