CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Governor Tomblin has designated this week as “GEAR UP for College Week” to recognize the impact and achievements of Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), a national grant program through the United States Department of Education that launched in West Virginia in 2008. Its mission is to help students pursue and achieve education and training beyond high school.
Since 2008, nearly 13,000 students in ten counties – Boone, Clay, Lincoln, McDowell, Mingo, Roane, Summers, Webster, Wirt, and Wyoming – have received college counseling and academic support through GEAR UP, which is coordinated by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (Commission). Students who are now seniors first began participating when they were in seventh grade.
“West Virginia has seen tremendous success through the GEAR UP program,” Tomblin said. “By engaging students at a young age and building family and community support around them, the program makes going to college more than just an ambition for our young people. As we continue helping West Virginians prepare for the 21st century workforce, we will certainly look to the GEAR UP program as a standard for increasing college access and improving college readiness.”
When the program began in West Virginia, students attending high schools in these ten counties were less likely than other West Virginia students to be aware of key college-planning information, including financial aid program requirements and deadlines. Now, surveys indicate that GEAR UP students are far better informed than other students when it comes to financial aid and college costs. And while most of these schools lagged behind the state average in college-going rates at the program’s start, that gap is beginning to close.
Stephen Helmandollar, a student at Westside High School in Wyoming County, said he credits GEAR UP with changing the way he feels about school.
“When I first started in high school, I didn’t have much care for my grades or anything,” Helmandollar said. “Of all the things I’ve ever done in high school, I don’t ever regret getting involved in with GEAR UP. My grades have improved. This year I actually received my first 3.0 grade point average. I’m in an AP [Advanced Placement] class, and my teachers tell me they enjoy having me as a student now.”
Dr. Paul Hill, Chancellor of the Commission, said the program has served as a launch pad for successful statewide college access and student success projects.
“This federal investment has allowed us to test innovative strategies for helping students prepare for college, and then expand them statewide,” Chancellor Hill said. “For example, our ‘College Application and Exploration Week’ effort began in GEAR UP counties in 2010. Next month, ‘College Application and Exploration Week’ will be held statewide, and more than 150 schools across West Virginia are registered to participate – with the goal of reaching more than 30,000 students.”