Louisiana is beating Washington for FAFSA completion... and it's not even close



  • FAFSA completion rates are low across the nation (57%)

  • Washington ranks 48th in the nation for FAFSA completion at 46%; Washington high school seniors miss out on over $50M in federal Pell grants

  • Louisiana (77%), Tennessee (77%), and DC (71%) have the highest completion rates

  • Multiple ways for Washington to improve: (1) require FAFSA completion for a High School diploma, (2) increase student and family support to assist with completion, (3) require school districts and high schools to set annual goals for FAFSA completion and report against progress


Washington State ranks 48th for FAFSA completion

It’s been all over the news, in Washington State, and across the country: FAFSA completion rates are way too low.  

As a refresher, the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a critical form that students must complete in order to secure financial assistance for college.  But despite the FAFSA’s importance, not enough students are filling out the form.  According to NCAN (National College Access network), the national FAFSA completion rate was just 57% for the 2018-2019 application cycle.  Washington mustered an anemic 46% completion, ranking 48th among all states and DC.  Practically, this equates to $50M in lost Federal Pell Grants.

The FAFSA is a key college-going behavior that’s strongly related to postsecondary enrollment: 90% of FAFSA completers enroll directly in college after high school graduation, while only 55% of non-completers do the same.

Lessons from around the U.S.

Louisiana, Tennessee and DC top the list with FAFSA completion rates nearly 30% higher than Washington’s. What are they doing to achieve these completion rates? And what can we learn? 

National FAFSA completion.png

No FAFSA, No Diploma in Louisiana (77% completion)

Louisiana made FAFSA a graduation requirement in 2017. In just one year, FAFSA completion rose by 26% across the state. To help students with the FAFSA, Louisiana’s Office of Student Financial Aid hosts completion workshops at high schools during the school day. The Office also holds community events like FAFSA Block Parties to help students with last-minute completions or corrections (support even extends into the summer!).

LA FAFSA Block party.jpg

A promising future in Tennessee (77% completion)

In 2014, Tennessee enacted the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, guaranteeing 2 years of free community college to all students.  In order to be eligible for Promise scholarships, all students must fill out the FAFSA. To assist students, Tennessee created a trained corps of outreach specialists in each county.  Corps members lead workshops, provide information on scholarships and loans, and are available for individualized assistance to students and families.


What gets measured, gets done in DC (71% completion)

Schools in DC achieve high completion by focusing on goal setting and measurement. Schools set annual completion goals and compete with each other for the highest completion rates.  Every two weeks, FAFSA data is formatted into a summary table by the DC State Education Agency and is emailed to all school leaders and staff involved in FAFSA completion. As a student reward, schools host FAFSA completion celebrations at the end of each year.


How is Washington State addressing FAFSA completion?

Similar to DC, Washington State makes available FAFSA and WASFA (state aid application) completion data to school counselors via an online portal (check out a public-facing view here).  WSAC’s 12th Year Campaign partners with schools and community-based organizations to provide training and resources to students and families. And with the expansion of the Washington College Grant, we are on our way to our own “Washington Promise” scholarship.  However, there is still more work to be done. 


Washington opportunities for improvement:

  • Make FAFSA completion a high school graduation requirement (e.g. via High School and Beyond Plans)

  • Provide additional financial aid literacy and application support to students and families (e.g. via support grants to school districts, FAFSA completion nights, state-administered help lines, etc.)

  • Create a state office in charge of financial aid or hold existing agencies accountable for FAFSA completion

  • Require school and district leaders to set completion goals, track progress, and report outcomes on a regular basis (e.g. via OSPI school report card)

  • For additional details on FAFSA completion in Washington, check out WSAC’s latest brief on FAFSA completion

We can get there with a targeted effort. Let’s #BeatLouisiana.

Washington isn't the only state with many single-high school districts...maybe that's because mergers are super hard (Part II)


  • 79% of all Washington school districts have just one high school

  • 38% of urban school districts in Washington have only one high school

  • Washington is not alone in having many urban, single high school districts

  • District mergers are tough, but there are other options to increase scale

Recap from Part I

In our last episode, we dug into some of the stats on Washington school districts.  We found that 79% all Washington districts have just one high school.  Of districts in urban areas, 38% have only one high school (see “urban” definition at the end of this post). In multiple instances these solo high schools are within a short drive of high schools in neighboring districts.

