SALT LAKE CITY — Utah educators hope a modest but well-placed boost in funding will strengthen the relationship between public schools and higher education, helping more students enroll and succeed in college.
Now in its second year, the StepUP READY grant provides $500,000 in ongoing state money that is awarded through the Utah System of Higher Education to schools and colleges committed to partnering to make college a reality for more students.
So far, some schools, such as Olympus High School, are using last year's funds to expand support services for at-risk students preparing for college. Others, such as Dixie State University, are using the money to hire college math students to help high schoolers with their math homework.
"It lends itself to innovation and creativity and funds to support direct services to kids that sometimes we're not able to do," Judy Petersen, director of college and career readiness at Granite School District, said of the grant. "We're hoping that we can be more targeted and deliberate in our support to our underrepresented kids in the Olympus community."
The Utah System of Higher Education this month began the application process for this year's grants. Partnering schools and universities must choose from a menu of objectives that includes preparation, enrollment, transition and professional development. Each school-university partnership can receive up to $50,000 if they provide a 50 percent match in funding or resources.
The program's main objectives focus mostly on college preparation prior to enrollment, though some deal with success after a student begins college. These objectives include improving ACT scores, increasing the number of students taking honors and concurrent enrollment courses, getting more at-risk students to apply for college and for federal financial aid, and lessening the "summer melt," when students are accepted to college but don't complete the enrollment process.
Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Buhler said $50,000 may not be much when compared to a school or university's budget. But it can be an effective incentive to try new things to prepare students for life after high school, he said.
"In the grand scheme of things, these are not big dollars," Buhler said. "But there really is quite a bit of interest by putting out a fairly modest amount of money to local school districts and higher education institutions to partner together to accomplish more things than they would be able to do on their own."
Last year, 23 applications were submitted, and nine school-university partnerships were given grants, Buhler said. This year's application period ends in September, and awards will be announced in November.
"We're looking forward to awarding the second round (of grants) this year and just keeping this momentum going," he said.
With last year's funds, the Granite School District partnered with the University of Utah in two separate grants through the StepUP READY program. One grant allowed 17 of the district's counselors to enroll in professional development training online through the U., providing up-to-date information about financial aid opportunities and the college enrollment process.
Thanks to another StepUP READY grant, the district is working with the Utah College Advising Corps, based at the U., to place a college access adviser at Olympus High this fall.
Thanks to the grant, Olympus will become the 13th school in the state — most of them in the Granite School District — to have an adviser dedicated specifically to helping at-risk students make and carry out their college plans.
"Their sole purpose is just to work with kids one-on-one and help them and their families navigate the pathway to college," Petersen said. "It's a way to augment and enhance the school counseling services to identify our underserved kids."
Nicole Batt, director of the Utah College Advising Corps, said partnering with local K-12 schools is key to increasing college enrollment and completion rates, as well as creating a "college-going culture" in schools and families.
"We all have the same goals. We want to see these high school kids succeed when they get out into the adult world and when they go to college," Batt said. "We really hope to see these students succeed in a way that hasn't been done in the past."
Dixie State University was also awarded a grant in partnership with the Washington County School District to provide tutoring services for high schoolers. The partnership targets high school juniors as they complete Secondary Math III, helping them through the course and encouraging them to take another math course their senior year.
"The whole motivation is too many students are not prepared to take college level math, not just at Dixie State, but all across the state," said David Roos, executive director of enrollment management at the St. George-based university.
Only 23 percent of high school seniors in the area take a math course their senior year, according to Roos. He said an internal survey of Dixie students also found that 60 percent of them regretted their choice of math classes in high school.
Roos said he hopes the StepUP READY grant program will help reverse the trend and improve students' readiness for college-level coursework.
"I think these grants provide a spark for ideas that are worth pursuing. I think in this case, you're going to find the results will show that it was worthwhile," Roos said. "I think we'll see our math completion rates (get) higher as a result of this grant. It makes you think, so what else could we do?"
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