Building awareness for your cause is the first step toward driving cultural change on any issue. You can think of the Awareness stage as your opportunity to build the foundational understanding needed to engage your community. 

The companion Workbook (MS Word or PDF) for this toolkit provides space and exercises for you to think through these foundational elements of your strategy. We encourage you to work through these exercises with your GEAR UP team or on your own. 

The Awareness level is a great place to start if you have limited support for your college-readiness efforts or even if you’re the only one focused on this issue right now. By building awareness, you can start to capture the attention and interest of your school community. Then, in the Mobilization stage, you can begin to engage their support.


For school communities at the Awareness stage, we recommend focusing on three goals: 

  1. Importance: Establishing why attending college is important
  2. Visibility: Increasing visibility around college-readiness activities and topics
  3. Access: Providing students’ and families’ with greater access to information


Goal 1: Establishing Importance 

To establish the importance of postsecondary education, we recommend two overarching strategies: 1) signaling and modeling and 2) informing and persuading. 

Signaling and Modeling

Signaling and modeling is accomplished through demonstrating to the school community that developing a college-going culture is a top priority for leaders. However, leaders do not necessarily have to be administrators. While having your school or district administrators on board can be hugely helpful, leadership can come from any level. What’s important is communicating a passion for and commitment to helping all students pursue and succeed in some form of postsecondary education. Remember, as this video illustrates, you only have to get one person to join in to begin building a movement. 

Key messages to signal and model:
  1. Postsecondary education is a prerequisite for lifelong success
  2. All high school graduates should complete some type of postsecondary program
  3. Elite academic achievement is just as exciting (and attainable) as athletic achievement
  4. All high school graduates have the potential to succeed in postsecondary programs
  5. Preparing students for postsecondary success is central to the mission of K12 education
  6. Graduates’ rates of postsecondary success are key indicators of the success or failure of K12 schools in fulfilling their public mission

Informing and Persuading

Signaling and modeling can capture individuals’ interest by alerting them that there’s something worth paying attention to. But to keep their attention and build their buy-in, you must also show and convince them that there’s something in it for them. 

Communicating the value of postsecondary education is critical here. But the same message will not resonate with every audience. For example, parents and grandparents may be motivated by the idea of helping their children build a better future, while local business leaders may be more affected by stats regarding higher education’s positive impact on the economy. 

Key messages for informing and persuading:
  1. Individuals who pursue postsecondary education earn more over their lifetimes
  2. In general, higher levels of education equate to higher earnings
  3. Individuals with postsecondary education or training are less likely to be unemployed
  4. The willingness and ability to be a lifelong learner is critical to individuals’ long-term economic and career success
  5. Communities with higher educational attainment rates are better positioned to compete in the modern, global economy
  6. In addition to teaching students career-specific skills, higher education programs help students develop soft skills such as communication, emotional intelligence and regulation, and self-efficacy that will benefit them in every aspect of their lives
  7. Higher education offers students time and structure for self-discovery. It can help them find their purpose and become their best selves. 

Goal 2: Increasing Visibility

Increasing visibility for college-readiness initiatives helps keep college-planning top of mind within your community. Additionally, research has shown that visual and environmental cues can subconsciously shift behaviors

Focus your visibility efforts on informing students about college options, modeling and highlighting academic success, and encouraging students to reach higher. 

Key messages to make visible:
  1. There are a wide variety of postsecondary options to meet the diverse needs and interests of students
  2. Individuals in your community have achieved success and fulfillment through higher education
  3. Postsecondary planning begins early and is ongoing
  4. Your community expects postsecondary education to be the norm, not the exception, for its students

Goal 3: Providing Access to Information 

Research has demonstrated that increasing students’ and families’ level of “college knowledge” is a critical factor in encouraging postsecondary enrollment and success. School communities should therefore aim to teach and convey information about postsecondary options and processes much as they would core subjects such as English and math. 

As you continue to strengthen your community’s college-going culture, you may want to focus on integrating college-planning within your curriculum and day-to-day instruction. (More information on this is available in the Mobilization section.) However, a good starting point is to increase students’ and families access to and interaction with key information through extracurricular offerings or visibility efforts. 

Key messages to convey:
  1. The average cost of college attendance
  2. The types of postsecondary education opportunities available
  3. The availability of financial aid and how to secure it
  4. How to explore, evaluate, and select colleges and postsecondary programs
  5. How to apply to college
  6. How to complete the steps of the enrollment process
  7. How to prepare academically for postsecondary and career success
  8. How to apply for highly selective or elite programs, universities, or scholarships


The following are practical, actionable ideas you can use to increase awareness in your school:

Establishing Importance

  • Share facts about the impact attending college can have during morning announcements, on your school’s website, through social media channels, or before or during school events. A list of College Facts, a Social Media Calendar, and Social Media Graphics are included in the Templates section of this toolkit. 
  • Discuss your school’s current college-going rates during faculty senate meetings or in-service days. Share information about the variety of postsecondary options and the impact increasing the state’s number of postsecondary graduates can have on our communities. Visit for statistics and information to share. 
  • Post a banner outside the school or in a common area that declares your goal to have 100 percent of graduates pursue some form of postsecondary education. 
  • Prior to class scheduling, host an Academic Planning Workshop for students and parents. During the workshop, inform participants of the advanced classes the school offers and provide information on why taking more challenging classes is important. 
  • Share the College is Necessary and College is Worth It flyers with students, families, school personnel, and community partners. 

