EDITORIAL: Learning tools: Strengthening GEAR UP program can help more students succeed

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn speaks at a conference hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation on Jan. 13, 2017, at the Sheraton Hotel in Austin.

The goal of helping more students succeed in life transcends partisan politics. Their success helps guarantee our society’s overall success. Fortunately, several congressional lawmakers recognize that fact, and joined forces to co-sponsor a bill that seeks to improve and expand the GEAR UP college and career readiness and grant program.

Speaking at a news conference last month during a visit with Rio Grande Valley educators and community leaders in Harlingen, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-San Antonio, announced the creation of the GEAR UP for Success Act, which would provide more resources to the program and allow more local flexibility.

Cornyn co-filed the legislation along with Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Jacky Rosen, D-Nev. U.S. Reps. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, and Susan Davis, D-Calif., filed the companion bill in the House of Representatives.

Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs provides federal grants and scholarships to school districts and low-income students to help prepare the students for college. The programs are designed to help students from the sixth grade through their first year in college.

Districts use the resources to provide tutoring, test preparation, field trips and college visits and other services to help students prepare for post-secondary eduction. The proposed change would give local school districts more flexibility to design programs that would meet local needs and student interests. In the Rio Grande Valley that might mean expanding high school health programs to prepare them for the local medical school, visits to farms and orchards to support Valley agriculture or pursuing field trips to the SpaceX launch facility for those interested in aerospace careers.

“Our local schools should be able to use grants to cater specifically to their students’ needs,” Cornyn said in a statement announcing the filing of the bill. “This legislation will bring even greater local control in the GEAR UP program, from which many students in Texas have already benefited. I look forward to working with my colleagues to make sure students don’t fall behind, improve college completion rates and ensure decisions rest with those who know our students best.”

The grant program is competitive; school districts and students must qualify for the resources.

At the January event in Harlingen, the senator noted that the program is so popular that the demand exceeds the resources that currently are available.

GEAR UP provides scholarships to some students, and also helps families look for other sources of financial aid.

The program has provided almost $900 million to Texas students in the past 20 years, and those students have achieved higher high school graduation and college success rates, Cornyn’s office reported.

It appears the proposed legislation not only will help more local students attain college education, but it could help those students pursue careers that would enable them to stay in South Texas and support their families and our local economy.