California Initiative to Drive FAFSA and CA Dream Act Application Completion
Published by: WCET | 11/9/2023
Today, WCET’s parent company, WICHE – the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, is holding its Commission Meeting in California. During this meeting, Commission members, higher education leaders from each of the WICHE states, and WICHE staff will meet to orient new Commissioners, discuss the work of WICHE and WICHE member states, hold committee meetings and roundtables regarding critical higher education topics.
California is a member state of WICHE and in connection with the meeting there, we wanted to help highlight an outstanding new campaign launching by the California Student Aid Commission to increase completion rates of FAFSA or CA Dream Act Applications. Thank you to our colleagues with WICHE, the state of California, and their partners at Mainstay for sharing the details of this launch with us!
Enjoy the read,
Lindsey Downs, WCET
Completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is one of the best predictors of whether a high school senior will enroll in college.
Students who complete a FAFSA or a CA Dream Act Application are 84% more likely to enroll in the immediate next college term and 127% more likely to enroll if they come from the lowest socio-economic quintile (National College Attainment Network). Students completing the California Dream Act Application behave similarly.
Yet, many students lack all the information they need regarding financial aid and do not have the assistance needed to complete these forms. Students can often feel overwhelmed by the complicated process or get bogged down by unfamiliar jargon and administrative hurdles. This confusion may cause students to avoid completing the application process and adds strain to counselors already struggling with staff shortages and packed caseloads.
That’s why the California Student Aid Commission (the Commission) has launched the All-In! Campaign to increase the number of high school seniors who complete their FAFSA or the CA Dream Act Application.
To advance this work, the Commission has partnered with Mainstay, a company that has built a two-way student success platform geared toward improving financial aid application completions. The California platform, which we have named “Cali,” is a new, innovative AI text-messaging chatbot. The Commission is working with Mainstay to pilot the use of this AI chatbot to increase FAFSA/CA Dream Act Application completions among high school students, with the long-term goal of increasing access to college education. Cali will provide personalized guidance over text messages to students, especially those in underserved communities, across numerous school districts in the state. Cali is trained to respond to student questions about FAFSA and CADAA.
By sending coordinated messages proven to motivate action, the goal is to ensure more students — especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds — gain access to financial aid and higher education. This is a major new step taken by the Commission to help more students secure financial aid resources and improve equitable access to postsecondary education statewide.
Funded by a philanthropic investment through the Capital One Foundation, the three-year initiative will provide Mainstay’s personalized messaging free of charge to participating high schools. Schools will instruct parents on how to opt-in their students to receive relevant financial aid reminders, and provide support for applying other grants and scholarships, all money that does not have to be repaid.
Mainstay’s technology is built with a focus on supporting historically resilient populations. Through partnerships with leading researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Partnership for Ed Advancement, Irrational Labs, and the National Institute for Student Success, we hope to help students take the next step at every stage of their college journey. In one study with Irrational Labs, they found that when messages about FAFSA are framed as part of the next step after graduation, students were three-times more likely to apply for aid than those who received texts without this specific messaging content.
This research-backed approach informs Mainstay’s AI chatbots, (like Cali!) and shows how the chatbots can provide personalized guidance and encouragement through each step of the financial aid process. The platform will use real-time data to offer personalized interventions to keep students on track. For example, seniors may receive reminders to apply for scholarships or timely nudges about approaching FAFSA deadlines.
Using the AI chatbot in California, the Commission will establish an important use case to showcase how other states can use such technology to improve access to financial aid and impact college success on a large scale. With many students nationwide failing to complete the FAFSA each year, targeted outreach represents a promising way to ensure more students make it to college.
The California initiative takes inspiration from Mainstay’s collaboration with the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) on a similar outreach program that helped students complete their financial aid forms. The results in Washington demonstrate the positive impact the use of this technology can have when working with key populations.
WSAC saw impressive outcomes: students who received Mainstay’s messages showed FAFSA completion rates of 59%, compared to only 50% for students who did not opt-in to the chatbot. Combined with WSAC’s ongoing efforts, in 2022, these messages helped Washington State to achieve the third-highest increase in rate of FAFSA completion among 51 US states and territories.
WSAC’s strategic messaging campaign reached students at each touchpoint of the process with helpful nudges. Mainstay’s conversational AI chatbot provided an easy way for students to get personalized answers to questions. The promising results in Washington State point to what’s possible in California. As the Commission launches its pilot messaging program, it aims to build off that success.
A recent census report estimates over 2 million jobs will go unfilled by 2030 due to a lack of skilled labor. Guiding students through the financial aid process can help bridge that gap by expanding access to the education and training beyond high school needed for today’s in-demand skills.
Yet, in 2021 alone, over 500 million dollars in federal financial aid that could have been used to help California residents pay for college was never claimed. The Commission’s goal is to change that by making it easier for more California students to successfully access financial aid to pursue four- and two-year degrees, trade and career technical education, and industry certifications that support a strong workforce and thriving economy.
Together with Mainstay, we can provide the outreach and support students need to complete this important first step. The Commission is proud to team up and invest in the future of California’s success.