Behind College AIM’s push for need-based aid in Georgia: A student perspective
By Kamore Campbell, College AIM Collegian and American University, Class of 2024 and Sam Aleinikoff, founder and executive director, College AIM
I grew up on the eastside of Atlanta, where I attended local public schools. College was always my goal, so in 11th grade I began a dual enrollment program to work towards my first degree. At the same time, I took AP classes, captained the cheer team, played basketball and held a part-time job. I also joined College AIM, a program that allowed me to visit colleges, assisted with college essays, FAFSA completion and scholarship applications.
Through College AIM, I learned about American University, a private institution, 700 miles away from home. American’s financial aid meets 100% of demonstrated need, which means that the school covers any costs that FAFSA determines I cannot afford. Once I was admitted, American offered me nearly $50,000 in grants and scholarships for my first year, which was more than enough to cover college expenses.
I searched for a similarly affordable option in Georgia, but there weren’t any public, four-year institutions in the state that made the finances work for me. COVID-19 hit as I was making my college decision, and I wanted to stay close to home, but it didn’t feel like I really had a choice. I ended up enrolling at American and eventually left Georgia.
Back at home, I watched my friends with fewer options stay in-state for college. One of my closest friends attended Georgia State University and had to work full-time to cover tuition. At the end of her first semester, during finals, she had to call off two days of work to focus on school. She lost her job. Without steady income, she wasn’t able to pay tuition for the spring and was forced to take a gap semester. One semester turned into two, and then three, and two years later she still hasn’t been able to re-enroll.
In Georgia, I’ve seen peers work 40 hours per week while being full-time students, get dropped from courses when their tuition balance wasn’t paid in full, and have to choose paying for school over paying for rent and groceries.
There has to be a better option.
College AIM was founded in 2013 to help students find that better option. We partner with high schools to implement college prep programming, targeting schools with large numbers of students who are systematically excluded from higher education—Black students and other people of color, first-generation college students and those who are Pell eligible.
In our partner schools, we run college readiness workshops, provide individual college counseling, and take immersive college visits. Along the way, we help young people find the right schools for them, connect students with scholarship opportunities, and walk families through every step of the financial aid process. When our students transition to postsecondary life, we pair them with our success coaches, who stay with them all the way through college graduation.
Since our founding, more than 80% of College AIM students have continued onto college, and collectively they’ve been offered more than $75 million in grants and scholarships. Among our alumni are now teachers, engineers, nurses, business owners, nonprofit leaders, fashion designers and neuroscientists.
Over the past near-decade though, we’ve come to realize that supporting young people through the often-treacherous postsecondary landscape isn’t enough. When even a student who has done everything right, can’t afford to go to college in Georgia, our state must be doing something wrong.
It’s clear what that something is: Georgia is one of only two states in the country that does not provide need-based financial aid to college students.
So, in Georgia, when a student earns the HOPE Scholarship and qualifies for a full Pell Grant, they’re still more than $11,000 short of the cost of attendance at UGA and more than $16,000 short at Georgia State or Kennesaw State. Filling these gaps is often impossible for our students, but it’s entirely feasible for our state, which currently has more than $1 billion in the lottery reserves.
In response, College AIM has linked arms with other practitioners to advocate for a need-based aid program in Georgia—one that would make access to college far more equitable and allow our state to set the standard for what financial aid should look like across the country. In the past year, our coalition has partnered with policy analysts, worked closely with Georgia legislators and testified in committee meetings. This year, we’ll begin broader movement-building work across the state, and we hope that you’ll join us.
As I look back on my decision to leave Georgia, I think about how my options would have been different if there had been a need-based aid program here. I’m grateful for my opportunity to attend American, but if there was a need-based aid program in Georgia I would have stayed in the state. I wanted, and still want, to be there for my teenage brothers and keep them on track, to lean on my mom and to take care of my great-grandmother. Over the past year, I’ve lost four close family members and friends, and being away during that time has been incredibly challenging.
I also think about how my friends who stayed in state would have had different journeys with a need-based aid program. My peers would have been able to work fewer hours so they could focus on school and get involved in campus life. They would have been able to pay their tuition in full each semester and stay enrolled. They wouldn’t have had to choose between paying for school and necessities at home.
A need-based aid program has the potential to provide critical pathways through college for me and my friends, and create more equitable opportunities across the state.
College AIM’s advocacy for need-based aid in Georgia, and our work at large, are funded by the community. We’re fortunate to receive support from a number of local foundations, including the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, individual donors from across the region, and Georgia-based companies. If you’d like to support this work, we welcome your contributions online at collegeaim.org/donate.