College Possible Chief Program Officer Traci Kirtley and College Possible alum and coach Ha-Quyen Nguyen met with Capitol Hill staffers during NCAN's 2019 Hill Day advocacy event.
College Possible, an NCAN member and advocacy grantee, uses near-peer coaches, a research-based curriculum, and a peer support network to serve about 20,000 high school students from low-income backgrounds in seven cities – Chicago, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Omaha, Oregon, Philadelphia, and Washington. While the organization is primarily focused on direct student service, the decreasing affordability of higher education motivated College Possible to get involved in the advocacy space.
College Possible started nearly two decades ago, and since then, the skyrocketing price of tuition and fees, room and board, and other expenses has limited postsecondary options for the students it serves. In fact, only about 27% of four-year public institutions were affordable to the average Pell Grant recipient in 2016-17, according to NCAN research.
The folks at College Possible wanted to speak out and advocate for their students, so they created a policy committee made up of staff member volunteers from each of its sites. The goal of the committee was to build skills for effectively engaging in policy conversations, covering topics such as the power of personal storytelling. Since the committee began, College Possible has participated in numerous conversations in the policy space, covering topics such as FAFSA verification and Pell Grant funding. The organization even created two videos that outline these two key policy issues: The Pell Grant – Closing the Financial Gap and FAFSA – Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The videos include the voices of College Possible staff members from multiple cities.
Traci Kirtley, chief program officer and lead for College Possible’s advocacy work, pointed out that almost all of College Possible’s sites have at least one representative on the policy committee.
Another policy achievement for College Possible was that several of its staff members attended their first NCAN Hill Day – an advocacy training event that culminated in meetings with federal policymakers and their staff. Hill staffers were shocked to hear about how strenuous the process of FAFSA verification can be for students. "It was obvious “why [Congress] can’t solve the problem in the first place, they didn’t know there was one," said Kirtley.
In the future, College Possible hopes to use the volunteer staff members from each site to build out the next layer of advocacy-focused leadership and assemble more spokespeople for the issues that affect their students. The organization was able to start with a more narrow focus (e.g. FAFSA verification and Pell Grant awareness) but wants to expand to how students pay for college overall.
Is your organization looking to get involved in advocacy? Here is Kirtley’s advice to organizations that want to better leverage their students' stories to influence policy:
Start small. Policy can be intimidating, but you can pick topics you know a lot about and go from there.
Don't reinvent the wheel. Find a way to do work with the resources you have.
Know that policy work takes patience, but there are people who can help you. Every congressional office has staffers based in a member's district, and it’s their job to connect you, the constituents, to the policymakers.