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GEAR UP Counters Critics, Welcomes Evaluation

After a policy brief last week called into question the effectiveness of federal college-prep programs, the GEAR UP community defended its work and called for resources to conduct more rigorous evaluations.

The National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, a Washington-based nonprofit that provides training, technical assistance, and advocacy support to the GEAR UP program, issued a written response to a brief by researchers from Princeton University and the Brookings Institution. That brief proposed an overhaul of college-access programs for disadvantaged students. It called the current programs "mostly failed" and "interspersed with modest successes."

The researchers advocated rolling the $1 billion spent annually on TRIO programs and GEAR UP into one pool that would be awarded through a competitive-grant process. To keep their money, entities would have to prove their programs had a positive impact on college access and completion.

GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program), established 14 years ago, provides six-year grants to states and partnerships to provide services at high-poverty middle and high schools, serving students beginning no later than the 7th grade and following the cohort through high school.

In the rebuttal statement, NCCEP and the GEAR UP community said they believed the evidence presented in the brief was inadequate to support a broad conclusion that federal college-access programs are not effective. They did agree that additional resources are needed to evaluate federal education programs and ensure tax dollars are spent wisely. In 2012, the GEAR UP community decided on its own to undertake a national longitudinal evaluation of its impact.

The statement argues that programs such as GEAR UP are vital to leveling the education playing field. It adds that taxpayers have a right to know that federal investments are producing measurable outcomes, and practitioners can benefit from learning what approaches work.

"In the absence of government-sponsored research to independently verify the success of college-access programs, NCCEP calls into question the report's broad implication that federal college-access programs do not work," the statement says. "This implication may lead others to falsely conclude that funds invested in GEAR UP have been wasted."

The statement quotes GEAR UP grantees as committed to greater accountability and notes that earlier this year, the New America Foundation named GEAR UP "the most promising" of all federal college-access programs.

Martha Kanter, U.S. undersecretary of education, issued a statement Friday in response to the Brookings brief that underscores the administration's view that boosting college access and completion rates, especially for disadvantaged students, is a necessity if the United States is lead the world in the proportion of college graduates. "Improving accountability and leveraging innovations with evidence to produce better student outcomes from college-preparation programs are key elements of a comprehensive postsecondary education reform agenda as we begin discussions to reauthorize the Higher Education Act," says Kanter's statement.


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