The federally funded Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program (GEAR UP) is one of the most widely known U.S. programs which attempts to increase college enrollment and completion rates among disadvantaged students. GEAR UP has three main aims specifically targeted toward disadvantaged students historically underrepresented in higher education: (1) to increase academic performance and preparation for higher education, (2) to increase the rates of high school graduation and participation in higher education, and (3) to increase students’ and families’ knowledge of higher education options, including academic preparation and financing.
In 2011, an invitational priority was announced by the Department of Education (DOE) that encouraged grant applicants to include financial access and Children’s Savings Accounts (CSAs) in their programming for students and their families. In a September press release, DOE announced 66 new GEAR UP grantees from the 2011 application cycle. Nineteen grantees were state entities and 47 were community-education partnerships.
In 2012, researchers from the Assets and Education Initiative (AEDI) at the University of Kansas launched a multi-method evaluation of 2011 GEAR UP grantees who accepted the invitational priority. AEDI combed through the GEAR UP applications and identified 33 grantees that explicitly stated in their abstracts the intention to open CSAs and/or teach financial education to students and their families. Among these 33 grantees, 25 programs completed AEDI’s initial survey. AEDI selected five programs to participate in a follow-up survey and in-depth interviews and focus groups during on-site visits. The study aimed to answer four primary research questions: (1) How well prepared do GEAR UP programs perceive themselves to be for planning and implementing CSAs? (2) What steps have GEAR UP programs taken to plan and implement CSAs? (3) What obstacles have GEAR UP programs encountered? and (4) What strategies have GEAR UP programs used to overcome obstacles that they encountered?