New $68M University of Oklahoma Initiative Will Prep Students for College

The University of Oklahoma GEAR UP for LIFE initiative will help 8,258 middle school students at 28 under-resourced schools prepare for college.
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Published on November 28, 2023
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  • The "GEAR UP for LIFE" program will follow the sixth- and seventh-graders from participating schools past high school.
  • The program will increase student learning engagement, educate students and families about post-secondary options and aid, and create tutoring, mentorship and college and career readiness events.
  • The university also offers free tuition and fees for qualifying students from families making less than $100,000 per year.
  • Colleges in over 30 states offer free tuition to qualifying students, and the University of California will offer free online college courses to students from Title I schools in winter 2024.

The University of Oklahoma (OU) is helping rural Oklahoma middle school students from under-resourced schools "GEAR UP for LIFE" by preparing them for college and the workforce.

OU announced the new $86 million initiative and partnership between the university's K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal and 28 under-resourced schools in 23 rural school districts to prepare students for college and careers on Nov. 10.

"Programs like GEAR UP and TRIO, which I have been a longtime champion of, ensure Oklahoma's low-income students and families have access to the education and workforce training that is vital to the economic prosperity of our great state," said Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole. "I am proud to congratulate OU on this significant grant, which will allow even more Oklahoma students the opportunity to achieve high-paying, high-skill jobs in their home state."

The "Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs for Learning and Investigating Future Education" (GEAR UP for LIFE) program is funded by a $43 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), grant partner-matched funds, and the Oklahoma Promise Program.

OU's GEAR UP for LIFE program will impact 8,258 sixth- and seventh-grade students and follow them in their education journeys beyond high school graduation.

Launched in 1998 through ED, GEAR UP programs are seven-year programs to prepare middle and high school students from low-income families for college and a career. OU's GEAR UP for LIFE is the sixth and most highly funded GEAR UP program. From the first GEAR UP grant until now, OU has impacted 27,825 students across 161 schools.

According to K20 Center Managing Director Leslie Williams, OU will support students by:

  • Increasing behavioral, cognitive, and emotional engagement in learning/
  • Increasing academic college preparedness.
  • Educating families and students in post-secondary education options, prep, and financial aid.
  • Increasing high school graduation and college enrollment.
  • Creating research-based activities like tutoring, mentoring, college and career readiness events, and game-based learning.

"GEAR UP for LIFE is the largest grant in the nearly 30-year history of OU's K20 Center," said Gregg Garn, vice president for online learning at OU and executive director of the K20 Center. "Students benefiting from the grant will be better prepared to help grow the workforce necessary to ensure Oklahoma's continued economic prosperity."

OU also offers free tuition and fees through the Crimson Commitment for direct-from-high-school students qualifying for the Oklahoma Promise from families making less than $100,000 a year.

Other Opportunities and Resources for Middle and High School Students From Low-income Families

Students from low-income families have opportunities for free tuition, college courses, and sometimes free schooling in their states.

There are four-year colleges and universities in over 30 states offering free tuition to qualifying students. Ivy League Schools like Princeton University, Harvard University, and Yale University offer a completely free education for students from families making under $100,000 a year.

On the West Coast, the University of California (UC) system plans to offer students at Title I schools — where there is a high percentage of students from low-income families — free online college-level courses.

UC is partnering with the National Education Equity Lab (NEEL) to offer two initial courses in winter 2024 to high school students, designed by UC faculty and co-facilitated by high school teachers.

NEEL offers college-level courses to 15,000 students in 29 states and partners with universities like Howard University, Arizona State University, Harvard University, and Stanford University. Courses include environmental studies, sociology, poetry, and bioengineering.

High school students who want to prepare for college can check out the CollegeLeaps App on the App Store and Google Play Store, which plans and tracks when students should take the ACT and SAT, apply for scholarships, and apply for colleges.

Students can choose their grade level and look through specialized timelines or learn tips on why things like GPA are essential when applying to colleges.