Early Awareness Programs Vary, But Share One Goal

August 28, 2015

By Liz Glaser - Graduate Research Assistant

For students whose parents went to college, there is rarely a question that they too will go. For students who are first in the family to attend college, the question of "if" not "when" can persist right up until the first day of class. An ever-growing group of early awareness programs are developing around the country to help set the expectation of college for low-income and first-generation students. Their strategies and outcomes vary, but all are intended to help students and parents make a behavioral commitment to postsecondary education early enough to take required college preparatory coursework. Some programs involve an early commitment of aid by a state or city to a student; others involve a savings program where a student’s savings are matched by a government or private donor. But they all have one goal in common: helping families to know that college is a real option for their students.

This common goal guides the work of many organizations, and the diversity of programs shows that the strategies used to secure a commitment to postsecondary education span a broad range. From simple awareness campaigns to comprehensive “promise programs,” early awareness programs can cultivate expectations of college. We’ll be introducing the scale of programs in today’s blog post, and we’ll be diving into more in-depth profiles throughout the year.

At one end of the spectrum, we have straightforward awareness campaigns. Workshops, presented by college access groups like the I Know I Can program in Columbus Public Schools, can introduce college early to students from underrepresented groups. Flyers and posters put up in middle schools can be found on sites from various organizations or school districts such as Montgomery County Public Schools. School partner programs like the Access College Foundation can host information nights inside middle schools to spark college interest early. These are useful, but also highlight the need for comprehensive community outreach and wide-reaching college access programs that make college a tangible reality.

For students who have already decided that college is a “when,” not an “if,” the high costs of education can be battled by saving early. College savings accounts, such as 529 plans, are geared more for middle-and upper-income students. Individual development accounts, known as IDAs, are designed more for low-income students. These accounts often have matching programs, which vary based on the sponsor of the account. Virginia’s VIDA program empowers families to save earned income into their VIDA and have it matched. Paired with the right college access program, these accounts can help ease financial burden in the future.

Some programs fall in the middle of the scale: GEAR UP, a federally funded intervention program, starts working with students as early as sixth grade on academic achievement. Tutoring and mentoring combine to help students succeed in school, and they also help students learn about college, financial aid, and scholarship opportunities.  These college access programs are a more rounded approach to improving the academic and life skills for low-income students, but generally do not include funding or financial help for college, though they help students find different avenues for scholarships.

Moving along to the financial-support side of the spectrum, we find commitment programs like Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars. These start in seventh or eighth grade, when students sign a pledge to follow a set of guidelines, to succeed academically, and attend a postsecondary institution. The Washington Achievement Council's College Bound is another commitment group, encouraging students to find the right supports and set high expectations for themselves. If students complete these pledges, they earn reduced or free tuition to participating schools. While there are both private organizations and government organizations doing this work, public-private partnership among commitment programs are extremely important by increasing publicity and awareness about these programs, because they are only effective when students know about them early enough to participate. 

At the other end of the early-awareness scale, there are guaranteed tuition programs, or “promise programs”, which include the Kalamazoo Promise, a public organization, and the “I Have a Dream Program,” managed by a private group. Programs like these target students early and are inclusive, long-term, and committed to covering the costs of education under a very simple set of conditions. Promise programs can inspire entire towns to improve their college attendance rates because they usually include every public school student in a specific district or city. They uniquely help make college a reality for many low-income or first-generation students simply by taking money off the table and focusing on academic achievement. 

Throughout this fall, NCAN will profile a variety of programs that fall on this spectrum. By highlighting these diverse programs, we hope to show the important and enriching work that many different organizations are doing. Stay tuned for more posts in upcoming weeks for specific programs or reach out to discuss yours. We’ll be highlighting some of our unique and successful member organizations!


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