GEAR UP funding helps NC school districts provide access to students seeking to go to college

One of the educators who attended the GEAR UP North Carolina summit of educators last month told more than 100 people in attendance that she was barely able to fill out all of the financial aid paperwork for her son’s college application. If she – a public education employee with years of experience – had such difficulty, imagine what a family with no college-educated adult goes through.

GEAR UP North Carolina – which stands for “Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs” – is a federal Department of Education initiative administered by the University of North Carolina. The GEAR UP program is designed to help low-income and first generation students prepare academically to enter and succeed in college, and to help those students and their families understand how to apply to college and for financial aid. 

GEAR UP’s main goal is to close the high school and college attainment gap for the populations it serves.

UNC Senior Vice President for Strategy and Policy Andrew Kelly told the educators in attendance that North Carolina has a way to go to catch up to the rest of the nation in terms of college readiness.

He noted only 18 percent of state high school students met all four of ACT’s readiness standards lagging the nation’s average of 26 percent, and only 20 percent of eighth graders complete a college degree within 150 percent of normal time. 

There are 11 GEAR UP districts and five college success districts across North Carolina. GEAR UP is a seven-year grant program that will impact more than 22,000 students across 46 middle and high schools in the state. The rising high school class of 2018 will be the first cohort of students who have worked with GEAR UP since the seventh grade.

Increasing access

One of the pillars of the University’s strategic plan is to increase access to a college education among K-12 state students. GEAR UP, an initiative from the federal Department of Education, works to help North Carolina students – especially those in rural and underserved counties – reduce or eliminate the obstacles that might keep them out of college.

That’s why the exchange of ideas at the GEAR UP summit is so important, according to Kelly. Programs such as dual high school/college enrollment; Advanced Placement courses; academic tutoring and homework support; and educating families on their college options are all designed to overcome barriers.

“GEAR UP can reduce the obstacles of access and readiness,” Kelly said.  “One of the challenges in North Carolina is the divide between rural and urban populations when it comes to educational attainment. How do we reach students in those rural communities?  GEAR UP is a significant asset in our effort to do that.”

Carol Cutler White, who oversees GEAR UP at the University, explained the program has two goals – to increase the number of students who are college and career ready, and to help students and their families with the steps that will get them into college.

GEAR UP provides partner schools with data to track which students are falling behind in which subjects. It can track students according to various demographics, and provides funding to help its school districts decide how best to target GEAR UP services to assist students in need. It also provides professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators, student academic support services, family and community outreach, and student and family financial aid and academic counseling.

White said the program – which has been in North Carolina since 2000 – has seen its share of success. GEAR UP high schools graduate students at a 10 percent higher rate and the graduates are about 8 percent more likely to enroll in college than peer low income and rural high schools without the program.  In 2017, high schools participating in GEAR UP exceeded the state average for federal financial aid applications by 10 percent.

Holding the summit allows the school districts to share best practices as well as talk about issues that have yet to be resolved.

“The point of bringing the school districts together is to equip them to use data so they can effectively target GEAR UP services to improve college and career readiness,” White said. “They are planning services, budgeting, and figuring out where they want to put the funding to move the needle on academic readiness.  We give them data capacity support and structure.  They’re learning how to use their data to improve academic outcomes, they’re learning from each other what works in readiness and access, and the University is learning of the specific challenges of rural high schools”. 

Some of the challenges GEAR UP districts face go beyond the classroom. While schools are offering tutoring and coaching to improve grades and standardized test performances, several educators said that issues are often less quantifiable. Students may enter high school with the mindset that attending college or community college is unattainable because of financial issues, family obligations or previous test scores.

Other participants said that the application and financial aid forms to enter college have become so complicated that parents often are overwhelmed by the process. GEAR UP is looking to provide help in those areas as well, such as teaming up with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College Advising Corps, which specializes in helping high school students weigh their college options.

Gil Respess, the principal at North Lenoir High School in Lenoir County, said his school uses some of the GEAR UP funding to offer classes to parents to help them with financial aid and application questions. In addition, using data from GEAR UP, the school is putting more money into tutoring freshmen who are struggling with Math I.

“If you look at individual strategies, it’s a way to touch individual students,” he said of the program. “The summit has been really eye-opening for me. It’s very promising to figure out how much bang we can get for our buck.”