Last year, Aiken Technical College, in South Carolina, launched an initiative with the Aiken County Public School District to increase the number of Aiken County residents with a postsecondary credential. Since 2014, the program, called Within Reach, has resulted in nearly a 20 percent increase in enrollment of students at Aiken Tech directly from high school, says President Susan Winsor.
Within Reach includes scholarships from Aiken Tech’s foundation, regular interaction with high school students and financial-aid workshops, among other efforts.
Winsor says she was inspired to act when she saw 2014 data showing that Aiken County lagged behind the national average and also the rest of South Carolina, in terms of the percentage of people with at least an associate degree.
“That caused me to approach the superintendent of schools and say, ‘We need to do better. What can we do?’” Winsor says.
In partnership with then-Superintendent Elizabeth Everitt, Winsor and her team convened a series of focus groups in fall 2014 to explore how the two-year college and the school system could work together to improve college access and enrollment. From those focus groups, three key ideas emerged:
1. Aiken Tech and the local school system would use data from high school counselors to identify students who did not have a strong postsecondary plan and then provide more “intrusive guidance” to help those students learn about their options.
On an almost weekly basis, Aiken Tech advisers visit the county’s high schools and meet with these students to go over their interests and achievement scores, explore their career options and help guide them through the college application process.
“We want to get that forward momentum going,” Winsor says. “Obviously, the longer students wait after high school before enrolling in college, the less likely they are to graduate. We’re trying not to let that time gap happen.”
2. The college would work with the school district to identify students who have attained certain technical competencies while still in high school and make sure that technical advanced-placement credit has been applied.
3. The college would provide financial-aid planning assistance and scholarships for students who enroll directly after high school.
“Family finances came out as a huge issue in planning for higher education,” Winsor says. “We knew that was an issue, but it came out even more strongly in our conversations with school personnel. That caused us to commit to offering financial-aid planning sessions in the high schools, and we’ve evolved even further from that. I also challenged our foundation to raise $25,000 to offer 25 $1,000 scholarships for students coming directly from high school, to try to fill that financial gap — particularly for families who are not quite Pell eligible but still have a hard time with tuition and books.”
Everitt retired from the school system last July, but her successor, Superintendent Sean Alford, has demonstrated the same commitment to the Within Reach initiative. In fact, the program expanded in February with a series of “Instant Decision Days” at each of the county’s seven high schools.
During these Instant Decision Days, Aiken Tech sent a team of advisers to meet with students and offer them an instant decision on enrollment, based on their ACT scores. The advisers also helped students use an app called AwardSpring to apply for scholarships from Aiken Tech’s foundation and other sources. As a result of these efforts, scholarship applications to the college jumped from 100 in 2015 to nearly 500 this year, thus far.
What have been some of the program’s keys to success? “Having willing leadership among both the college and the school district is important,” Winsor says, and she cites the use of joint planning teams as critical to ensuring that ideas were well executed.
Creating strong relationships between college and district personnel has been instrumental as well. “I think that comes with more frequent communication,” Winsor said. “Having more frequent interaction of college and K–12 personnel has allowed us to build those deep relationships.”