Statewide College Application and Exploration Week assists students with college prep

Article: West Virginia Executive Magazine

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Jessica Kennedy

West Virginia needs 20,000 more college graduates by 2018 to meet work force demands, but state officials say many students are skipping a critical first step in the college-planning process—submitting a college application.

To help more students complete that task, the College Foundation of West Virginia (CFWV) will host its third annual College Application and Exploration Week from October 1st-5th.

College Application and Exploration Week is a statewide outreach event during which the state’s secondary schools, higher education institutions and other community organizations focus on helping students explore their options for post-secondary education and submit college applications. The program focuses on increasing participation in education and training beyond high school by targeting students who otherwise might not apply.

Economists at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predict that within the next six years, more than 49 percent of all jobs in the state will require some form of post-secondary education, yet only 26 percent of West Virginians have earned a two-year or four-year college diploma. To bridge that gap, West Virginia needs an additional 20,000 graduates above and beyond the number it is currently expected to produce.

State higher education officials say some students who could succeed in college never make it that far, because they’re unaware of the opportunities available to them or confused by unfamiliar college and financial aid application processes.

“Students who are the first in their family to go to college can’t rely on the experience of their parents in completing the applications and forms associated with post-secondary education programs,” says Dr. Adam Green, senior director for Student Success and P-20 Initiatives at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

The Georgetown research notes that low-income students attend and graduate from four-year colleges at only about half the rate of their higher-income peers—even when the students are equally qualified academically. According to Green, helping students navigate the college preparation process could make a big difference in helping them succeed.

“Applying to college is a huge milestone,” Green says. “That seemingly small act can help transform students’ dreams into something closer to reality. It gives them a starting point and helps them build momentum in planning for their future.”

Commission staff, headed by Green, is responsible for expanding college access and supporting student success, particularly among first-generation college students, low-income students or nontraditional students such as adults who are balancing work and family responsibilities.

Green says completing a college application multiplies the impact of efforts to engage these students by expanding their support systems.

“Once a student submits an application at a college or university, the admissions and financial aid staff begin making regular contact with the applicant,” he explains. “Applying creates another touch point and another level of support to help the student overcome any obstacles he or she might face in enrolling in college.”

Schools, colleges and universities and community organizations sign up to participate in College Application and Exploration Week. Nearly 60 organizations are slated to participate in the 2012 effort.

Participating sites will host application and exploration labs to allow students to explore and apply to colleges and universities online. Participating middle and high schools will focus their work on helping seventh through 12th graders and their parents, while community organizations and institutions of higher education are targeting adults who might want to return to the classroom.

Event organizers say that College Application and Exploration Week is about more than just sitting participants down in front of a computer.

“We encourage sites to think of this as a sort of spirit week,” says Elizabeth Manuel, a regional outreach coordinator at the commission. “We want to get the whole community involved in celebrating higher education and in making the college exploration process fun and engaging.”

Many sites have activities planned to build excitement about college and increase students’ awareness of post-secondary opportunities. For example, several high schools will coordinate college scavenger hunts, during which students must ask their teachers about their college experiences to find the answers to clues. Other sites will host college trivia contests and give away door prizes donated by colleges and universities across West Virginia.

The week will culminate with College Colors Day on October 5.

“College Colors Day is a day to wear the apparel or colors of your favorite college or university,” Manuel says. “Anyone can participate in College Colors Day. We’re hoping businesses will join in the fun by encouraging their staff to wear their favorite college t-shirt or decorate their desks with items from their alma mater.”

West Virginia’s College Application and Exploration Week is part of a growing national initiative to help more students take the necessary steps to plan and apply to college. Though West Virginia was one of just nine states to coordinate the initiative in 2011, the effort has grown to include 26 states this year. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin was one of the first governors to back the effort by issuing a proclamation supporting the event in 2011.

To learn more about College Application and Exploration Week, visit the state’s free college-planning Web site, and click on the education and outreach tab.