Conference: Access Programs Will Increasingly Help Students Consider College

WASHINGTON – As the Obama administration continues its push to make America’s work force the most college-educated in the world, college access programs such as GEAR UP will play an increasingly crucial role in getting students to view themselves as college material.

That was the message delivered Monday by a U.S. congressman, a top U.S. Education Department administrator and other proponents of GEAR UP at the annual National Council for Community and Education Partnerships/GEAR UP conference. GEAR UP is an acronym for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.

“High aspirations, love and people who care is really the formula of GEAR UP and the formula for the Department of Education,” U.S. Undersecretary of Education Martha J. Kanter told the approximately 2,100 GEAR UP delegates from throughout the United States and U.S. territories attending the conference this week at the Washington Hilton.

Kanther said that, as the Education Department places a greater emphasis on innovation, it will be important for GEAR UP officials to search for ways to take advantage of new forms of federal grant funding—such as the competitive Investing In Innovation Fund, or i3 fund—being made available to increase college access and completion.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), referred to as the “Grandfather of GEAR UP” for introducing legislation to create the program during the Clinton administration, spoke of how he was once referred to an auto mechanic course because he was not viewed as being able to do college work. He said GEAR UP workers must counterbalance what he described as pervasive thinking that youths of lesser economic means or non-English-speaking families cannot succeed in college.

“A lot of people are making judgments about our young people who don’t have our young people’s future at the forefront of their thinking,” said Fattah. “That’s why you exist,” Fattah told the GEAR UP delegates, “to change their lives.”

Monday’s GEAR UP conference comes at a time when the Obama administration is placing a greater emphasis on evidence of effectiveness.

Kanther cited a variety of local studies that have shown GEAR UP is achieving notable results in preparing more students for college, but the latest national evaluation of the program was done in 2003.

GEAR UP is a federal funding program that provides grants for services meant to boost college preparation for low-income students from middle school through entrance into college. It relies on partnerships between local school districts and institutions of higher education and other organizations. Grants, historically made for six years, are now made for seven years. Program activities include tutoring, mentoring, college counseling, and financial aid assistance.

The GEAR UP program has been credited with increasing parents’ involvement in and expectations for their children’s education and boosting students’ knowledge of the different types of post-secondary opportunities. However, one education policy expert who is evaluating a Virginia GEAR UP program says it is difficult to gauge the impact of GEAR UP on a national level because it uses only about $800 per student and often less than that.

“There’s challenges to finding strong positive outcomes to this program because the money is spread so thinly,” said Dr. Watson Scott Swail, president and CEO of the Arlington, Va.-based Educational Policy Institute, which had a booth at the GEAR UP conference and is evaluating the effectiveness of GEAR UP in the Hampton City Schools in Hampton, Va.

Nationally, GEAR UP cost $313 million in fiscal 2009 and served roughly 739,000 students. Swail recommended targeting the estimated $323 million being spent on the program in fiscal 2010 on students who need the services the most.

That’s already being done throughout Kansas, where GEAR UP funds are aimed primarily at youths in foster care, according to Deltha Q. Colvin, assistant vice president for campus life at Wichita State University, who attended the GEAR UP conference in D.C.

Among other things, Colvin said, GEAR UP workers in Kansas work to ensure that foster youths who age out of foster care do not lose housing once they enroll in college. The program also helps students locate information and resources they need to get into and through college, such as financial aid information, and connects them with individuals who can help guide them through the college experience.

“I think it affords low-income students the opportunity to have resources—human resources—to be able to ask questions and remain in contact with you until graduation from high school,” Colvin said.

The GEAR UP conference being held this week is offering workshops to GEAR UP workers on a variety of topics geared toward college readiness.

At one such workshop, officials from the New York-based College Board organization presented information on a variety of College Board products—such as Advanced Placement courses—that school districts are using to get students better prepared for college.

“We know AP (Advanced Placement) works,” said Travis Goodwin, a College Board representative based in Austin, Texas, citing statistics that show students who score 3, 4, or 5 on AP exams are more likely to go to college.

“The problem is they’re not getting 3s, 4s, and 5s,” Goodwin said. “So what are we doing to get them ready for AP?” Goodwin said as he presented the College Board’s SpringBoard program, which is designed to prepare students as early as sixth grade for Advanced Placement courses.

Juan Williams, a national political commentator at NPR who served as guest speaker at the GEAR UP conference luncheon, reiterated the need for GEAR UP workers to believe in youths whose potential is being underestimated.

“I don’t think anyone would have bet on me, if you know what I mean,” Williams said, recounting his experience growing up as the youngest of three children of an immigrant mother.

“It was because of people like you that I was able to find a way and make a way,” Williams said. “I sometimes think that, with all the static, you folks might lose touch with the idea that you are heroes to people like me. That you save lives.”