WASHINGTON — If you ever gave U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Penn., a microphone and a roomful of people, he would not hesitate to proclaim the GEAR UP program that he created nearly two decades ago as the nation’s “largest and most successful college readiness and access program.”
That’s what he did a few years back when he held his “chairman’s ball” at the annual convening of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and at various panel discussions and annual conferences in the nation’s capital over the years.
But Fattah’s championing of the program stretches back to 1998, when President Clinton signed it into law.
“From the very beginning, Rep. Fattah worked tirelessly to ensure broad support for the GEAR UP program among members of Congress,” said Ranjit Sidhu, president and CEO of the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, or NCCEP, which advocates for the GEAR UP program, a competitive grant program currently funded at $322 million through 125 awards.
“Regardless if you were a Republican, Democrat, or hailed from urban or rural settings, he consistently made the case that GEAR UP can transform lives, improve communities and strengthen our nation as a whole,” Sidhu said.
Which is what makes Fattah’s conviction on federal corruption charges this week all the more unfortunate, supporters of the GEAR UP program said.
“Chaka Fattah’s conviction on federal corruption charges is a sad twist on an otherwise impressive career,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation.
“Fattah was a tireless champion of social mobility programs — equity in spending at the K-12 level and the GEAR UP program to provide support services to low-income youth who are part of the aspiring middle class,” Kahlenberg said.
Fattah, 59 — a U.S. congressman since 1995 who stepped down from his position as top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee last year after he was indicted — was convicted on 22 counts of bribery and conspiracy Tuesday in federal district court in his native Philadelphia.
The conviction emanated from schemes to repay an illegal $1 million loan to Fattah’s failed 2007 effort to become the mayor of Philadelphia. The U.S. Justice Department said he used federal grants and nonprofit funds — routed through intermediaries — to repay the loan, according to news reports.
A lengthy prison sentence is thought to be certain. Efforts to reach Fattah — who had already lost his seat in an April election and thus was set to leave Congress anyway — were not successful.
Despite the fact that the congressman, known as the “architect of GEAR UP,” awaits sentencing, the future GEAR UP — an acronym for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs — is believed to be safe and sound.
“While we will undoubtedly miss his passion and commitment to GEAR UP students and families, he helped lay a foundation where GEAR UP enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress, is championed by governors and local education leaders, and has become an instrumental resource in achieving our nation’s college readiness and success goals,” said Sidhu. “Given the accomplishments of the GEAR UP community in addressing some of our most complex education challenges, we strongly believe that the future of GEAR UP is brighter than ever.”
This discretionary grant program — which provides six- to seven-year grants to states and partnerships to provide services in high-poverty middle and high schools — is designed to “increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education,” according to a Department of Education website about the program.
“GEAR UP grantees serve an entire cohort of students beginning no later than the seventh grade and follow the cohort through high school,” the website states. “GEAR UP funds are also used to provide college scholarships to low-income students.”
The competitive six-year matching grants are meant to “increase college attendance and success and raise the expectations of low-income students.”
This is done by through activities such as tutoring, mentoring, academic preparation, financial education and college scholarships.
The program mandates cooperation among K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, local and state education entities, and businesses and community-based organizations, according to NNCEP.
“These dynamic partnerships are required to leverage local resources to match the federal investment dollar for dollar,” an NCCEP description states, “creating a common agenda that more effectively facilitates the educational aspirations and attainment of students from low-income communities.”
Asked about the effectiveness of the program, Sidhu pointed to the Department of Education’s description of GEAR UP in its fiscal 2017 budget request.
“The performance measure related to the percentage of high school graduates who enroll immediately into postsecondary education speaks volumes to the impact of the program,” Sidhu said.
He was referring to figures that show 77.3 percent of GEAR UP high school graduates enroll in college immediately after high school — well above the 61 percent target that was set for the program and well above the 45.5 percent of low-income students nationwide who enroll in postsecondary education immediately after high school.
In seeking to gauge the “efficiency measure” for GEAR UP, the Department of Education concluded that GEAR UP costs roughly $1,748 per “successful outcome,” meaning a college enrollee. The department arrived at the figure by dividing approximately $58 million spent on a 2008 cohort that led to 33,412 postsecondary enrollees.
Be that as it may, another test of GEAR UP’s effectiveness is yet to come.
The last formal evaluation of the program — done in 2008 — did not capture key metrics, such as college enrollment rates.
But in fiscal 2014, the Department of Education began a “rigorous study” of college access strategies designed to improve GEAR UP students’ college enrollment and completion.
“The findings from this evaluation will be useful to GEAR UP grantees as they search for promising practices to incorporate into their projects, and also to policymakers seeking to enhance current college access efforts,” the department’s budget request states.
Specifically, the department used approximately $5.5 million to test a low-cost communication strategy that employs text messages and emails throughout the summer to prod students to complete various college enrollment-related tasks, meet various deadlines and to make sure program participants obtain scholarship funds made available through their projects.
“The study is based on research indicating that although academic preparation and financial circumstances continue to drive disparities in postsecondary enrollment and completion, a substantial number of low-income students fail to enroll in and complete college simply because they fall off track trying to navigate the complex process of applying to, enrolling in, and staying in college,” the department states.
The department says it expects to publish a report that assesses the intervention’s impact on college matriculation rates by December 2018, and to follow it up with another report that assesses the impact on FAFSA renewal and college persistence rates in the spring of 2020.
“This study, therefore, will produce knowledge about strategies that GEAR UP projects have never before implemented, and potentially inform the development of future competitions and project proposals,” the department states.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.