In the archives of Berea College, there are still photos of educators taking books to rural communities on horseback. Even earlier, the eastern Kentucky institution in the shadow of Appalachia was a hallmark in equity — founded in 1855 by an abolitionist not just for poor mountain youth, but also as the nation’s first co-educationally and racially integrated school in the Southern United States.
Today, Berea still holds lessons for the nation, particularly in its use of grants to advance opportunities for the underserved communities surrounding it. Just consider its use of the GEAR UP program, signed by Bill Clinton to increase college awareness and attendance in low-income communities.
In 1999, Berea became one of the first recipients of the six-year grant, starting with one of the poorest counties, Rockcastle, as its sole test case.
The good: Educators made significant progress raising college aspirations among local students. The bad: Those aspirations meant little if they couldn’t figure out how to get those kids actually accepted at a higher rate, a challenge in those early years.
“We did a great job of raising their expectations, that they could go anywhere or do anything they wanted to — but we didn’t support their academics,” says Sara White, Director of Programs at Berea College’s Partners for Education.
“Whether they failed or never got to where we said they could be going, we had to hold ourselves accountable.”
So in 2005, Berea took GEAR UP a step further, using lessons from the previous round to create a framework of action. They added six new partner counties, recruited successful graduates from the community to serve as mentors, and connected students with college campuses that offered summer programs fitting their interests.
The 2011 round expanded to two GEAR UP projects, both granted, taking the program to 21 counties. Berea combined those efforts with Promise Zone grants intended to aid high poverty regions, helping Partners for Education place GEAR UP staff in 45 partner high schools, which agree to share data and attend annual meetings to coordinate on strategy.
College visits are tailored to student needs: those curious about journalism, or engineering, or bioscience, often meet with related instructors, and both them and their parents may sit in on financial-aid sessions. All students go through mentoring and have regular check-ins to track their college readiness progress, and schools identify additional resources they could use — in one case, a school asked for funding to integrate Myers Briggs testing.
Overall, Partners for Education is able to leverage nearly $43 million in grants annually to seize opportunities that are already available, but often unknown, to the 50,000 students and family members they support.
The results have been significant for students in the GEAR UP schools…
- 91% of students passed Algebra by 9th grade.
- The high school graduation rate increased to 95.8%.
- The ACT math gap with other Kentucky schools dropped by 36%.
- 68.4% of those who attended college persisted to their second year.
“The communities, the principals in them, will tell you it’s been a game changer for their school district,” White says. “Without GEAR UP, there would be very little exposure to college campuses, simply because they wouldn’t have the personnel to do it.”
Berea is an example of how GEAR UP can shift aspirations and outcomes in rural communities. But it’s also a glimpse into what is about to be lost in Maine and six other states that recently lost GEAR UP funding in the latest round, drawing criticism from lawmakers and local educators who relied on those programs …
02: Roadside Attractions
The SAT Gets Digitized. The College Board announced plans to make the exam entirely virtual in the U.S. by 2024. The decision comes as equity in college admission testing has many questioning whether the SAT and ACT should be considered at all.
For Better or Worse? If online testing leads to more test centers in rural areas, that could help students, who often have to drive long distances to take the SAT or ACT. But in areas with poor internet connectivity, the move online may exacerbate the challenges rural students face while applying for colleges.
Why Students Stay. Iowa State University researchers found that something as simple as having a positive experience in grade school had a big impact on rural students’ being more likely to return home after college, one of a number of takeaways that could help address the issue of rural brain drain.
Check This Out! According to this chart using data from the 2019 census, Louisiana led the nation with the most residents who had also been born there, at 78%, followed by Michigan (76.3%), Ohio (74.9%), and Pennsylvania (72.1%).
Why It Matters. For all the discussions educators have about how students choose the college they end up attending, the largest factor for most students is decided almost two decades earlier.