Countywide FAFSA Completion Initiative Is Adopted Statewide In California

Courtesy of | Michael R. McCormick Brand Contributor

In 2012, the Lumina Foundation reported that the Inland Empire in Southern California had the lowest college degree attainment rate of any large metropolitan area in the country. Unaware of this statistic, the Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE) had already been working to see what they could do to ensure that more students within Riverside County were college ready and recruited Mark LeNoir, a local high school principal who was known for instilling a college-going atmosphere on campus. LeNoir’s responsibilities in his new role would be to increase successful college-going practices across all high schools in Riverside County.

After conducting a thorough review of practices that had the most impact on getting students to and through college, it was decided that FAFSA completion had to become a priority in Riverside County. Mark LeNoir recruited Catalina Cifuentes, a successful counselor in the field. Cifuentes and LeNoir worked to increase the level of awareness for FAFSA completion and counselor professional development.
Race to Submit state winners for FAFSA completion in all student enrollment categories.

Race to Submit state winners for FAFSA completion in all student enrollment categories.Courtesy of Steve Pate-Newberry

In 2014, Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan notified state financial aid agencies that providing feedback to school districts on student FAFSA submission and completion data was not a violation of FERPA. LeNoir, in turn, requested access to this information from the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) for all Riverside County school districts. Having an existing data sharing agreement with its 23 districts allowed LeNoir and Cifuentes, under the umbrella of RCOE, to gather FAFSA information and create user-friendly reports for school counselors. These reports were furnished to all 58 high schools in Riverside County weekly. This action caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Education and Arne Duncan encouraged Ken Young, superintendent of RCOE, to put together a team that included K-12 districts and higher education partners.

The invitation from Secretary Duncan encouraged RCOE to recruit four school districts (Moreno Valley Unified, Murrieta Valley Unified, Temecula Unified, and Val Verde Unified), Moreno Valley Community College and the University of California Riverside to combine mutual college degree attainment efforts and form the Riverside County Education Collaborative (RCEC). RCEC’s trip to the United States Department of Education in Washington,D.C., for planning and sharing best practices was so successful that it led to an invitation to President Obama’s College Opportunity Summit in December of 2014. At the Summit, President Obama praised RCEC for its FAFSA completion efforts.

Catalina Cifuentes then created the Race to Submit website that publicly shared FAFSA completion data and FAFSA completion strategies. Through the Race to Submit website, a friendly countywide FAFSA completion competition was created. The high schools with the highest FAFSA completion rates were invited to attend an annual celebration ceremony where they received banners to proudly display at their schools.


Race to Submit has allowed the RCEC to strengthen its partnership with the California Student Aid Commission, partner school districts, colleges and has now been adopted statewide. The statewide launch happened in October 2017 at Rancho Verde High School in the Val Verde Unified School District. CSAC and the RCEC both have comprehensive websites that offer FAFSA completion feedback to schools along with strategies for best practices. Other states are now utilizing the RCEC website to help drive FAFSA completion within their school districts. Cifuentes, known for her practitioner expertise with FAFSA completion, was appointed by the Governor of California to serve as a commissioner to the California Student Aid Commission.

Through the ongoing collaborative efforts of Race to Submit, best practices continue to be created and shared from the field. These strategies are highlighted on the Race to Submit website. The Val Verde Unified School District, a member of the RCEC, made FAFSA completion a graduation requirement for the senior class of 2018. As a result, Val Verde High Schools (Rancho Verde and Citrus Hill) were recognized in the Governor’s Office for having the highest FAFSA completion rates in California.

The Race to Submit initiative has far exceeded original expectations for success. On the policy front, the Governor of California signed a bill that will require all high school students to be taught about FAFSA completion starting in 2020.

You can access the California Student Aid Commission’s Race to Submit website at and the RCEC Race to Submit website at

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