The University of Central Arkansas will receive $30 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education to help increase college enrollment by better preparing youth for post-secondary education.
UCA will facilitate the seven-year, $30 million Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs grant, called GEAR UP for short.
This is the first statewide GEAR UP grant for Arkansas, according to Fredricka Sharkey, UCA's director of media relations.
UCA's GEAR UP Arkansas College Ready Navigator will target students in grades six and seven and their families with student services, educator and school development, and family education.
This initiative will address concerns of both belonging and finances for students, Charlotte Parham, principal investigator and associate professor in the UCA College of Education, said in a news announcement Tuesday from UCA.
"As a former public school K-12 teacher and administrator, I know that many students are excited learners ready to explore opportunities, but as they begin to question whether they have the ability to attend college, we see their excitement dwindle, and their narrative for what is possible narrows," often as early as middle school.
Nationally, the percentage of people age 25 and older who have completed a bachelor's degree or higher is about 38%, but only about a quarter of Arkansans have at least a bachelor's degree, which puts Arkansas ahead of only Mississippi and West Virginia, according to USA Facts, a not-for-profit, nonpartisan, civic initiative that analyzes government data.
The number of students graduating with a bachelor's degree from the state's public, four-year colleges declined for a second consecutive year, to 13,118, for the 2022-23 academic year, 446 fewer than in the previous academic year, according to data from the Arkansas Department of Education. Since 2014, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded steadily increased every year until 2022, the first drop-off year.
This grant program is designed to help students from low-income backgrounds not only enroll in college, but succeed. Upon high school graduation, they will be eligible for college scholarships through grant funding, according to Sharkey. The current grant funding includes at least 3,400 students from 15 schools from 11 Arkansas school districts.
The school districts -- Blytheville, Brinkley, Camden Fairview, Clarendon, Little Rock, Pulaski County, Helena/West Helena, Jacksonville, Lee County, Marvel/Elaine, and Hope -- span seven counties (Pulaski, Hempstead, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe, Ouachita and Phillips), according to Sharkey.
A kickoff event that will include leaders of the school districts and administrators of the grant program is slated for Nov. 27 on UCA's campus, and other partners for this endeavor include Arkansas Advanced Initiative for Math and Science; Vela Institute, Cambridge Educational Services; College Prep Associates; UCA College of Education; Arkansas Department of Education Division of Elementary and Secondary Education; and the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.
"UCA is proud to provide leadership in this space as we work with partners statewide to break down barriers to and open up access to post-secondary education," UCA President Houston Davis said in the university's news release.
UCA has taken steps to make college a more realistic goal for low-income students recently. For example, UCA announced UCA Commitment -- beginning with next year's freshman class, UCA students from Arkansas households with less than $100,000 in income will not have to pay tuition and mandatory fees out of pocket -- in September.
"We believe higher education should be about removing barriers and opening doors," but too often the real and perceived costs of college dissuade students from pursuing degrees, Davis said in September. "We're giving people hope so they feel encouraged, not discouraged."
Earlier this year, UCA received a $1.6 million grant through the Strengthening Institutions Program with the U.S. Department of Education to provide a litany of tools for success to first-time, low-income students as they begin college.
Furthermore, UCA joined the First Scholars Network for the 2023-24 school year.
Powered by the Center for First-generation Student Success, the First Scholars Network is a four-phase approach that allows institutions of higher education to advance student success through establishing communities of practice, gaining knowledge of resources and establishing peer networks, according to UCA. More than 350 higher education institutions are members of the Network, and UCA is one of 76 to join for this academic year.
"For many years, UCA has been doing outstanding work with first-generation students, but this will give us access to research, best practices, and other diagnostic tools so we can improve what we do," according to Robin Williamson, vice president for Student Affairs at UCA. "It'll help us identify what we're already doing well and give us some things we maybe haven't thought about, yet."