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Making the College Application Process Accessible for All Students

By Emily Rogan

The American College Application Campaign is helping low-income and first-generation students across the country apply for college.

By 2020, most U.S. jobs will require some form of postsecondary education. If nothing changes, the country will fall short of the qualified workers it needs by 5 million, according to Georgetown University researchers.

Therefore, it’s more important than ever that all high school seniors understand their pathways to a higher-education credential or degree. However, low-income and minority students who are the first in their families to attend college often need extra help with the college application process.

“Trying to navigate this whole admissions process can be daunting, especially if you’ve never had someone in your family go through it before,” says Bobby Kanoy, senior fellow with the American Council on Education (ACE) and head ACE’s American College Application Campaign (ACAC). “These kids have the ability to do this, but they don’t have the adult help.”

That’s where ACAC comes in.

How ACAC is helping

ACAC began in 2005, helping low-income and first-generation students at one North Carolina high school apply to college. Today, the campaign exists in all 50 states, and more than 4,000 high schools participated in 2014.

Funded by several public and private foundations and grants, ACAC operates at the state level. It starts with the formation of a steering committee, which includes K-12 educators, representatives from the governor’s office, leaders from the state’s public and private four- and two-year colleges, and college admissions staff and advisers. ACAC staff provides ongoing training, consultation and support, but each state determines how its independent campaigns will work at the local level.

At ACAC events, which occur on a day or over a week in October or November, trained volunteers work with small groups of high school students to help them submit at least one college application. The volunteers are often retired teachers, guidance counselors or graduate students.

So that their applications can be completed in that one sitting, students are told ahead of time what information they will need to bring. Students write their personal statements beforehand in English classes.

“What is my SSN?” or “What term am I applying for?” are not unusual questions from the participating students. “The students are eager to get the help,” Kanoy says.

And ACAC ensures that help is accessible. “We stress that these events must take place during the school day, not on weekends or evenings,” when sibling care, transportation or jobs may interfere, Kanoy says.

After students submit their college applications, the volunteers can help them set up their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) accounts as well.

Program results

At community colleges, “the feedback has been great,” Kanoy says. “Students are getting their applications in well in advance and are more likely to get Pell Grant money.”

ACAC is currently investigating a cost-effective way to track enrollment that has resulted from the program. In North Carolina, where the statewide portal for all 110 colleges and universities makes it easy to cull student data, roughly 74 percent of students who received help from ACAC enrolled in the fall 2013 term.

The beauty of ACAC is its simplicity, Kanoy says. “If students come in with all their information, they can submit an application in an hour.” The program costs nothing and grows “organically and pretty dramatically,” he says, because high school juniors observe the seniors’ experiences and parents begin to request it.

ACAC’s data bears that out:

  • In 2013, 13 New York high schools participated in the pilot. In 2014, there were 209 participating high schools.
  • Michigan began with 30 pilot programs in 2010. In 2014, there were 295 participating high schools.
  • In 2014, more than 200,000 students across the country submitted 300,000 college applications.

“It’s rewarding to talk to students and hear their stories years later,” Kanoy says. “They had potential. This was a stumbling block, and they didn’t know who to ask for help.

Have you seen ACAC increase the number of students at your community college? Tell us about it in the Comments.

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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