Lessons Learned: The Importance of Organization Sustainability

Project College (formerly Knowledge Access Initiative) is an NYU student-run organization that strives to improve financial access to college for high school students in New York City. Their year-long program provides students with extensive education on all types of financial aid and individualized application assistance. 

Every year, one million students across the United States who are eligible for federal aid never complete the FAFSA and likely don’t apply for other forms of financial aid. While some students choose not to pursue higher education, many students who would otherwise attend college are simply unfamiliar with the complex terrain of financial aid applications. The rate at which these students obtain degrees is just one-fifth of what it is for their higher-income counterparts.

This is why we founded Project College. Our goal is to help more New York City high school students access the most fundamental resource they need to attain a higher education: financial aid. By providing one-on-one assistance to students and families struggling through the financial aid process, we help high school students in New York City successfully and accurately apply for federal and state aid, scholarships, and opportunity programs.

But how exactly does a small group of college students take on such an ambitious vision? Where do we find the funding, the human capital, and most importantly, the time to undertake something so massive? These are the questions we have encountered and continue to face since our founding in August 2013. The answer, we've found, lies in dedication.

Throughout our time participating in the NYU Reynolds Changemaker Challenge and thereafter, we have looked for ways to make our organization sustainable in spite of the hectic schedules students have, and learned several important lessons in the process.

The main goal of sustainability, we learned, is to create a plan of action that will allow other team members to continue the work of your organization beyond your tenure in it (if you will not continue after graduation). Among the steps to achieving this goal are finding dedicated team members with different skill-sets, giving them specific roles in the organization, and planning around their schedules. In the instance of Project College, the work that would need to be done to sustain the organization and help it grow includes applying for funding, managing the budget, applying for legal status, continuing recruitment and training of volunteers, and managing relationships with high schools and other organizations.

Initially, my co-founder, Kathleen, and I did all of this by ourselves. We were dedicated, sure, but it simply was not feasible for us to manage the administrative and programmatic sides of our organization by ourselves. For example, it wasn’t realistic for us to participate in a rigorous competition for funding and simultaneously run from high school to high school giving financial aid workshops, especially as full-time students. This is why expanding our team has been crucial to our development.

We plan our annual schedule so Project College work doesn’t collide with midterms or finals, helping us to retain our recruits for future years. Our hope is that these workshop leaders will continue with us throughout their time at NYU, take on leadership roles within the organization, and continue to sustain it well beyond our tenure.

It has been very important to me since founding Project College to ensure that the initiative will continue making an impact well into the future. Now, after a little over a year working on this project, I have found that it is indeed possible to launch, sustain, and grow a student-run social venture. The core, I believe, is to build a team with unparalleled dedication, to have a plan, and to stick to it. The rest will fall into place on its own.

Project College is currently seeking volunteers who want to gain experience in the non-profit sector and who are passionate about educational equity. You can attend one of their information sessions on the NYU campus to learn more. To get in contact with Project College, please email Faria Mardhani at