For too many promising low-income and first-generation students, just applying to college in the first place can loom as a seemingly insurmountable barrier.

First-generation students are trying to traverse an application process that their parents have little or no experience with themselves.

And in 2012, 82 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds from families with incomes surpassing $108,650 participated in college, compared to 45 percent of those whose family incomes were less than $34,160, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.

Supporting the pursuit

It is with this in mind that the American Council on Education (ACE) has worked to develop a national initiative to increase the number of first-generation students and students from low-income families pursuing a college degree or other higher education credential.

"In 2012, 82 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds from families with incomes surpassing $108,650 participated in college, compared to 45 percent of those whose family incomes were less than $34,160."

The primary goal of the American College Application Campaign® (ACAC) is to help high school seniors, who might not otherwise do so, navigate the admissions process and apply to at least one postsecondary institution.

This past fall, ACAC reached more than 250,000 students in all 50 states, a remarkable record of growth and success for an initiative that began in a single North Carolina high school in 2005.

The application campaigns are run independently in each state, with various public and private entities organizing the effort with technical assistance from ACAC. Application events are held at high schools during the school day.

Finding a way

The story of ACAC is best told through the individuals it has helped. One of those individuals is Garrett Seay of Kentucky, who credits the Kentucky College Application Campaign in 2011 with giving him and his twin brother Jarrett the information and confidence they needed to successfully apply to college, Garrett at the University of Louisville and Jarrett at Murray State University.

Their father, a Vietnam veteran, had died a few years earlier and their mother was struggling to provide for her family on half the income. But the application campaign counselor at Union County High School helped them apply to college and understand that because they had good grades there was an excellent chance of also receiving generous institutional aid.

"If you are low-income and think there is no way, there is a way," Seay said. "Kids don't realize the chances they have. That's why I always want to talk about application week. It should be in every school and every kid should have the ability to look up to someone and say, 'how do I do this? How do I get help?' There is no way I would have made it to college without it."