Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
In the archives of Berea College, there are still photos of educators taking books to rural communities on horseback. Even earlier, the eastern Kentucky institution in the shadow of Appalachia was a hallmark in equity — founded in 1855 by an abolitionist not just for poor mountain youth, but also as the nation’s first co-educationally and racially integrated school in the Southern United States.
Today, Berea still holds lessons for the nation, particularly in its use of grants to advance opportunities for the underserved communities surrounding it. Just consider its use of the GEAR UP program, signed by Bill Clinton to increase college awareness and attendance in low-income communities.
In 1999, Berea became one of the first recipients of the six-year grant, starting with one of the poorest counties, Rockcastle, as its sole test case.
The good: Educators made significant progress raising college aspirations among local students. The bad: Those aspirations meant little if they couldn’t figure out how to get those kids actually accepted at a higher rate, a challenge in those early years.
“We did a great job of raising their expectations, that they could go anywhere or do anything they wanted to — but we didn’t support their academics,” says Sara White, Director of Programs at Berea College’s Partners for Education.
“Whether they failed or never got to where we said they could be going, we had to hold ourselves accountable.”
So in 2005, Berea took GEAR UP a step further, using lessons from the previous round to create a framework of action. They added six new partner counties, recruited successful graduates from the community to serve as mentors, and connected students with college campuses that offered summer programs fitting their interests.
The 2011 round expanded to two GEAR UP projects, both granted, taking the program to 21 counties. Berea combined those efforts with Promise Zone grants intended to aid high poverty regions, helping Partners for Education place GEAR UP staff in 45 partner high schools, which agree to share data and attend annual meetings to coordinate on strategy.
College visits are tailored to student needs: those curious about journalism, or engineering, or bioscience, often meet with related instructors, and both them and their parents may sit in on financial-aid sessions. All students go through mentoring and have regular check-ins to track their college readiness progress, and schools identify additional resources they could use — in one case, a school asked for funding to integrate Myers Briggs testing.
Overall, Partners for Education is able to leverage nearly $43 million in grants annually to seize opportunities that are already available, but often unknown, to the 50,000 students and family members they support.
The results have been significant for students in the GEAR UP schools:
- 91% of students passed Algebra by 9th grade.
- The high school graduation rate increased to 95.8%.
- The ACT math gap with other Kentucky schools dropped by 36%.
- 68.4% of those who attended college persisted to their second year.
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“The communities, the principals in them, will tell you it’s been a game changer for their school district,” White says. “Without GEAR UP, there would be very little exposure to college campuses, simply because they wouldn’t have the personnel to do it.”
Berea is an example of how GEAR UP can shift aspirations and outcomes in rural communities. But it’s also a glimpse into what is about to be lost in Maine and six other states that recently lost GEAR UP funding in the latest round, drawing criticism from lawmakers and local educators who relied on those programs.
Where did the GEAR UP Funding Go?
The Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs initiative — GEAR UP — currently serves more than half a million students in 3,474 secondary schools across 43 states. Its primary eligibility requirement is that 50% or more of the student body must be enrolled in the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.
The program typically identifies 7th grade cohorts in low-income schools with the intent of providing services that shepherd them through high-school graduation and college enrollment.
It can be challenging for communities to navigate though. The grant is allotted for only six years, and each subsequent application is an entirely new grant — past success isn’t a consideration for the Department of Education.
In practice, that means rural communities have to be ready for the rug to be pulled out from them every few years.
That’s what happened in Maine, after University of Maine-Farmington’s latest application was denied by the DOE, which had used GEAR UP to offer college counseling and career exploration for thousands of rural students.
While the program will continue through the fall, administrators have already been forced to lay off staff and start winding down services. The loss of services inspired all four members of the Maine delegation to send a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, questioning whether the department had done its fiduciary duty in determining the award amounts.
The answer isn’t clear yet, but it may lie in the unique structure of the GEAR UP program. Typically, GEAR UP offers one third of its funding to community organization-led grants and another third to state-led initiatives, while the last third is a “toss-up” between the two.
That means if community partnerships, like the one in Berea, received more funding this round, that may have left less dollars available for state-led efforts like that in Maine.
In fact, the Maine lawmakers pointed out this discrepancy in their letter, questioning why the total level of state program funding “fell significantly short of the level the Department estimated in its public notice … just five months prior.”
The recent round saw more grant proposals receive scores of 100 and above than ever before, leaving the DOE to have to decide between numerous perfect scores.
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And in some years, the DOE has simply decided not to open the grant up for applications, perhaps creating a backlog of need that crested this round.
Regardless of the cause, the intricacies of the GEAR UP program may very well change soon, as states more aggressively scrutinize its awards process. And that could have a large impact on the future of college pathways for students in many rural areas.
This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.