How does Washington compare?

When looking at national data, Washington is in the middle-of the pack (#21) for percent of urban schools with one high school.  Our takeaway: urban, single high school districts are not a phenomenon isolated to Washington.

FINAL CM 4.jpg

A few other items of note:

  • Of Western peer states, Washington is still in the middle – between Oregon and California / Colorado

  • Maryland and Florida stood out for their low share of single high school districts (7% and 11%, respectively).  Our hunch: when district borders align with county borders (as is the case for MD, FL, and other states) districts can achieve greater scale… to be further analyzed another time!

  • 5 states (Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming) have no urban districts with only 1 high school – this is driven by a high overall rural population

  • A 6th state, Hawaii, also has 0 urban districts with 1 high school – that’s because there is only one school district for the entire state

Should there be fewer single-high school districts?

Both nationally and in Washington, there was a significant wave of school district consolidation during the middle part of the 1900s as our nation moved away from the “one-room schoolhouse” towards the elementary /middle / high school model that exists today.  As recently as 2009, former Washington Governor Gregoire requested that Washington’s state superintendent (OSPI) should make recommendations for further consolidation.  All this to say, consolidations are still an often-discussed topic.

As mentioned in part I, there are can be benefits to larger school districts and consolidation including more specialized course offerings, lower administrative costs, and potential reductions in cross-district inequities.

However, the actual work of consolidation – both political and logistical – can be a big barrier.  District consolidation involves significant efforts to convince voters, teachers, union members, and students that a merger is the right way to go – just ask Vermont and New York.  There is also a substantial amount of logistical legwork involved to plan and execute a merger (e.g. facilities changes, employee and payroll integration, revised student policies, new transportation routes, etc.), which can stretch over multiple years and cost millions of dollars.

Is there another way?

Just because consolidations are hard and politically-fraught, doesn’t mean districts shouldn’t pursue them.  But there are other ways to realize the scale benefits of larger districts without the challenges of consolidation – namely through partnerships with regional networks and intermediaries.

Washington already has a system of 9 regional networks, known as Educational Service Districts (ESDs).  These state-funded organizations shoulder some of the back-office, administrative, and professional development burden on behalf of school districts.

Districts can also work with intermediaries to address common challenges.  One great example is the Community Center for Education Results (CCER), which works with 7 South King County school districts to provide research and data analysis, as well as programmatic assistance to support worksite tours. (**Disclaimer: we work with CCER to help plan worksite tours – let us know if your organization wants to get involved!)

So what does it all mean?

We see an opportunity for individual school districts, and states more broadly, to re-evaluate current district boundaries to ensure students and tax payers are well-served by high quality and efficient education systems. In some cases, consolidation may be the best option, in other cases regional networks and intermediaries can help small districts achieve scale and avoid the pain of mergers.

Data sources: ERDC; 2015 , NCES ELSI Database; 2016-2017.

Methods: To determine the number of high schools in a district we looked at all schools with students enrolled in 12th grade.  We then excluded alternative, charter, and virtual schools as defined by the Department of Education NCES database.  We also excluded juvenile detention centers, community colleges, educational services districts, and schools with fewer than 10 high school students enrolled. To define “urban” districts, we used the NCES classification and included all cities and large / midsize suburbs.

Washington has a lot of school districts with just one high school - is that a bad thing? (Part I)

TL;DR (“too long, didn’t read”, aka SparkNotes for those non-Millennial readers)

  • Washington has approximately 300 school districts

  • 79% of all Washington school districts have just one high school; of urban districts 38% have only one high school

  • Significant trade-offs exist between small and large districts

  • District boundaries driven more by history than by county/city borders

WA school district map.PNG

Examining single-high school districts

During a recent project looking at Washington school district data, we noticed many school districts with only one high school.  We were specifically interested in the urban, single high school districts – places where the distance between rival high schools in neighboring districts is only a few miles.

