February 16, 2022

It takes a village: Helping students navigate the path to college

8 college going resources making a difference for Arizona students

A college education can change the entire trajectory of a student’s life—including average lifetime earnings of $1 million more for those with a bachelor’s degree compared to those with a high school diploma—but the path to earning a degree can seem impossible for many students.   

We often hear the saying, “It takes a village” and Education Forward Arizona is part of the village of support helping students to prepare for and succeed in college.  

Through our programs and services, we’re addressing the three major barriers that many students face: access to college preparation services, paying for school and support while in college.  

Here’s how each barrier is impacting Arizona students and the resources available to overcome them and ultimately reach our statewide Achieve60AZ goal to have 60% of Arizona adults holding a college degree, professional certificate or license.  

College Readiness

College readiness and post-secondary goal setting is often the first barrier to setting students on the path towards attainment. 

In a recent survey, 25% of Arizona parents said they do not have a family member who knows the college preparation process, but nearly all of them identified counselors as the most helpful resource for college information.  

During the 2020-2021 school year, Arizona had a student-to-counselor ratio of 716-to-1, the worst in the nation, and far below the national average of 427-to-1 and the recommended ratio of 250-to-1. 

With school counselors stretched so thin, college readiness programs and groups like College Knowing & Going (CKG), AdviseAZ and the Arizona College Access Network are working to fill the gaps. 

College Knowing & Going (CKG) College Readiness Team Project (CRT)

The CKG College Readiness Team Project was created by the Helios Education Foundation and is led by Education Forward Arizona to develop a comprehensive, data-driven, student-centered approach to college readiness at 40 high schools in Arizona. 

Each CRT team—made up of a high school administrator, counselor, teacher, AmeriCorps AdviseAZ member, community member, CKG coordinator and a CKG Student Ambassador—collaborates to identify effective strategies for increasing college readiness and access as well as strengthening the college-going culture in ways that are specific to the needs of their community. 

One of the most innovative ways CKG teams create a positive impact at their schools is through student ambassadors who help their peers with the college preparation process.  

“Having this program at my school benefits the students who have no idea what they want to do for a postsecondary education,” said Nogales High School Student Ambassador, Juan Mezquita. “Student ambassadors are a huge help because students are more likely to listen to someone that is in the same situation as them.” 


Similarly, Education Forward Arizona’s AdviseAZ AmeriCorps program places current college students or recent college graduates in high schools across the state to act as near-peer mentors and advisers.  

These advisers work alongside high school counselors and staff to help students navigate the complexities of the college exploration and application process, through one-on-one student advising, workshops for students and families, college application help, FAFSA completion services, ACT preparation, and more. 

“I really didn’t have anyone to help me with college readiness material. I kind of had to figure it out on my own,” said AdviseAZ Member Cheyne Lowry. “One of the main reasons that I became an AdviseAZ member was so seniors at my high school now do not have to be alone in the process.  Not only does it guide students to reach their goals but it provides them with someone who can share experiences and give them advice for life after graduating high school.”

The Arizona College Access Network (AzCAN) 

Another resource is the Arizona College Access Network (AzCAN), which is a community of college access professionals committed to closing the education attainment gap in Arizona.  

AzCAN’s primary work is providing College Access Professional (CAP) training, which helps counselors, educators and other college access professionals better prepare students for the college-going process, particularly students in poverty or facing other barriers in postsecondary planning.  

“The framework of AzCAN has given our counseling department a platform for planning and developing a campus-wide college-going culture,” said Cibola High School Counselor Kari Lofton. “We are promoting college attainment for all students and the tools they have provided us with have served as a catapult for implementing new activities.” 

Paying for College 

For many students, the idea of paying for college can be overwhelming, with an annual price tag of $3,000 to $15,000 to attend one of Arizona’s public colleges or universities (including tuition and living expenses), according to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard.  

While affording college may seem unfathomable, there are a variety of resources that can help make it possible, especially for students from low-income families. 

