CONWAY -- A new college readiness program spearheaded by the University of Central Arkansas has the potential to affect thousands of young students across the state by bringing postsecondary education within their grasp.
UCA will facilitate the seven-year, $30 million Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs grant (GEAR UP) from the U.S. Department of Education. It's 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.
GEAR UP will have a momentous impact not only on students, "but their families," said Charlotte Parham, principal investigator and associate professor in the UCA College of Education. "We want to make sure [students] don't create a ceiling in their mind for what they can be or what they want to be."
Victoria Groves-Scott was a first-generation college student, and -- as is the case for myriad youths whose parents don't have postsecondary degrees -- college wasn't discussed as a real possibility in her home, said the dean of the UCA College of Education. In fact, she didn't even know she could take the ACT a second time.
Like her, there are students out there who want to go to college, but "have no idea how to get there or pay for it," she said. "That's why this grant is so important to the state of Arkansas."
"College changed my life," she added. Those with college degrees have more employment opportunities -- and a lower unemployment rate -- than those without college degrees, they earn an average of $1.2 million more over their lifetimes, and 60% of those with a bachelor's degree report career satisfaction, while only 38% of those sans college degrees report job satisfaction.
Several other states also have GEAR UP, "and I've seen the difference this program can make," said Houston Davis, UCA's president. It breaks down barriers to college, and students will know "they have a lot of people on their side," while school administrators can look at students "with confidence and tell them they're not alone."
Roughly 3,500 students in 11 districts -- Blytheville, Brinkley, Camden Fairview, Clarendon, Little Rock, Pulaski County, Helena/West Helena, Jacksonville-North Pulaski, Lee County, Marvel/Elaine, and Hope -- spanning seven counties are targeted by GEAR UP, according to the grant. Though the state's high school graduation rate is 89%, as of 2021, the average graduation rate in the GEAR UP districts is only 85%, which is below the national average, and the average free-and-reduced-lunch poverty rate of the GEAR UP schools is nearly 87%.
"We are putting our money where our mouth is," not only with support, but scholarships for students, said Parham. Through GEAR UP, students will be prepared not only to attend college, but to secure a postsecondary credential.
Scholarships will vary depending on higher education institution, but will be at least $750 annually, according to the grant. The maximum scholarship cannot exceed the total cost of attendance.
Academic preparation, college and education aspiration support, and college entry steps are the three main areas of focus for GEAR UP, Parham said. "Everything we do will fall under those three" subjects.
UCA hosted a kickoff event with leaders of school-district partners and administrators of the grant program Monday. 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.
"Education is critical from cradle to career," Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said via a video presentation Monday. GEAR UP "fills a critical gap," not only providing students a head start on college, but giving teachers and administrators the resources to support students.
GEAR UP "is a game changer," said Jonathan Crossley, superintendent of the Hope Public Schools. Once students are "exposed" to the possibilities of higher education, they can't be "unexposed -- your mind opens up" -- so this grant will not only allow students to "dream big, but us to support them."
It also "aligns with our strategic plan and where we want to go" in terms of leading the community in economic development and building a skilled workforce, he said. "In many ways, as Hope Public Schools go, so goes the community."
The best thing about GEAR UP is that all students will have a chance at college, said Aihniah Lloyd, a seventh-grader in Hope and the "first GEAR UP scholar." Currently, not every student feels they truly have that opportunity.
The superintendent of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District, Jeremy Owoh, benefited from a similar program when he was in high school in Camden, as it "introduced me to college life," but this initiative beginning in middle school "is awesome," he said. Students will have more options for their post-high-school lives so "they can make educated decisions."
Many middle-school students in his district have never been outside the city of Jacksonville, so broadening their perspective is critical, he said. GEAR UP will certainly offer "an academic advantage" to students, but just as crucial -- if not more so -- is getting them "real-world experience outside their neighborhood."
Even though there are multiple colleges and universities in Chicago, higher education felt like another world to Melissa Gude's students on the city's South Side, until GEAR-UP brought them to campuses, said the former teacher who is now the chief academic officer of the Little Rock School District. "It set a vision for them," as they were able to "see beyond what they might see every day."
GEAR-UP also helped them explore academic and career interests, and advisers were "super-energetic allies who really connected" with students, said Gude, who has GEAR UP experience both as a teacher and as an administrator. GEAR UP was "amazing" in Chicago, and she believes Arkansas students can realize similar benefits.
"I'm personally very [invested] in learning more about the academic supports for students" -- such as tutoring -- through GEAR UP, as many school districts don't have the resources to provide as much additional academic support as they might like, she said. "Getting more access to more advanced courses for our students is also a goal of our district," and that's another element of GEAR UP.
Lack of opportunity and access is a scourge for so many students in the Delta -- the poverty level nears or exceeds 40% of the population in Arkansas Delta counties, and those counties also have some of the highest unemployment rates in the state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics -- but that will change due to GEAR UP, said Keith McGee, superintendent of the Helena/West Helena School District. "This will shift the mindset," not only for students, but parents -- many of whom don't possess college degrees -- and those parents "can be proud of their child."
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 had steadily increased every year until 2022, the first drop-off year.