Financial Aid Program Expected to Reach More Students through YMCA

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Students and families looking for College Goal Sunday - the volunteer program that offers help  filling out the much-dreaded Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA - should check in with their local YMCA.

The Lumina Foundation for Education announced this week that it is moving the soon-to-be 20-year-old program to YMCA USA and providing a $5 million three-year grant to run the program starting in 2010.

The YMCA was tapped to run the program because it is community-based and can reach more students than the program reached under its previous administrator, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NAFSAA), those familiar with the move say.

The hope is that by moving the program from NASFAA to the YMCA, that the YMCA will be able to offer College Goal Sunday to tens of thousands more students by making it available to the children and families the YMCA already serves. YMCA currently has nearly 21 million members, roughly half of whom are 17 or younger.

"Since local Y's already work with community members, families and students, they already have a reach that College Goal Sunday may not have," says Johnavae Campbell, deputy director of College Goal Sunday Operations for the YMCA of the USA in Washington, D.C.

"So the idea is that by partnering, we're leveraging each other's strength," she said of College Goal Sunday and the YMCA.

Campbell ran College Goal Sunday for NAFSAA, which was reaching roughly 35,000 students a year with the program in 37 states and the District of Columbia,  according to Lumina. When Lumina decided to move the program to the YMCA, Campbell and her boss, Marcia Weston, now director of College Goal Sunday Operations of the YMCA of the USA in North Carolina, moved over to the YMCA with it.

The decision to give the program to YMCA to run didn't have anything to do with NAFSAA's performance, a Lumina spokeswoman said.

"They were strong partners," Jeanna Keller, program officer for Lumina, said of NAFSAA. Under NAFSAA's tenure with the program, Keller said, the program grew from 10 states to 35.

"Our track record was pretty successful with the program," said Haley Chitty, a NAFSAA spokesman who also used to volunteer for College Goal Sunday in Washington, D.C.

He said the decision to move the program over to the YMCA makes sense.

"If you think about, financial aid administrators have the most direct contact with college students, which is good," Chitty said. "But thinking of college access in a broader sense, you're looking at instilling a college-going attitude at the elementary school, middle school and earlier ages, and in that sense, a group like the YMCA might have greater access to these students than, say, a financial aid administrator, who is going to see the students right around college age."

Contrary to its name, College Goal Sunday - typically a one-day event - doesn't always take place on Sunday. Localities have the flexibility to offer the program whenever they see fit.

The program typically becomes active shortly after the Super Bowl, so in a practical sense, not much visible activity will be taking place anytime soon. However, since local YMCA's will be running the program,  some behind-the-scenes planning will be taking place in the coming weeks and months to make sure the program runs smoothly and becomes more viable now that it's in-house at the YMCA.

Keller says an implementation task force will be formed soon and that no goals have been set yet in terms of how many more students College Goal Sunday will reach through the YMCA. Campbell says historically, College Goal Sunday has relied upon 9,000 volunteers, so in the coming years, the program may require as many as 15,000. Keller predicts that many of those volunteers will be found in the network of volunteers already in place at the YMCA.

Research has shown that the process of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is such a daunting process that some students are dissuaded from going to college.

One study found that due to the complex nature of the system and the lack of information about the availability of financial aid for college, 850,000 students who would have been eligible for federal financial aid in 2000 did not complete the necessary forms to receive it.

College Goal Sunday is one of several efforts aimed at overcoming this barrier. Another project known as the FAFSA H&R Block Experiment seeks to simplify the process by using software to transfer the required information from federal tax forms to the FAFSA, which require much of the same information. (See "Project Offers Help for Getting Financial Aid," March 2009).