And now that we have a blog, and a devoted readership base (tell your friends, sign up for our newsletter!) we decided it was time to dig into the data and answer a few nagging questions.  The first two we’ll answer today, the remaining in a follow-up, Part II post.

  • How common are urban, single-high school districts in Washington?

  • Are small districts bad?

  • How does Washington compare to other states?

  • What are the options for increasing school district scale efficiencies?

Setting the stage

First, let’s ground ourselves with the basic stats: Washington has ~300 school districts, with an average enrollment of 3,500 students.  Across the state, 79% have just one high school.

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These results aren’t terribly surprising since more than 75% of Washington districts are rural.  These are districts where we’d expect only one high school across a large land area.

What we’re really interested however, are the urban districts with one high school.  For the purposes of our analysis, we categorized urban districts as those within or adjacent to major cities and suburbs with more than 100,000 people.  All other districts we classified as rural.

Using this methodology, we found 38% of urban districts have just one high school. Examples include University Place (near Tacoma), Tukwila (near Seattle), and East Valley (near Spokane).

FINAL CM 3 graph 2.JPG

Is this a bad thing?

Obligatory consultant answer: it depends. The research is quite mixed on optimal school district size.  What is clear are the trade-offs between small and large districts:

Large school districts

  • More specialized course offerings

  • Lower administrative costs per student

  • Potential for greater equity with larger districts

Small school districts


Aren’t district borders limited by county and city boundaries?

In Washington, as in many states, district borders are not beholden to municipal boundaries.  There are multiple examples of districts spanning county and city lines (e.g. Northshore and Nine Mile Falls) Boundaries are often a product of past rural consolidation efforts and previous political battles – essentially, there aren’t specific methods or rules that have resulted in the current patchwork we have today.

Check out Part II

In our follow-up post, we’ll look at how Washington’s school district map compares nationally, and discuss recent efforts to consolidate districts.

Data sources: ERDC; 2015 , NCES ELSI Database; 2016-2017.

Methods: To determine the number of high schools in a district we looked at all schools with students enrolled in 12th grade in the state of Washington.  We then excluded alternative, charter, and virtual schools as defined by the Department of Education NCES database.  We also excluded juvenile detention centers, community colleges, educational services districts, and schools with fewer than 10 high school students enrolled. To define “urban” districts, we used the NCES classification and included (all cities, and large and midsize suburbs).

Oh no! Another CSR article: The Über-Framework (Part II)

What’s your favorite CSR stock photo cliche? Here are three of ours…

What’s your favorite CSR stock photo cliche? Here are three of ours…

Last time, we discussed our learnings on why CSR is important.  Today, we dive into the fun part of designing and executing an impactful CSR strategy.


To determine the key elements of a CSR strategy, we went where any self-respecting consultant with too many pedigrees would go: Google.  There were over 50 million hits…


So we refined our research strategy and instead looked at what the fancy firms and publications to develop an “über-framework” of CSR strategy (aka the 5 most important considerations cited by the experts).

I’ll be honest, we were a bit surprised by this chart – namely, how little variation there was across the various experts (was everyone in the same room at the Aspen Institute? More importantly, can we score an invite to the next one?)

Our takeaway: CSR isn’t rocket science, but like most things it requires intentionality and thoughtful planning to get it right.  If you’re an organizational leader who’s intimidated by CSR, don’t be.  You can get started now.


A few other thoughts and musings:

1.       “Play to your strengths” is good advice

Even if all the experts mentioned this lever, it’s still worth talking about.  Your organization’s core capabilities should be well-connected to your CSR strategy.  This will increase your impact and could lower the cost to implement.

Examples of well-connected CSR programs: Subaru – Zero-Landfill, Warby Parker – “Buy a pair, give a pair”, Starbucks & Arizona State University — bachelor’s degree partnership


2.       Avoid spreading “propaganda” couched as CSR

In the CSR world, the means are just as important as the ends.  CSR should produce mutual benefits for the community and the company – otherwise it’s just propaganda. (exhibit A: Volkswagen’s “clean diesel” campaign, aka “Dieselgate”)


3.       Collaborate with key stakeholders

You could have the best intentions – but if your CSR strategy isn’t actually built with the people it’s meant to benefit then you’re SOL.


