New partnership strengthens path to college for 9,300 low-income students in Alabama

As part of the UAB-led GEAR UP Alabama program, the Alabama Community College System will offer tuition waivers to a cohort of students in the Class of 2020 and 2021 students, as well as tuition assistance to parents.

Written by: Tiffany Westry

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gear up 20158th-grader Mekial Sherren holds Gear Up Alabama sign in pre-algebra class at Gordo High School in Pickens County. As students around the state settle back into their school routines, 9,300 middle school students in Alabama’s Black Belt Region are starting the school year with college tuition waivers awaiting them upon high school graduation.

The Alabama Community College System has partnered with the UAB-led GEAR UP Alabama program to provide full tuition waivers to students in the Class of 2020 and 2021 who meet specified criteria for admission to attend any public community or technical college in the state.

“The mission of the Alabama Community College System is to serve all residents of Alabama,” said Chancellor Mark A. Heinrich, Ph.D. “This mission is particularly important to those without accessible means for higher education. We are excited to play a role in assisting those in GEAR UP Alabama with postsecondary education.”

This cohort of sixth- and seventh-grade students is the focus of a seven-year $49 million grant awarded to the UAB School of Education by the U.S. Department of Education in 2014. The Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness of Undergraduate Programs grant provides funding to states to enhance services for students, parents and teachers at high-poverty schools in order to increase the number of students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

The 9,300 students GEAR UP Alabama serves are located throughout 21 school districts and 50 schools from south of Montgomery, including Montgomery County, to the Mississippi and Georgia borders.

“A lot of the students in that region of Alabama don’t go to college,” said UAB’s Lawrence Tyson, Ph.D., associate professor of counselor education in the Department of Human Studies and principal investigator for the program. “We have statistics to prove and support why we chose the Black Belt as our focus. Telling GEAR UP Alabama students and their families that in six or seven years, if you stay within our program, you’ll have at least two years of post-high school education waiting for you: I can’t think of a better incentive for those families to get on board and become involved as much as they can with what we’re trying to do.”

The Alabama Community College System has also committed to providing tuition assistance to parents of GEAR UP Alabama students who qualify for admission.

Since receiving the grant, GEAR UP Alabama has assessed participating schools, and has provided professional development to teachers and parents, and summer enrichment programs for students. The cohort of students will be followed and provided initiatives and development programs through their first year of college. Sustainability is an area of focus for all of the initiatives being developed, which will be left in place at participating schools to further serve students who follow once the grant program comes to an end.

“This is an outstanding opportunity that will make a big impact for this cohort of students and their parents,” said UAB School of Education Dean Deborah L. Voltz, Ed.D. “GEAR UP Alabama can prepare them to take advantage of educational opportunities. The extension of tuition waivers from the Alabama Community College System removes the barrier that may have existed for some students. It serves as encouragement and incentive for participating. This partnership will make an extraordinary difference in the lives of these students.”

State and other project partners will match UAB’s annual federal award of $3.5 million.

“There are a lot of moving parts to this grant,” Tyson said. “We could not perform the grant well without the partnerships we have with other institutions of higher education, the State Department of Education, and partnerships that are being forged with other organizations and businesses.”