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Bringing Students Together Creates College Application Success

By: Lisa King, director, American College Application Campaign

A key to the success of educators working to increase the number of first-generation college students and students from low-income families pursuing a college degree or other higher education credential is how they creatively hold events, from large to small. This is exemplified by the recent winners of the third annual School of Excellence awards, an initiative of the American College Application Campaign (ACAC) that honors schools across the country that are helping students pursue postsecondary success.

While these application events often take place from September through December, a growing number of schools and even some colleges are gathering students in the spring to remind them that there’s still time to apply. But regardless of the timing, school counselors and college and career readiness teachers and coaches stress the importance of including all students — and their families — in college preparation opportunities.

Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, was named a 2021 School of Excellence, in part because of its ability to bring students together as part of this national effort.

Samina Ali, a counselor at the high school, says she’s most proud of its annual Scholarship and Financial Aid Night, where students and families are invited to meet with scholarship representatives, community partners, higher education admissions representatives, financial aid officers, language translators, and school staff.

“At this event, we work at completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and Minnesota Dream Act forms,” Ali explained. “We’re data-driven and follow up with students who need to complete college applications and other items for higher education. This is done through ongoing workshops, individual student meetings, group meetings, going into the classrooms to meet with students, and continuous work with our community and partners.”

Ali believes in forming partnerships with colleges, financial aid offices, and school staff so everyone understands the families’ needs.

“It’s very important to make accommodations and to find resources for students and families to overcome any barriers to applying for education, such as language, financial concerns, and being the first in their family to go to college,” she said. Because they work with many first-generation students, counselors strive to include parents in these conversations, as well.

Including parents is important to maximize the effectiveness of college preparation opportunities, according to recent ACT survey data. ACT recommends that high schools help students as well as their families understand why these opportunities are helpful and what college-related information they provide.

Roderick Moore takes a similar approach, but his school’s college application event went one step further by opening it up to all high school students from across the district. Moore is a college and career readiness teacher at Forest Hill High School in Jackson, Mississippi, another 2021 School of Excellence.

“Many of the students have no idea about the college and universities within a 25-mile radius of the Jackson area. This college application event attracted colleges from Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia,” he said. “My advice to any colleagues who are considering starting a college application event is, don’t be afraid to start small. Just begin by making a call to the admissions office at one college. Planning and organizing are important but don’t feel overwhelmed. Create a team to help plan a successful college application day.”
More than 40 students attended Tuckerman High School's College 101 Night, the school's 2021 ACAC kickoff event. Colleges and military representatives from around the state of Arkansas were there to meet with students. Federal, state, and local financial aid resources were also available. (Credit: Tuckerman High School)

Each year, School of Excellence award-winner Tuckerman High School in Tuckerman, Arkansas, hosts a College 101 Night for juniors, seniors and parents. College and career coach Michael Smith surveys students to determine which colleges they would like to hear from, following another ACT recommendation for improving college preparation opportunities: personalizing support based on student feedback. Smith then invites those colleges’ recruiters to attend the event and interact with interested and eager students. He also tries to organize campus trips, so students can see college life for themselves.

Mason City High School counselor Karla Wymore in Mason City, Iowa, uses a different approach.

“We’re so fortunate to be able to allow students time within a class period to apply to at least one college,” she said. “We know that when left to do it on their own, students tend to put it off, so allowing time within a specific class period is key.”

Wymore believes it’s important for students to apply to at least one college, even if they don't think they are going to go to college. That way, they still have options.

These efforts are just a sample of what schools have been able to accomplish. Overall, ACAC’s 2021 annual survey found that 45 state campaigns achieved the following:
  • nearly 5,170 high schools hosted a College Application Campaign event;
  • more than 222,600 seniors submitted at least one college application during events; and
  • roughly 460,600 applications were submitted during 2021 College Application Campaign events.
Whether it’s a large assembly or dedicated classroom time, all these schools have shown that a strategic approach is important to helping students on their path to postsecondary and career success.