Inside “the biggest, most exciting FAFSA competition in the country”

Great sporting events often come down to the wire: Coaches and players dream about a last-second touchdown, a three-point shot at the buzzer, or a walk-off grand slam. Last week, there was a similar feeling of anticipation among Chiefs for Change members wrapped up in a different kind of competition.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White have been cheering on Twitter for the past three months as their states were duking it out in the FAFSA Tracker Challenge. With just days to go before the results were announced, State Superintendent White was feeling good about his team. “Guess who just took the lead on the national @FafsaTracker leader board,” he tweeted, adding the hashtag “#proud.”

FAFSA, short for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is used to determine grants, work-study funds, and loans for students attending college or technical, vocational, or trade schools. The federal government awards more than $120 billion in financial aid each year, and studies have shown that students who complete the FAFSA are more likely to enroll in college and earn a degree.

At the start of the competition, Louisiana was nearly 25 points behind Tennessee in the percentage of students completing the FAFSA. Over the past several months, however, Louisiana had been gaining ground, slowly but steadily closing the gap.

“We wanted to find a way to generate excitement about FAFSA,” competition organizer Nathan Trenholm said. “It’s the gateway to college, and we started the FAFSA Tracker Challenge to get more people to complete the form.”

Trenholm is the co-founder of the education data consulting firm Data Insight Partners. He and his colleagues built a free platform to host the competition. They developed a computer program that automatically downloads privacy-protected, publicly available FAFSA completion data from the U.S. Department of Education website. The information is then seamlessly transferred to an application that makes it easy to view progress over time and compare two states side by side.

“We had our sights set on a FAFSA match-up between Louisiana and Tennessee, because Tennessee has built incredible infrastructure to support students,” Trenholm said. “The coordination across government entities is really remarkable. We wanted to encourage other states to do what Tennessee is doing, and we knew they needed a formidable opponent in this competition. Louisiana stood out to us because they have a new policy that requires all graduates to submit the FAFSA or verify that they’re choosing to opt out of the process.”

Trenholm got things started back in March with a tweet to the education departments in both states. They quickly accepted his challenge, with the state Chiefs making a friendly wager: If Tennessee wins, Louisiana State Superintendent White will wear a one-of-a-kind Tennessee FAFSA sweater, and if Louisiana comes out on top, Tennessee Education Commissioner McQueen will send barbecue.

Once the competition between Tennessee and Louisiana was underway, Trenholm contacted us to ask if any of our other state Chiefs wanted to take part. Soon a second challenge was on, and New Mexico Secretary of Education Christopher Ruszkowski and Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Canavero got in on the action.

Stakeholders and advocates in each of the states were buzzing with competitive spirit; even Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval shared his support on social media.

“When I was Director of Research and Accountability in Clark County (Nevada), we never had anyone ask about FAFSA data,” Trenholm said. “Now, you have a governor tweeting about it. You have state Chiefs, state education departments, and nonprofits tweeting about it. We created a simple platform to make it easier to share data with the community, partnered with Chiefs for Change, and look what happened. This is the biggest, most exciting FAFSA competition in the country.”

The competition was exciting until the very last moment. At the outset, Nevada was leading in its match up with New Mexico. Then, for months, the completion rates were neck and neck, until New Mexico finally claimed victory with half of its eligible students completing the form.

And with just a week to spare, Louisiana finally closed the gap with long-standing front-runner Tennessee.

The FAFSA Tracker Challenge and its results created an important opportunity for cross-state learning; Secretary Ruszkowski and Superintendent Canavero are planning knowledge visits for their teams to share their respective best practices. And while two lost bets had to be settled, it’s clear these competitions had many winners. Just look at these figures Trenholm shared:

● Across the four states participating in the FAFSA Tracker Challenge, it’s estimated their work supporting students will be worth over a quarter of a billion dollars in Pell Grants alone — that’s approximately $253 million in free money students don’t have to pay back.

● Across the four states, FAFSA completions are up 9 percent year over year, with Louisiana and Nevada leading the nation in improvements.

● Across the four states, the FAFSA completion rate is 68 percent. Louisiana and Tennessee are leading the nation with more than 76 percent of eligible students in both states completing the form.

● The work these states have done will likely lead to an additional $20 million in Pell Grants for students in the Class of 2018 compared to the Class of 2017.

Considering all that, it’s safe to say that in the FAFSA Tracker Challenge, everybody wins.