THE BLOG
10/28/2014 04:50 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

National College Application Assistance Campaign Changes Lives

It is not always easy to identify a life-changing moment, but 21-year-old Garrett Seay of Sturgis, KY, has no problem pointing to just such an occasion for both him and his twin brother, Jarrett.

During the fall of 2011, the high school seniors very much wanted to go to college but found the application process daunting. Now a junior at the University of Louisville majoring in geography, Seay credits the Kentucky College Application campaign with giving the brothers the information--and confidence--they needed to successfully apply to Louisville and Murray State University (KY)--and set them on the track to obtain the financial aid they needed to enroll.

Their father, a Vietnam veteran, had died a few years earlier and their mother was struggling to provide for her family on half the income. But the application campaign counselor at Union County High School helped them apply to college and understand that because they had good grades there was an excellent chance of also receiving generous institutional aid.

"If you are low-income and think there is no way, there is a way," Seay said. "Kids don't realize the chances they have. That's why I always want to talk about application week. It should be in every school and every kid should have the ability to look up to someone and say, 'how do I do this? How do I get help?' There is no way I would have made it to college without it."

The application campaign has been so successful in Kentucky that it went from being a week-long initiative when the Seay brothers participated to a solid month at many high schools throughout that state.

Unfortunately, not every student nationwide has access to an application campaign event in his or her high school. But thanks to the American College Application Campaign (ACAC), almost 200,000 students across all 50 states this fall will receive the help in applying to college that so changed the lives of Garrett and his brother.

My organization, the American Council on Education (ACE) convened a steering committee of government and non-profit education leaders in 2010 to turn ACAC into a nationwide initiative. Helping more Americans gain access to and graduate from college is embedded in ACE's very DNA--stretching back to our formation in 1918 to aid soldiers who returned from World War I to a tough economy. We were then called the Emergency Council on Education because raising the education attainment of those veterans was an economic imperative.

There is no less of a national imperative today to ensure that more Americans gain access to the high-quality postsecondary education needed to successfully navigate today's global economy.

That is why ACE formed our joint venture with Pearson in 2011 to create the new GED Testing Service, which earlier this year launched a new GED program that helps prepare test-takers for the college and career programs required for most of today's jobs.

ACAC is another key part of ACE's drive to help meet national college attainment goals and produce the well-educated work force that this country needs to compete globally. It is also an important tool to ensure our colleges and universities have access to a diverse pool of applicants, and a way to match economically disadvantaged students who know a college degree is vital in today's world with the institutions that can make that aspiration a reality.

The response to this initiative around the country has been striking.

What became the American College Application Campaign began in a single North Carolina high school in 2005, with the goal of increasing the number of first-generation and low-income students pursuing a college degree or other higher education credential. ACAC now also helps students take the first step in applying for federal financial student aid.

The application campaigns are run independently in each state, with various public and private entities organizing the effort with technical assistance from ACAC. Application events are held at high schools, during the school day.

Seed funding was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation and The Kresge Foundation. Bank of America, the College Board and USA Funds also have been supporters, and as ACAC continues to grow it is expanding strategic alliances with organizations in the philanthropic, business and education communities.

Thanks to that generous assistance, the campaign has grown significantly just since last fall, when 39 states and the District of Columbia participated, involving over 2,500 schools, 150,000 students, and 220,000 college applications.

About 10 percent of public high schools nationwide currently participate, but by 2020, ACAC is projected to reach 80 percent of high schools nationwide, resulting in the participation of 1.5 million students who otherwise might not have applied for college. In North Carolina, where ACAC reaches about 85 percent of all public high schools, 74 percent of students who participate in the program ultimately enroll in college.

Just applying to college can loom as a seemingly insurmountable hurdle for too many students. ACAC's goal is to lower those barriers and show first-generation and low-income students around the country that there is indeed a way to get the help you need to apply to college and pursue a life-changing education.