03/11/2013 03:11 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

Increasing Higher Education Completion

For first-generation students, navigating the college process can seem like an impossible task. Although in Illinois 40.8 percent of the population has a post-secondary credential, some students struggle with getting their first steps for higher education. Complicating matters even more, students from first-generation families often struggle with planning for college, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and applying to college when compared to their more affluent peers. That is why in Illinois, the ISACorps looks to not only address that issue, but build a stronger workforce because of their efforts.

In 2009, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) created the ISACorps program. Funded by the College Access Challenge Grant Program from the U.S. Department of Education, this statewide near-peer mentoring group brought on nearly 80 recent college graduates to work in every community college district across the state. After an intensive two-month training period in many aspects of the higher education planning process, and barriers to college, these mentors go into every community in Illinois and look to increase those who pursue a post-secondary credential. Working with high school students, families, or those who are looking to go back to complete a post-secondary credential, the Corps focuses on helping those especially coming from first-generation backgrounds.

The program is one of the many ways ISAC is trying to raise post-secondary completion rates to 60 percent by 2025. But the immediate interactions and effectiveness of the program is hard to ignore. During the 2011-12 school year, ISACorps mentors assisted with the completion of more than 5,000 FAFSAs. In the first half of 2012-13 school year, the ISACorps conducted more than 2,100 outreach events and directly interacted with more than 55,000 students and 12,000 parents. These interactions range from career exploration, college selection, test preparation, scholarship searches, application completion, and the financial aid process.

The Corps is a community-based grassroots outreach program, the guiding principles and practices of which have been based on the diffusion model of innovation. Use of the diffusion model, which can be most often observed in public health campaigns, requires a high-level of homogeneity between the mentor and mentee. As such, every effort is made to recruit Corps members who are first generation college students from Illinois and from the community in which they will serve. Corps members spend 50 percent of their time working in the highest need high schools in their district and 50 percent of their time in other community-based organizations and locations.

This division of efforts is constructed primarily to better reach students who, because they do not consider themselves college-bound, consistently resist college planning services and messaging within a school setting. In addition, a community-wide effort also reaches the adults who support the students within the target audience as well as those adults who are themselves in need of college and career planning assistance. Using the impact data from the United Way Common Good Forecaster, ISACorps mentors spread the importance of higher education to numerous community organizations, businesses, and local government entities. Mentors raise awareness and try to impact even more individuals when showing the improvements degree attainment has on aspects of health, crime, and community involvement. By utilizing the College Changes Everything message, a college access movement of ISAC, ISACorps Members are able to engage stakeholders in the importance and relevance of countless college access issues.

When shaping the ISACorps, Eddie Brambila and Jacqueline Moreno, managing directors at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, put an emphasis on the near-peer mentoring aspect of the program. These mentors have firsthand and recent experience working with financial aid and admissions offices from a variety of institutions. Their personal narratives play a critical role in being an effective mentor that first-generation students can relate to.

After completing the program many ISACorps members continue their careers by taking jobs in higher education or pursuing careers at nonprofits. Employers, particularly at the institutional level, note that the experienced gained while a member of the ISACorps is integral to assisting students at the campus level. Students who have been mentored by ISACorps mentors continue to receive support during and after college through a host of programs offered by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission including scholarships and career planning tools.

For more information on the ISACorps visit