NPR logo The School Where Everyone Fills Out The FAFSA

Higher Ed

The School Where Everyone Fills Out The FAFSA

All this week we've been talking about the importance of applying for financial aid, the difficulty of doing so and what can be done to make it simpler.

For the past two years, Chicago college and career coach Alana Mbanza has raffled off tickets to prom for students who've submitted their FAFSA. Elissa Nadworny/NPR hide caption

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Elissa Nadworny/NPR

For the past two years, Chicago college and career coach Alana Mbanza has raffled off tickets to prom for students who've submitted their FAFSA.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Every year, more than 2 million students who would qualify for federal Pell Grants fail to fill out the form that determines eligibility — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

But not one of those 2 million students goes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory School in Chicago.

That's because Alana Mbanza, the school's college and career coach, won't rest until all of her seniors complete the famously complicated and lengthy form, commonly known as the FAFSA.

Most days you can find Mbanza, laptop under her arm, roaming the hallways. She's looking for students who haven't submitted their FAFSA. She can help them complete it on the spot.

"They like to avoid me, which is why I go into the lunchroom and embarrass them in front of their friends," says Mbanza.

She's joking — but she knows it works: Last year, 100 percent of King College Prep's seniors submitted the form.

Mbanza also knows the power of incentives.

For the past two years, she has raffled off tickets to prom for students who've submitted their FAFSA.

That's a big motivator at a school where prom tickets cost $130.

One of this year's winners is Malcolm Munson, a senior who plays baseball and football.

"I didn't think I was going to win," says Munson.

Munson has been hearing about the importance of the FAFSA since he was a freshman — in part because of Mbanza's efforts. "Without people like Ms. Alana, it wouldn't be emphasized."

Munson plans to attend the University of Iowa in the fall. He doesn't understand why anyone wouldn't fill out the application. "It just makes no sense ... you're just giving up the chance to get free money."

An Extra Incentive

Here's another of Mbanza's tactics: She'll erase a detention for any student who refers a friend who hasn't yet completed their FAFSA.

That really helped, she adds, as the school geared up for the annual Valentine's Day dance.

A January calendar in the counseling office at King College Prep lists FAFSA dates. Courtesy of Jade Carter hide caption

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Courtesy of Jade Carter

A January calendar in the counseling office at King College Prep lists FAFSA dates.

Courtesy of Jade Carter

"Students really wanted to go to the dance, but they couldn't if they had detentions," Mbanza says. "They brought in all of their friends to try to get those wiped away."

Mbanza pushes her students to submit the form as soon as possible, because in Illinois, state aid is awarded first-come, first-served. Waiting can mean the difference between having the cost of college covered by grants and having to pay out of pocket.

This year's FAFSA was made available on Jan. 1 — over King College Prep's winter break. So, Mbanza opened up the school and invited seniors to get help with completing and submitting the form early.

She also reached out to recent graduates of the school who were home from college and needed help renewing their financial aid.

"It was an excuse to see some of my graduated seniors," says Mbanza. "They're not doing anything. I called it a FAFSA party to get them in here."

Whatever she calls it, it's working.

This year's FAFSA has been available for only two months, but 96 percent of King College Prep's seniors have turned it in.