Although not everyone knows it, there are two Super Sundays each January. Super Bowl Sunday grabs millions of viewers, but College Goal Sunday is gaining ground. While the Super Bowl results in great fame for the winning team, something more important is being achieved on College Goal Sunday for students--a future with a college degree.
The college admissions process can be daunting. And navigating financial aid forms can frustrate even the most college-savvy family. For students whose parents never attended college, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can seem like a map to an unknown country written in a foreign language. Too often, the family drops out of the college admission process.
Research has shown that the mere availability of funds isn't enough to push these students over the threshold to higher education. Finding a way to keep them from being overwhelmed by the process is how College Goal Sunday got its start, in Indiana back in 1989. It's a joint project of the Indiana Student Financial Aid Association and the State Student Assistance Commission of Indiana, with funding from Lilly Endowment.
As word of Indiana's success spread, so did the program. In 2006, 26 states will offer College Goal Sunday. New states are seed-funded by a three-year Lumina Foundation for Education grant, allowing time for development and implementation. Since 2004, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) has managed the College Goal Sunday program.
Over the years, the two main goals of the program have remained constant:
Use a variety of channels to provide families with vital information about the availability of financial aid for postsecondary education, and
Provide families with the expert assistance needed to complete the paperwork required to qualify for that aid.
Since January is prime FAFSA season, College Goal Sunday is generally scheduled for a Sunday a week or two after the NFL's Super Bowl (the exact date varies by state). During the events, financial aid professionals walk families through the entire FAFSA application step-by-step. By the time participants leave, they know how to apply, what they are applying for, and the next steps they must take to stay on track to qualify for funding.
The concept behind these programs is simple, but it takes months of planning and creativity to achieve. Tasks include applying for the grant, pulling together a task force with collaborative partners, identifying suitable program sites, developing the program itself, launching a public information campaign, delivering the program, and assessing results. NASFAA provides states with assistance in all of these areas.
Remarkably, each state's College Goal Sunday uses a workforce made entirely of volunteers. Financial aid administrators and admissions staff are an essential part of the process, helping to spread the word and giving of their time.
They are far from alone. Partners (such as the federal TRIO and Gear Up programs) work directly with the target population, helping families develop trust that can continue through the admissions process. High school guidance counselors have daily contact with students and parents and are the primary source of program information. Strategies also are designed to reach the growing population of adult students.
College Goal Sunday programs operate through state agencies, such as financial aid associations, guarantee agencies, colleges, or the state higher education commission. The applying agency must be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization or its equivalent and include higher education attainment in its mission. Because sharing resources is vital to the success of the program, collaboration with other mission-related partners is also required.
Rather than creating materials and programs and hoping to reach the target population (the "if you build it, they will come" approach), College Goal Sunday messages and outreach are based on research data. A major data source is College Access Marketing (www.collegeaccessmarketing.org), developed by College Goal Sunday national partner Pathways to College. The site contains step-by-step instructions on developing the types of public relations campaigns that have a proven track record of increasing college participation.
College Goal Sunday's own website (www.collegegoalsundayusa.org) aims to:
Provide families, students, and schools with information about the College Goal Sunday program, as well as guidance on who should attend, when and where to go, what to bring, and what to expect.
Offer guidance for current and prospective College Goal Sunday states, including information and materials such as grant applications, resources to assist in completing the applications, and models of grants from other states.
Colleges themselves can endorse the program by allotting work hours for it, as well as by opening their auditorium, classroom, and computer lab doors on a Sunday, free of charge, in order for families to complete the FAFSA form with professional assistance.
Participating financial aid administrators can meet their goal of providing access and choice to students who may otherwise be unable to attend college. Through community partnerships, the program helps aid offices reach beyond traditional "financial aid night" activities to assist families who may never have set foot on a college campus.
While interacting with aid administrators during an event, families can begin to view financial aid staff as people trying to help cut through the red tape, not create more of it. The program reaches students who might otherwise never complete the application process, facilitates the application process for both students and schools, and improves students' relationships with the student aid office on whatever campus they choose.
Participating in College Goal Sunday also offers institutions an image as active participants in the college access campaigns for the underserved population.
For all of these reasons, NASFAA encourages IHEs in states that have yet to undertake a College Goal Sunday program to establish one. Although College Goal Sunday has helped more than 100,000 students and families, there is always room to grow. Now that's super.
Marcia Weston is director of College Goal Sunday Operations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. She can be reached at WestonM@NASFAA.org.