Increasing Visibility

  • Hang college pennants or posters in hallways, classrooms, and common areas around your school. 
  • Participate in National College Colors Day. Encourage students, teachers, and staff to wear the colors and gear of their favorite college or university. 
  • Put up a state map and label all two-year and four-year public and not-for-profit colleges. Or distribute CFWV’s map of colleges and universities to students. 
  • Set the homepage on all school computers to 
  • Create a bulletin board highlighting the names and/or photos of students that were accepted into postsecondary programs. Be sure to include career and technical programs, apprenticeships, and military training. 
  • Try to find a college for every letter of the alphabet. Create a “College: A-Z”  bulletin board or hallway display. 
  • Make announcements and hang flyers for upcoming college entrance exams and test-preparation classes.
  • If you are located near a postsecondary institution, include information about public events and activities at the college in your school newsletter or on your social media channels. For example, share art shows, free concerts, guest speakers or lecture series, or other community activities. 

Providing Access to Information

  • Host at least one “College Planning Workshop” for students and families at each grade-level each year. 
  • Host College Planning Workshops for all grade levels specifically to help students compete for highly selective programs, universities, or financial aid opportunities. For 9th and 10th graders, focus on helping them to prepare academically and to participate in meaningful high school experiences. For 11th and 12th graders, focus on helping them complete applications to highly selective colleges or programs, write strong essays, and prepare for interviews. 
  • Host at least three financial aid workshops or events for 12th graders and their families each year. A toolkit to help you promote your Financial Aid Workshops is available in the Implementation Guides section of this toolkit. 
  • Host a college fair annually for all students at your school (not just seniors). Invite a diverse range of schools and programs including two-year institutions, four-year institutions, career and technical education centers, and the military branches. 
  • Include a copy of the Financial Aid Infographic folded within event programs, church bulletins, or other materials. Or post the infographic on social media.
  • Provide ALL school and district administrators, teachers, and staff with key information such as local College-Going Rates and FAFSA Completion Rates
  • Dedicate part of the counselors’ office to college resources. Provide information on scholarships, financial aid, and specific colleges.
  • Hold a majors and career day, presenting different areas of study, career paths and employment forecasts.
  • Distribute a college-planning newsletter to students and families detailing relevant and timely college information. Segment articles by grade level and provide tips for younger students in addition to seniors. 
  • One day a week, feature a “College of the Week” during the school’s morning announcements. Share some basic information about the college including its location, the types of programs offered, and some interesting trivia or facts
  • Encourage or assist 12th grade students in signing up for CFWV’s Txt 4 Success program. Through the program, students receive college-planning reminders and support via text message. 


To effectively evaluate your efforts, be sure to tailor your measures and key performance indicators (KPIs) to your community’s specific goals and objectives. The Workbook (Download MS Word or PDF) that accompanies this toolkit offers detailed guidance on this process. 

Additionally, to help you think through your evaluation strategy, we have listed below some outcomes to aim for when striving to increase awareness within your community. 


  1. Students and families can accurately identify the average cost of attendance for a four-year college or university and a two-year college.
  2. Students and families can name at least ten postsecondary institutions in our state.
  3. Students and families can name and accurately describe the various types of postsecondary learning including bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, certificate programs, apprenticeships, and military training.
  4. Students and families know how to evaluate the quality of postsecondary programs including demonstrating an understanding of accreditation, career placement rates, student life and experience offerings, and average return on investment (ROI).
  5. Students and families can articulate the benefits of pursuing higher education.
  6. Students and families can describe the college application process and timeline. 
  7. Students and families believe that it’s never too early to begin planning for college.
  8. Students and families can list sources of financial aid and describe the basic financial aid application process.
  9. Students and families believe they can afford postsecondary education with the help of scholarships, grants, and loans. 
  10. School personnel agree with the statement that every high school graduate has the potential to succeed in postsecondary education and with the statement that all graduates should pursue some form of postsecondary education.


Admissions 101: A guide provided by CFWV to help students explore and apply to colleges. West Virginia’s free college- and career-planning web portal. 

Creating a College-Going Culture Guide: An informational guide created by The College Board

College-Going Culture Toolkit: A toolkit of ideas provided by Oregon GEAR UP

College Scorecard: A tool to help students and families evaluate the quality of higher education programs. 

Common App Ready: A guide for counselors to help students complete the Common App.

Federal Financial Aid Outreach Toolkit: A toolkit provided by the federal office of financial aid that includes training for counselors, materials that can be shared with students and families, and details about federal financial aid programs. 

Financial Aid 101: A guide provided by CFWV to help students and families secure financial aid for college. 

Financial Aid Infographic: An infographic outlining the average amount of financial aid West Virginia students receive. 

Financial Aid Road Map: A resource provided by CFWV that outlines steps students and families should take to apply for financial aid. 

Financial Aid Toolkit: A toolkit with a variety of financial aid resources provided by CFWV. 

Road Map to College: A resource provided by CFWV that outlines steps students should take throughout high school to prepare for college. 

Senior Year Road Map: A resource provided by CFWV that outlines steps high school seniors should take to prepare for college. 

Supporting First-Generation Students: A guide for high school counselors created by The College Board.