Applying for a GEAR UP Grant

Co-Authors: Norma O. McCormick and Alex Casillas, Ph.D.

Grants are an excellent vehicle to provide necessary resources to students who need it most. Here, we will provide some background on Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) initiative, an opportunity to help underserved learners prepare for postsecondary success, and give you some pointers on how you can start preparing your very own GEAR UP grant.

What is a GEAR UP grant?

GEAR UP is a competitive grant program designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. The U.S. Department of Education awards multi-year GEAR UP grants to states and partnerships, increasing access to early intervention services designed to promote college readiness. GEAR UP is unique in that it promotes collaboration between K-12, higher education, and community partnerships. And it fosters flexible, community-based solutions to prepare underserved students for postsecondary success.

Applying for a GEAR UP grant

Although the application process for GEAR UP grants is competitive, it’s a great way to help fund early intervention services for students. For example, social and emotional learning (SEL) assessments and curricula can be written into GEAR UP grants as forms of early intervention to help students develop the skills they need to be successful in school and ready for college and the world of work. The U.S. Department of Education provides eligibility, application, and FAQ information here. We know that these materials can seem like information overload, and that applying for a GEAR UP grant for the first time can feel intimidating, but engaging in the process can truly help improve outcomes for underserved learners in your community.

Meet Norma O. McCormick, our GEAR UP expert

To help you gain insight to what the process is really like, we spoke with Norma O. McCormick, Director of the Office of College, Career and Life Readiness at Region One Education Service Center in Texas. Over the past 20 years, Norma has worked relentlessly to promote success for underserved, primarily Latinx, learners in the Rio Grande Valley region of south Texas. She has contributed to five funded grants with a multitude of long-term partner organizations, including ACT. We at ACT have been fortunate to partner with Norma and her staff at Region One throughout multiple grant cycles. Below, we share some insights from an interview with Norma in which she discussed her successful GEAR UP application efforts and how she and her team have leveraged these grants to promote the success of underserved learners, their families, and the community.


Q: Please describe some of the opportunities your students have gained as a result of receiving GEAR UP funding.

A: Our students have been very blessed to receive additional supports in the academic area through online and face-to-face tutoring that has helped them in their content areas. We have always worked from an asset driven, whole child mentality and have been able to expand on our efforts in the area of social and emotional learning by continuing to provide ongoing supports to students through ACT and its SEL solutions, such as Tessera. In addition to providing services for students, GEAR UP funds have also been used for teacher professional development, new technology, and increased public-private partnership work in the health science and finance fields.

Q: Where do you start with the application process?

A: First, review former RFPs and look at requirements, goals, and objectives, as far as a year in advance of submitting an actual application. Grant applications typically open around July, but preparation should occur well before then. Look at your community, what are your needs? Then look at the state and national levels, what trends are going on there? I also encourage identifying a cohort model to follow and get feedback from your team and partners on how it will support your students. Think about the supports at the campus level.  Will you include campus onsite support?  What are the type of positions that will support and ensure these grants are successful at the administration level?  How will you ensure that your grant will be successful?  What will you put in place to create a successful implementation plan once you are funded? These are key questions to consider as you articulate a clear vision for the overall application and implementation process.

Q: Does anything surprise you when preparing grants?

A: Once the actual RFP goes out, you have only 30-45 days to prepare a strong application that covers everything. Note that these 30-45 days also generally occur during the summer months, when school is out. This is why it is so important to begin conversations and create a shared vision with partners early!

Q: What advice do you have for any organizations considering preparing a GEAR UP grant?

A: Start early and dream big! Think about your community and understand its needs. Look at your state trends and look at how this compares to national needs and start bringing in your teams to create a vision for what you want. Then decide which partners would help you support this vision. It’s also very important to work collaboratively with all partners and districts involved in the grant, as working in isolation on the application is rarely fruitful. Listen to the needs of each party and seek regular guidance and feedback to ensure that you are working collaboratively to meet the needs of your community.


Key Takeways

After our interview with Norma, we leave you with these key takeaways to consider as you prepare to apply for GEAR UP funding.

  • Review each area required in the RFP carefully, including the point system, and see how each area has certain points allotted to it. Ensure your grant proposal sufficiently covers all required areas.
  • Review the priorities and ensure your application tells a story with clearly defined goals and objectives.
  • Ensure that you do early planning with your team, districts, internal leadership, and partners so that everyone understands their role in the grant opportunity. Conversations regarding deliverables and in-kind contributions are very important, and it is necessary to have these conversations months before an RFP opens.
  • Ask for more than what you may expect to get and do not be shy to ask for as much in-kind as possible from each partner.


We hope this information is helpful to you and inspires you to prepare your own GEAR UP grant. ACT has been a proud supporter and partner of GEAR UPs for over a decade. We have provided a range of options for meeting in-kind contributions, collaborated with partners to provide SEL solutions that assist students in developing their skills, and have provided support and assistance in order to help underserved learners succeed. We hope that you, too, can leverage the opportunities made available through the GEAR UP program in order to improve outcomes for underserved learners in your own communities.

Dana Murano, PhD

Dana Murano, PhD

Research Scientist - Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning: Dana Murano is a Research Scientist in ACT's Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. She completed her PhD in Educational Psychology with a specialization in Learning, Development, and Instruction at the City University of New York. Her research focuses primarily on the development and assessment of social and emotional skills in students. Additional work and research interests include the development of interventions to improve social and emotional skills, meta-analysis, and the intersection of feedback and the development of social and emotional skills.