Ask Benji – Arizona’s Digital FAFSA Assistant 

The first and most effective step in helping students, especially those from low-income families, get financial aid for college is by completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  

In fact, students secure an average of $10,000 per year in federal financial aid just by completing the FAFSA, but just 46% of Arizona high school students completed the form last year!  

FAFSA help is available 24/7 to students and families who need it by simply texting Benji—an artificial intelligence chatbot specifically designed to help Arizona students, parents and educators get quick answers to a wide variety of questions about the FAFSA.  

“I think Benji is super awesome and it really does a great job at giving you the information that you need,” added Arizona State University Student Leslie Flores. 

While Benji is currently partnered with more than 110 schools and serves 25,000 students across Arizona, anyone can receive help by texting “Hey Benji” to 602-786-8171. 

State Promise Program Expansion + Other Funding Resources

The Arizona Promise Program

New this year, the Arizona Promise Program will make state university costs more affordable for thousands of students who qualify for the maximum federal Pell Grant award.  

Students typically qualify if their family’s income is less than around $27,000 and if they meet certain requirements. The Arizona Promise Program then provides funds to cover the rest of their tuition and fees not covered by the Pell grants or other financial aid. 

The maximum Pell award for this school year is $6,495, so the state-funded Promise Program can help students significantly, considering resident state tuition can be as high as $12,700. 

While the Promise Program was initially funded at $7 million, we’re advocating for Arizona to expand the Arizona Promise Program to at least $25 million annually. Lend your voice of support by emailing your legislators here

Scholarships + Grants

The biggest difference between scholarships and grants is that grants are usually need-based whereas scholarships can be need-based or merit-based. However, both are free money that students won’t have to pay back, unlike loans.  

Grants for college include the Federal Pell Grant, Arizona Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership, Academic Competitiveness Grants and National SMART Grants.  

Filling out the FAFSA is the easiest way for students to find out which financial aid opportunities they qualify for. 

Education Forward Arizona and our partners offer scholarships available to many Arizona students. Resources like College Depot can also help students find scholarship opportunities they qualify for.   

Grant Resources: 

Scholarship Resources: 

School Specific Scholarships and Grants:

  • Students should check with the financial aid department of their selected school to identify other grant and scholarship opportunities available to them.

Work Study Programs

When filling out the FAFSA, students can also indicate their openness to work-study opportunities. This will help students find part-time jobs while enrolled in school and earn money to help pay for educational expenses. When possible, the jobs offered are in civic education or work related to the student’s course of study. Students who do not qualify for work-study opportunities can still find other employment opportunities through their school of choice, whether on- or off-campus. 

Completing College

It’s an unfortunate reality that many students who start college don’t finish.  

Among Arizona’s 2015 high school graduates, the group now reaching six-years post high school completion, just 27.4% have completed a two- or four-year degree program. 

In a recent national survey, a majority of students cite financial problems or personal and family obligations as reasons for leaving college, but more than half believe workshops to address their struggles and counseling could have helped to keep them engaged in their college goals.

Success Advisers Offer Support

At Education Forward Arizona, we offer support to qualifying college students through our College Success Services program.  

By partnering with one of our Success Advisers, students benefit from a personal adviser helping them to navigate the challenges of academic life and work. 

Our Success Advisers help provide support in overcoming barriers, assist students in making connections with campus resources and navigating through college using mentoring sessions, goal setting, career counseling and more.  

“Years after having graduated from college, I’m still close to my Success Adviser. I think that’s a bond that speaks for itself. He kept me accountable, was someone I could talk to and provided the moral support I needed to complete my degree. Both his guidance, and the scholarship from Education Forward Arizona were so valuable,” said Naiby Rodriguez, University of Arizona class of 2016.  

Working Together

The path to earning a college degree is no easy feat when tackled alone. Students must be prepared and ready to apply, secure financial aid, and complete their degree requirements while facing life challenges, but there is help along the way. Together, with our partners, Education Forward Arizona will continue working to ensure all Arizona students have the opportunity to achieve their educational goals.