Berea College in Kentucky

Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia. (Sign up to get this newsletter.)

Today’s Roadmap

  • 01: Postcards: A Kentucky College’s Lesson in Equity.
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: The State That Natives Never Leave.
  • 03: In the Sticks: Where did the GEAR UP Funding Go?
  • 04: Laying Seeds: Nearly $200M in America Rescue Plan Grants.

01: Postcards

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.

Percentage of population born in state of residence.

03: In the Sticks

The Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs initiative — GEAR UP — currently serves more than half a million students in 3,474 secondary schools across 43 states. Its primary eligibility requirement is that 50% or more of the student body must be enrolled in the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.

The program typically identifies 7th grade cohorts in low-income schools with the intent of providing services that shepherd them through high-school graduation and college enrollment.

It can be challenging for communities to navigate though. The grant is allotted for only six years, and each subsequent application is an entirely new grant — past success isn’t a consideration for the Department of Education.

In practice, that means rural communities have to be ready for the rug to be pulled out from them every few years.

That’s what happened in Maine, after University of Maine-Farmington’s latest application was denied by the DOE, which had used GEAR UP to offer college counseling and career exploration for thousands of rural students.

While the program will continue through the fall, administrators have already been forced to lay off staff and start winding down services. The loss of services inspired all four members of the Maine delegation to send a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, questioning whether the department had done its fiduciary duty in determining the award amounts.

The answer isn’t clear yet, but it may lie in the unique structure of the GEAR UP program. Typically, GEAR UP offers one third of its funding to community organization-led grants and another third to state-led initiatives, while the last third is a “toss-up” between the two.

That means if community partnerships, like the one in Berea, received more funding this round, that may have left less dollars available for state-led efforts like that in Maine.

In fact, the Maine lawmakers pointed out this discrepancy in their letter, questioning why the total level of state program funding “fell significantly short of the level the Department estimated in its public notice … just five months prior.”

The recent round saw more grant proposals receive scores of 100 and above than ever before, leaving the DOE to have to decide between numerous perfect scores.

And in some years, the DOE has simply decided not to open the grant up for applications, perhaps creating a backlog of need that crested this round.

Regardless of the cause, the intricacies of the GEAR UP program may very well change soon, as states more aggressively scrutinize its awards process. And that could have a large impact on the future of college pathways for students in many rural areas.

04: Laying Seeds

  • DOE Announces $200M in America Rescue Plan funding. The Department of Education recently announced new grants prioritizing community colleges and rural institutions of higher education, urging recipients to use the funds on COVID mitigation, enrollment efforts, forgiving student debts, and expanding programs leading to in-demand jobs.
  • The Rural Student Success Unconference. The University of Georgia is hosting its second virtual edition of the event, Exploring Rural Student Identity in America: An unConference on Practice, Research, and Innovation. The March 3–4 event focuses on three areas: rural student identity, policy impacting rural students, and inclusive curricular and co-curricular pedagogy.
  • Penn State To Teach Old Trees New Tricks. Penn State and 13 other land-grant universities received a $1.5M USDA grant to educate private forest owners on how to adapt to, and mitigate, climate change.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.