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October 27, 2023

Changes To This Year’s FAFSA Application Make ‘Ask Benji’ An Essential Resource for 33,000 Seniors at 185 Arizona High Schools

First-of-its-kind chatbot tool uses AI technology to deliver real-time support to students as they fill out financial aid applications

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA, typically opens every October. However, due to updates being made to the application this year, high school seniors and families won’t be able to apply for aid for the 2024-25 school year until December. This leaves less time than usual to complete and submit the form. 

Thanks to a free resource called Ask Benji a FAFSA support tool created by Education Forward Arizona and Arizona State University – thousands of high school seniors across the state have a support system in place to overcome the learning curve they may encounter with this year’s all-new FAFSA.

Ask Benji is a first-of-its-kind chatbot that helps Arizona students, parents, and educators receive quick answers to questions about the FAFSA. Available 24/7, Ask Benji offers multilingual support in English and Spanish. The tool was created five years ago as a free resource to increase FAFSA awareness and completion rates in Arizona. 

Since its inception in 2019, Benji has assisted 165,000 students. 

“Completing the FAFSA is an essential first step to access thousands of dollars of grants, loans, and scholarships to help pay for education after high school,” said Rich Nickel, president and CEO of Education Forward Arizona. “Ensuring that higher learning is within financial reach makes it possible for more students to continue their postsecondary education. Arizona has everything to gain – in our economy, in our workforce, in our communities, and as individuals – when students continue their education after high school.”

The current school year will be Ask Benji’s largest yet, with 33,737 Arizona high school seniors participating from 185 partner high schools across 30 school districts statewide. Also new this year, Ask Benji will be accessible to a cohort of more than 7,000 high school juniors, giving them a jumpstart on the college preparation process. 

That’s good news, since high school seniors graduating in 2024 may benefit from Ask Benji more than ever. Historically, the FAFSA was a lengthy document with 108 questions. Now, the form has been streamlined to just 36 questions. However, changes in the way financial data and other information is collected may create more questions for families completing the form. 

High school seniors enrolled at any of the 185 partner schools across Arizona recently received a text message inviting them to take advantage of the free Ask Benji service. Interactive and reminder text messages will help the students stay updated on FAFSA, along with college and career topics, including deadline reminders and school-specific college planning events.

“There is even more to know about FAFSA overall, as the new version of the application is introduced in December,” said Jaimie Gosling, Post-Secondary Articulation Specialist at Phoenix Union High School District. “Ask Benji is a great resource for school counselors to assist students with their postsecondary education plans. It also comes in handy for families who are completing the FAFSA at night or on the weekends, when they might not have access to a FAFSA expert to ask a quick question. Ask Benji fills that gap.”

Even students at non-partner schools can tap into Ask Benji’s knowledge. A student (or parent) can simply text “Hi Benji” to (602) 786-8171, wait for a welcome message, and respond by asking questions until they have all of the information that they need to submit their application. 

Ask Benji uses Artificial Intelligence technology with its open bot platform to answer questions instantly or provide links to additional resources. As more Arizona students and parents use the free service, the tool will learn and be able to respond to more questions and unique circumstances.

“Although Benji successfully answers a majority of FAFSA questions, there are special situations that need personal attention,” said Lizette Blancas-Hernandez, a former Education Forward Arizona scholar and a recent college graduate who now serves as the engagement coordinator for the Ask Benji program. “If Benji doesn’t know an answer, a human – maybe even me – will read the question and respond with an answer as quickly as possible.”

Response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive among students and families. Among 2022-23 participants, 80% of students reported learning new information, and more than 79% of students at partner schools were engaged, whether actively or passively (the opt-out rate was below 15%).

Learn more about how to access this free tool at AskBenji.org.

Schools and districts interested in offering the free Ask Benji program to their students can contact (602) 559-4006 or email gnobles@educationforwardarizona.org