An adviser connects with students at a pre-pandemic advising event held by College Now. The organization recently earned funding for its FAFSA completion efforts from the state. Kevin Kopanski/College Now Greater Cleveland

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly referred to as the FAFSA, is a big deal. Students who complete the form have a chance to earn state or federal financial aid for their education after high school. Plus, looking at completion rates can serve as an indicator of who is — and isn’t — planning on enrolling in college.

Those rates fell during the pandemic. About 62% of Ohio’s high school class of 2021 completed a FAFSA as of last month, per data compiled by the National College Attainment Network. That’s nearly a 5% drop from the previous academic year. Completions fell roughly 4% nationwide during that same time.

Completing the form has long had some barriers, including perceived difficulty and length. The shift to a largely virtual environment amplified those challenges for some students and families. Millions of aid dollars go unclaimed in Ohio each year.

State lawmakers recently rejected a plan that would have made completing a FAFSA an Ohio high school graduation requirement. Louisiana saw a reported 25% completion bump in one year after installing a similar rule a few years ago.

But Ohio’s leaders are taking notice in other ways. Portions of federal pandemic relief funding — $2.85 million in total over a year and a half — are being dedicated in an attempt to boost completion numbers.

Nonprofits focused on college attainment and educational service centers were eligible to apply for the funds. Several organizations could partner together on an application, too. The first round of funding came this past spring and was targeted at encouraging completions by those graduating high school at that time. The 25 recipients of this next $1.7 million award, dubbed FAFSA 22, were announced earlier this month.

The list includes College Now Greater Cleveland. The organization is set to get $185,000, the second-highest amount in the state in this round.

Funding that can be secured by submitting a FAFSA is one of the first steps in the college journey, said Maggie McGrath, director of the Higher Education Compact of Greater Cleveland. About 90% of Cleveland students are eligible for Pell Grant funding, she said. That money is dedicated for undergraduate students with demonstrated financial need.

“Completing the FAFSA, whether students matriculate immediately after high school or decide to wait, it gives you options,” McGrath said.

College Now launched a mobile clinic earlier this year with that first round of state funding. Advisers in buses were posted in parking lots at convenient locations for parents — think grocery stores and libraries — and helped families complete the form in the bus. Parents or guardians need to include their financial information to submit the form.

This latest round of cash will go toward a few different things in addition to that clinic and existing in-person advising options. Plans include being more visible at community events, increasing targeted direct marketing and a daylong completion event held in conjunction with Cuyahoga Community College and Cleveland State University,

There’s a new push called “Reconnect College,” too. Using a database app similar to what’s used in political campaigns, the hope is to find people who have indicated they’d be open to going back to school and reach out to them.

Summit Education Initiative in Akron is bumping up its technology efforts as well. Using FAFSA 21 funding, they decided to launch a text campaign for students and families who hadn’t completed a form this past spring. It was the best way they could think of to directly reach out, said Dan Whitaker, the group’s network facilitator.

The ultimate goal, he said, was to get interested students connected to do a virtual coaching session. But the platform had limitations. One person at Akron Public Schools responded to each individual text the campaign received.

They’re using it again, and this time, they want to reach more people. This new money — about $70,000 — will help them figure out what messages resonate better, along with letting them have more people working on the effort. Scaling the operation is extra important, as SEI is now also partnered with high schools in nearby Barberton and Springfield.

“The worst thing that can happen is we send a text message asking somebody to respond, and then we don’t respond back to them,” he said.

The target list used for this effort was built from rolls schools received with names of those who completed FAFSAs. It wasn’t always accurate, he said. Cleveland Metropolitan School District officials echoed a similar sentiment in an interview with Crain’s last year.

“It was a fairly significant number of responses to the text message campaign (from families that said) their kids completed it, so there was some error in the reporting,” said SEI’s Whitaker.

So the funding will also go toward developing an integrated data system that will provide school personnel with real-time FAFSA completion data. This way, Whitaker said, educators won’t have to wait on a report to see who may need additional support throughout the year.

That support is key, as are relationships, according to Trista Warren, executive director of the Lake/Geauga Educational Assistance Foundation (LEAF).

“If you’re talking to a family about FAFSA filings and taxes, there needs to be some sort of trust,” she said.

It can be hard to do that, though. The organization is contracted with 20 school districts, and hour restrictions in those contracts limit the majority of interactions LEAF advisers have to one meeting with each graduating senior. The timing of those meetings may not necessarily allow parents to be there, too.

The roughly $74,000 they received in this funding round will allow advisers to expand their time to meet. Lakeland Community College, a partner in LEAF’s application for this funding, is offering use of the college’s financial aid representatives and an auditorium to host events.

The organization received the first round of state FAFSA money earlier this year, as well. The team set a goal of seeing 643 additional forms submitted.

They fell short. Just about 500 FAFSAs were filed. But armed with more time and more funding, they’re looking ahead, eager to help students get to their next educational opportunity.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.