4.       Diversity and inclusion plans are not CSR – they’re table stakes

In our research, we came across multiple articles and corporate reports citing diversity / inclusion as part of CSR strategies.  We couldn’t disagree more.  Diversity and inclusion is a growth strategy.  Companies that can’t attract, retain, and promote a diverse workforce (defined broadly) will be at a competitive disadvantage – end of story.


Innovative approaches to CSR

We also came across a few examples of companies really taking a comprehensive or innovative approach to CSR that we’d like to share.  Here are a few:

  • LEGO: Foundation-funded research on play-based learning, employees trained as “play agents” in communities

  • MOD pizza: industry-leading benefits

  • Orix: employee-governed charitable foundation

  • Unilever: expanding distribution into rural areas through job training

Thanks for reading. Let us know if you like the content so far or have suggestions for future posts and deep dives – send us an email on the contact us page.  Our next post will take a more local and quantitative tack where we dig into data on Washington state school districts… stay tuned!

  1. Boston Consulting Group: Total Societal Impact

  2. Bridgespan (Chris Addy, Maya Chorengel, Mariah Collins, Michael Etzel — published in HBR): “Calculating the Value of Impact Investing

  3. FSG (co-founders Michael Porter and Mark Kramer): Creating Shared Value (FSG site, HBR article)

  4. HBR (V. Kasturi Rangan, Lisa Chase, Sohel Karim): “The Truth about CSR

  5. McKinsey Quarterly (Tracey Keys, Thomas Malnight, Kees van der Graaf): “Making the Most of Corporate Social Responsibility

  6. Stanford Social Innovation Review (Jody Kirchner): “Three Steps to Making CSR Count

Oh no! Another CSR article: An inaugural listicle (Part 1)


We at Kinetic West pride ourselves on distilling complicated, long, intimidating, or even boring research and data into bite size chunks that are interesting and actionable.  We plan to use this blog as an opportunity to share our learning journey, recent work, and interesting developments in the social impact sector.

For an inaugural "learnings" post, we've decided to take a look at Corporate Social Responsibility (or for those in the know, "CSR").  As we've made our transition from public sector teachers to private sector consultants and now to a space in between, we wanted to dig into another topic that also resides at this intersection.  But don't worry… we'll keep this short and sweet.

First off, what is CSR?

CSR has many alphabet soup / euphemistic monikers (CSV - creating shared value; ESG - environmental, social, and governance; social impact; corporate citizenship; sustainable business) that all seek to capture the same concept. To put simply, CSR is when organizations act beyond profit maximization to benefit the communities in which they work.  Examples of CSR programs include employee volunteer days, supply chain waste reduction, non-profit partnerships, to name a few.


The business case -- aka 4 reasons why CSR is important

One could think CSR sounds great for organizations with lots of time and endless resources, but you have customer orders to fulfill, employees who are depending on you, and shareholders who are expecting results yesterday.  CSR is important however, precisely because each of these constituencies care about it too.


1.       Your customers care about CSR


2.       Your employees care about CSR


3.       Your shareholders care about CSR


Let’s also take a step back here for a 4th reason: CSR is the right thing to do for our communities.  If organizations can have the rights of people, they should also have the moral responsibilities of people.


CSR counter-point

Or… if you’d rather not do CSR, if you don’t have the time or resources to create and execute a CSR strategy, then don’t.  But then don’t advocate for lower corporate taxes or engage in complicated tax avoidance.  Pay your fair share and let our government handle societal improvements.

On our next episode, we'll share our learnings on the most effective components of a CSR strategy -- synthesizing leading scholarship and pretty (expensive) graphics so you don't have to.

Increasing postsecondary enrollment is critical to reaching WA 70% credential goal

New article on the Seattle Times discussing the importance of postsecondary enrollment to reaching 70% postsecondary credential attainment in Washington. The article highlights the Edmonds School District’s postsecondary enrollment strategy, as well as Kinetic West’s recent study with the Partnership for Learning and the Washington Roundtable.

Read the full story here.