#GEARUP Alumni Hector Araujo’s Success Maximized through Educational Partnership

Lacking a strong role model, Hector Araujo’s community told him that an education was not necessary to be successful. He spent his life running races; the only problem is, this race would have led him into the criminal justice system.

That changed, though, when Emily Johnson — a Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) Coordinator from Boise, Idaho — transplanted herself into Hector’s school. He was awe-struck when he found that someone believed in him.

“She has been the greatest factor in my life,” Hector said on stage at the 2014 Building a GradNation Summit hosted by America’s Promise Alliance, before introducing Secretary Arne Duncan. “What is [most] important is that there are people in your life that are going to support you and nurture you to achieve the dreams that God has put in your heart.”

Today, the U.S. Department of Education is announcing the availability of $75 million for two new Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) competitions. The aim of this year’s GEAR UP competition is to improve college fit and readiness, so all students graduate from high school prepared for college without needing remedial courses – a problem for millions of beginning college students each year – and enroll in an institution that will help them maximize their success. This follows up on a commitment the Department made at the White House College Opportunity summit in January to help students achieve the necessary milestones that provide a pathway to college success.

This year’s competition also focuses on projects that are designed to serve and coordinate with a Promise Zone, which are high-poverty communities where the federal government has partnered and invested to create jobs, leverage private investment, increase economic activity, improve educational opportunities, and improve public safety. This year’s GEAR UP program also places a priority on helping to improve students’ non-cognitive skills and behaviors, including academic mindset, perseverance, motivation, and mastery of social and emotional skills that improve student success.

Thanks to the GEAR UP grant program, Hector was the first person in his family to graduate from high school and is now pursuing his masters in higher education at the University of Arizona. He wanted to pursue a career in education because of the powerful feeling gained when helping America’s students — especially those who may lack exposure to higher education opportunities. Hector wrote in his GEAR UP Alumni Leadership Academy biography that “it is critical to let youth know that they are important, beautiful and capable of achieving anything.”

Secretary Duncan agrees. “We have to make sure all of our young people — all of them — have the kind of education that truly prepares them for that future,” he said at this year’s Building a GradNation Summit, adding, “We have to redouble our efforts for those who aren’t even making it to the starting line. Because high school graduation may once have been the finish line, but now it’s the beginning.”

GEAR UP grants currently fund 87 programs across the country that serves approximately 420,000 middle and high school students who often come from historically underserved backgrounds. This program offers the federal government, states, nonprofits, districts and schools an opportunity to partner together to increase these students’ chances for success.

Applications for the state and partnership grants are due by July 7, and grants will be awarded by the end of September. The Department will post further information on the GEAR UP web page.

Michael Lotspeich is an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach and a junior at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

GEAR UP Advances College Affordability with College Savings Accounts for 10,000 High School Students

In 2009, when President Obama proposed that by 2020 our nation would have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, the Department of Education set our agenda to that goal. Secretary Duncan calls it “our North Star.”

The promise of reaching the President’s goal is being aided by a new proposal from ED called the College Savings Account Research Demonstration Project. Sharing program design and implementation responsibility with states, philanthropies, nonprofit organizations and researchers, the U.S. Department of Education will make $8.7 million available to finance college savings accounts for 10,000 low-income middle school and high school students who participate in the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) initiative.  Congress already has provided the necessary funding, and we plan to make awards by September 30 of this year.

Piggy BankWe’re proposing that each eligible student receive $200 to start a college savings account that each participating state will open automatically and hold in trust for its students.  We further propose that students have the opportunity to earn an extra $120 a year in a dollar-for-dollar savings match program over each of the next four years.

Ultimately, students would have $1,160 in matched savings for college expenses after they graduate with a high school diploma ($200 + $480 +$480 = $1,160). When they enroll in college and start classes, those savings will be available for textbooks and other educational expenses.

We proposed to do this as part of GEAR UP because we believe that college savings accounts for low-income youth are apt to work best when coupled with the type of academic preparation and college counseling, including financial counseling, that GEAR UP provides.

At a recent discussion at the New America Foundation on the importance of saving for college, one of the key questions raised was, “will $1,160 make a difference, given how much college costs?’

There’s a good amount of evidence that savings accounts help youth and families gain financial literacy knowledge and skills and acquire positive attitudes and behaviors about saving for and attending college. Initial research suggests that students with a savings account, even with one with a small balance, are much more likely to enroll in college than students without one.

A recent study by Elliott and Beverly about the effect of college savings on the college progress of young Americans, published in the American Journal of Education, reported that “17-23 year-old children who have savings are approximately twice as likely to be on course [in completing college] as their peers without savings of their own.”

While the evidence is positive, we want to be sure that savings accounts make a difference.  The Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education will study of the impact of this project on increasing college readiness, higher education enrollment, and ultimately graduation.

Research associated with this project could help us unpack the significance of students having the financial capability to go to college and how that could positively affect student “college-going” aspirations and behavior, before, during and after college. We simply must do better as a nation and use every tool at our disposal to change these facts.

For more information on GEAR UP and this exciting project, including a copy of the Notice of Proposed Priorities, please visit here.  Over the next 30 days, we’re inviting comment on the design of this project. It’s a test. We want it to be well-designed. We want your input.

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

Kicking Off National GEAR UP Week

This week is National GEAR UP Week, an event highlighting the positive impact that GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), has had on students, families, schools, and communities since Congress authorized the program thirteen years ago. GEAR UP provides six-year grants to states and partnerships to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

In Chicago, the Freshman Connection program is a great example of a successful GEAR UP partnership grant program in action. The program, sponsored by Northeastern Illinois University and Chicago Public Schools, is free and held during the summer at high schools across the city for rising ninth grade students to prepare them for the rigors of a high school education. In the span of a month, students make new friends, take field trips, meet teachers and counselors, learn graduation requirements, get ready for classes, and explore college and careers.

Ninety percent of the Class of 2011, the first graduates of Freshman Connection, will have completed their federal student aid forms, which is a crucial step in informing families that college tuition is within reach. The federal government’s GEAR UP grant is key to Freshman Connection’s success in helping students and families through mentoring, and parent involvement. State grant programs across the country have implemented similar college access initiatives that target dual enrollment and the use of CLEP testing to earn college credit.

To prepare students for success in the 21st Century economy, higher education must be within the reach of every American. Programs such as Freshman Connection are essential to help meet President Obama’s goal of leading the world in college completion by 2020. Watch Secretary Duncan speak about the importance of higher education and National GEAR UP Week for a celebration event in Philadelphia, Pa.:

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

David Gellman

David Gellman, a student at Georgetown University, is an intern in the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs.