Topper the Bear (left) from West Liberty University, wins the mascot award, at a competition at the Clay Center featuring mascots from universities including Concord, Fairmont State and Marshall. The competition served as entertainment for the hundreds of students representing, 32 schools in 10 counties, who were at the Clay Center for a kickoff event for a program to get children from disadvantaged areas and backgrounds into college or other post-high school training.
About 1,300 West Virginia eighth graders danced, laughed and cheered Wednesday in Charleston at the kickoff event for a program to get kids from disadvantaged areas and backgrounds into college or other post-high school training — and take others with them.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education granted the Mountain State $21 million in its third Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant, according to Jessica Kennedy.
Kennedy — director of communications and outreach for the Division of Student Affairs, part of West Virginia’s public higher education agencies — said the GEAR UP grant will serve 17,000 students over seven years, with a specific focus on about 3,100 current eighth graders whom it will aid each year of the program.
Many of those students, representing 32 schools in 10 counties, filled a Clay Center auditorium Wednesday. They did the popular “Whip/Nae Nae” dance as college mascots from Concord, Fairmont State, Marshall and West Liberty universities led them onstage. The students also listened to a motivational speaker who tore off his shirt to reveal a Superman outfit midway through a talk in which he said they could overcome troubled upbringings to be successful.
Three students also won $250 college scholarships in a random drawing.
“It’s a very holistic, sort of wraparound program,” Kennedy said of GEAR UP. “… I mean we do things like financial aid nights and ACT prep and things like that, tutoring, but we also really work on developing students as people because we know that that’s a really important part of making sure they’re successful in life, and especially in college.”
Kennedy said GEAR UP also encourages students to enter work certification programs, apprenticeships and the military. She said the eighth graders entered the program last school year, and the grant will continue to benefit them through 2021.
She said GEAR UP also will provide high school seniors each year with what she called more limited, “just-in-time services” — like campus tours and financial aid workshops — to get them into college. But she said the program won’t accept another similar group of eighth graders for its seven-year run; the only new students accepted each year will be seniors.
Of the roughly 18,400 students who graduated from West Virginia public and private high schools in the 2013-14 school year, 55 percent enrolled in colleges in the fall, according to a state Higher Education Policy Commission report. That’s a 1 percent decrease in the college-going rate from the previous fall, a 4 percent drop over the past five years and the lowest overall rate since 1999.
Despite the increase in the number of West Virginia high school graduates by about 120 from 2010 to 2014, the number who enrolled in colleges in the fall after graduation dropped by 690.
Bucking the statewide trend, Kennedy said that college-going rates at West Virginia’s GEAR UP schools increased by 3.7 percentage points from fall 2008, around the time the last GEAR UP grant was awarded, to fall 2014.
She said GEAR UP students were more than three times more likely to accurately estimate tuition costs than students in similar, but non-GEAR UP schools, and had greater knowledge of financial aid opportunities. More than 81 percent of West Virginia GEAR UP students applied to at least one college, compared to 71 percent of students in comparison schools.
Kennedy said the GEAR UP program will start off serving 50 schools total in Boone, Fayette, Mason, Mercer, Mingo, Nicholas, Summers, Webster, Wirt and Wyoming counties.
She said the grant can only serve students from schools where more than 50 percent of the student body is eligible for free or reduced lunch. But West Virginia had to limit its funding request further than that and exclude counties that had already benefited from the program in both previous funding cycles — about a dozen total years — and analyze which areas had the lowest percentage of adults with college degrees and the highest percentage of students going to remedial courses in colleges.
“We have a lot of schools in West Virginia that have 50 percent or more free or reduced lunch, so then we had to narrow it down further to be able to provide a grant proposal that we could adequately meet,” Kennedy said.
She said the past GEAR UP funding gave the state the chance to try out ideas and then use other private and federal grants to increase successful initiatives’ scope and continue them without GEAR UP grant money.
She highlighted four such programs that came out of GEAR UP: College Application and Exploration Week, which is this week and has over 400 participating schools; Higher Education Readiness Officers groups, which are student-led organizations that now promote college attendance in eight non-GEAR UP high schools; a statewide awareness campaign about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid; and a statewide program where students receive text messages reminding them to fill out financial aid forms and perform other crucial college-going tasks.
Kendyl Ryan, who attended Boone County schools and is currently a sophomore studying public relations at Marshall University, spoke to the students Wednesday.
Her father died in an accident when she was entering high school, and her mother was later arrested for drug abuse. GEAR UP was her support system and “family” at school, leading her to assume leadership roles and teach the rest of her school about college access.
She’s been to Washington, D.C., twice as part of national GEAR UP recognitions. She said she loves the program’s focus on students from rural areas and students who are minorities or possible first-generation college students.
“Those are the students that are at high risk and often do fall through the cracks,” Ryan said.
Reach Ryan Quinn at email@example.com, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.