Adding Adults into the Free College ConversationVeronique Zimmerman-Brown | Project Director for GEAR UP, University of Alabama Birmingham
The free two-year college movement is gaining momentum across the United States, but the focus demographics for these programs has traditionally been recent high school graduates. In Alabama, however, the GEAR UP program has committed to creating access for both young students and their parents. In this interview, Veronique Zimmerman-Brown reflects on some of the reasoning behind that decision and shares some insights into the challenges of establishing the GEAR UP Alabama program and making it a success.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): While there are a number of free-tuition programs in the works for two-year education, most of them are geared towards traditional-age students. Why did you decide to develop GEAR UP to serve Alabama’s non-traditional population?
Veronique Zimmerman-Brown (VZB): One of the objectives of GEAR UP Alabama (GUA) is to increase understanding of postsecondary education options, preparation and financing for GUA students and their families. We met with Chancellor Mark Heinrich of the Alabama Community College System to discuss a partnership and when he heard our objectives, he offered scholarship opportunities for our GUA students. Later in the discussion, he suggested to offer scholarships to the parents as well. He is approached by industry leaders all the time who have expressed concern about the shortage of skilled workers in the labor market—we simply do not have enough. The shortage is actually threatening the economic stability for our state. Industries have threatened to leave if things do not change.
By extending this opportunity to parents, we can help address the need for more skilled workers while also providing good role models from the community for our students. They will be better equipped to discuss postsecondary options and help with various forms of support by living the experience.
Evo: What have been some of the most significant challenges to getting GEAR-UP from concept to reality?
VZB: One of the most significant challenges we have faced is building relationships.
This grant is about addressing some fundamental issues that have created long lasting, ingrained problems. Everyone wants to blame someone about the quality of education, but we all are responsible. Our state’s educational wellbeing depends on healing, developing and fostering relationships. We ask the state government, school system, industries, community, local school systems and their faculty, parents, and students to hold themselves accountable for the roles they have played in the past and embrace new attitudes in order to improve relationships; this process can become delicate. However, intentional collaboration is necessary to create real change and sustainability.
GEAR UP Alabama is a mechanism to help bridge these stakeholders and provide supplemental resources to make their connections meaningful. By keeping the focus on our goals/objectives and on our students, we hope to strengthen these relationships knowing the end results will be positive for all.
Evo: What short-term and long-term impacts do you hope this program will have?
VZB: In the short term, I hope we can gain as many partners as possible from all sectors of our community (business, industry, higher ed, non-profit, community groups). Exposure will be key to helping our students choose the right path for themselves and training them to deal with not only academic but social factors that lead to increased success. Our partners can help provide exposure to experiences.
Over the long term, I hope to develop sustainability. I want our districts to learn and practice processes that help them locate and use resources efficiently. I want them to be able to clearly define what they want to accomplish based on authentic qualitative and quantitative data and use practices where they consistently evaluate what they are doing to make improvements and changes as necessary. I want this process not to be seen as something “extra” but as a part of the culture (This is who we are and this is what we do!). When GEAR UP Alabama leaves, I want the GEAR UP Alabama “way” to stay.
Evo: What will it take to start a national movement aimed at improving access to two-year education for adult students?
VZB: It will take the realization that the condition of the United States’ educational system and job market should be the concern for all. We must understand all training options should be discussed so students can align their strengths and interests with various careers. The lack of exposure to career options, beyond the obvious, is crippling our employment rate and economic stability. Students are selecting majors they do not have the appropriate pre-requisite coursework for and/or do not like simply because they do not know about other options. They change their majors after taking courses, failing some or forcing their way through because they are not really interested. Some get as far as the internship phase before they realize they are in the wrong field. They end up wasting money and time.
If our educational system starts to pay attention and provide the type of intentional guidance designed to help students make alignments leading to better major/career selections, it will not only help the students, but will also help decrease financial aid waste and increase the number of skilled workers available to fill positions that are in demand and are associated with better pay. This helps everyone!
Author Perspective: Administrator