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ASU Receives GEAR UP Grants Totaling Nearly $30 million for WNC Low-Income Students’ Post Secondary Education

Sept. 30, 2014. Appalachian State University has received two GEAR UP grants totaling nearly $30 million from the U.S. Department of Education to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

The grants, totaling approximately $4.1 million each year through the 2021 academic year, will be part of Appalachian’s GEAR UP program and will serve nearly 15,000 students in a eleven-county area in Western North Carolina: Allegheny, Ashe, Burke, Clay, Graham, Madison, Rutherford, Swain, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey counties.

In addition to the school systems, other grant partners are UNC Asheville, Western Carolina University, Isothermal Community College, Tri-County Community College, Wilkes Community College, Discovery Place and the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. Jennifer Wilson-Kearse is the executive director of Appalachian’s GEAR UP program and will direct the grants’ activities.

“These school districts traditionally have around 26 percent of their students complete post-secondary education,” Kearse said. “These are areas where we can really have an impact.”

The first year of the grants will serve sixth and seventh grade students in the 11 counties. Year two will serve sixth, seventh and eighth grade students and year three will serve students from sixth through ninth grades. The program will continue to serve the students as they move through high school and into their first year of college, either at a community college or four-year institution.

Funds from the grants will be used to hire program coordinators at each of the school districts and the partner universities and community colleges. The coordinators will help identify gaps and needs in their local schools regarding college preparedness and how GEAR UP funds can be used to address those needs, Kearse explained.

For instance, the grant partners might create or support professional development activities for teachers or provide programing for parents so they can better support their children as they make decisions on which path to take to get through high school and on to post-secondary education.

Other activities might include tutoring, weekend or week-long college programs, including leadership and entrepreneurial programs, and other opportunities to introduce students to and support their college experience.

“The GEAR UP grants allow Appalachian to engage the western North Carolina region as outlined in our strategic plan, which is to promote improved access and preparation for the university experience. Sharing our faculty, staff and student expertise with middle and high schools will improve the quality of life for the communities we serve,” said Dr. Lori S. Gonzalez, Appalachian’s provost and executive vice chancellor.

“We want to help students develop their college ready skills, critical thinking, problem solving and analytic skills,” Kearse said. “We know that employees need a certain set of skills to be successful. Those skills are the same across a broad range of employment opportunities, but sometimes our students are coming out of their educational experience without those skills,” she said.

“We have the capacity to touch so many lives in a way that we know is going to ultimately increase the economic development in Western North Carolina because we will be increasing the (educational) capacity of the students in the region who are our future workforce,” Kearse said.

Kearse plans to recruit students from Appalachian, UNCA and WCU and the community colleges who attended school in the 11-county region to provide college coaching to the students there, either electronically, through Facebook or Skype, or face to face.

“We know one of the No. 1 reasons students drop out of college is because they didn’t ask for help. They don’t realize they don’t need to know it all and can reach out for help,” she said.

In addition to increasing the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education, Kearse said the grants could generate knowledge about how similar successes can be achieved elsewhere.

“One of my personal goals through the research we will be doing with these grants is to significantly contribute to the body of evidence that shows what works to increase post-secondary enrollment in rural areas, which can then be shared on a national level,” she said.