College Goal Sunday Offers Expert Help with Financial Aid Form

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Even though the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA, has been simplified and put online, it still makes sense for youths and their families to get trained help filling out the form.

That’s the message of College Goal Sunday, the 21-year-old program that provides free assistance in helping fill out the FAFSA.

Those in the field of college access agree.

“Even though the U.S. Department of education has moved to simplify the FASFA and the process, it still can be quite intimidating to a lot of families,” said Theresa Atta, executive director of Collegiate Directions Inc. of Bethesda, Md.

“In a lot of ways, [College Goal Sunday] provides a support system to make sure there is a supportive environment where parents and students can come and complete the FAFSA with the ability to ask questions on the spot of trained financial aid professionals,” she said.

Atta, whose organization provides volunteers for College Goal Sunday, says the program’s impact can be seen in the growing number of similar financial aid assistance events.

The program – which kicks into high gear around Super Bowl Sunday and continues through late spring as state financial aid deadlines loom – is meant to help youths overcome two major barriers to higher education: the lack of money for college and the complexity of the federal student aid form.

As more and more students seek financial aid, the program is positioning itself to play a key role in efforts by the federal government and various foundations meant to “double the numbers” of college graduates in the United States over the next decade.

Marcia E. Weston, director of College Goal Sunday Operations for the YMCA of the USA, which recently took over College Goal Sunday, said the program will remain relevant despite continuing efforts to make the FAFSA easier to complete.  Innovations in FAFSA include using computer software to capture  income data on tax forms on file at the IRS for the aid form, which requires much of the same information.

“Our goals are to continue to make sure that students and families from underserved populations receive the information they need to access financial aid resources, regardless of what the process is,” Weston said. “So we are positioning ourselves to be ready to help them access those financial aid resources each year.”

The “target population” of College Goal Sunday is youths between 18 and 24 who are racial or ethnic minorities, first-generation college students or from low-income households, defined as $40,000 annual income or less.

Last year, College Goal Sunday served an estimated 42,100 students at 701 sites in 37 states, dramatically more than in 2006, when there were 255 sites in 22 states. This year, the number of participating states has grown to 39. The number of sites won’t be tallied until later this year, according to the YMCA.

The YMCA declined a request for information on the annual cost of sponsoring College Goal Sunday. The Lumina Foundation for Education announced last year that it decided to move the program to the YMCA and was providing a $5 million three-year grant to run the program starting this year. Previously, the program had been run by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). The move was made to the YMCA because it was felt the YMCA was more community-based and could reach more families.

Historically, the program has relied on volunteers, about 9,000 of them. Each volunteer  undergoes training in the FAFSA. The training is currently conducted by Mapping Your Future, a national nonprofit organization that provides career, college, financial aid, and financial literacy services.

Some sites and some states are better at reaching the target population than others, according to the 2009 program evaluation by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP). But overall, the evaluation states, College Goal Sunday is “moving in a positive direction.”

 “The program has grown, at times dramatically, each year since its inception but advances in reaching the target population have not followed suit,” the evaluation states. “Moving forward, the program needs to decide whether breadth is more compatible with the [College Goal Sunday] mission than depth.”

The evaluation recommends a series of low-cost strategies to help program coordinators better reach nontraditional students in the target population.

Though the strategies were formulated to improve College Goal Sunday, they are useful for any agency dedicated to helping young people secure financial aid for college.

The strategies include:

  • Adopting more “targeted approaches,” such as focusing awareness campaigns on bowling alleys, malls, grocery stores, tattoo parlors and beauty salons.
  • Shunning the “costly media blitzes” and instead adopting grassroots approaches that can spread the word more directly to high schools and community colleges, as well as focusing on specific geographic or cultural communities.
  • Using trusted “keepers” or “conduits” of information, such as high school counselors, local radio personalities, religious leaders or former program participants.
  • Recruiting former College Goal Sunday participants to help offset the “burnout” factor among veteran volunteers.
  • Strengthening and streamlining volunteer signup with online resources, including social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace.
  • Providing services throughout the year, particularly during February and March, rather than on a single day.
  • Offsetting the negative effect of dwindling external funding by searching for organizations with "like" missions as a way to leverage resources and possibly expand services.