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PROPOSED cut in federal program's cut could harm higher education in Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A proposed 23 percent cut in funding to a federal program credited with helping more students attend college would be felt in Oklahoma, higher education officials said.

President Bush is proposing a 23 percent decrease in funding _ and the possible early phase-out _ of Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP).

The program was created in 1998 as a way to fund partnerships between colleges and common education in order to motivate students.

Oklahoma, behind Texas and California, has been the biggest beneficiary of the program, said Chancellor of Education Hans Brisch. He predicts the program's impact on Oklahoma, if funding remains consistent during the remaining three years, will exceed $140 million.

``This is not money on a stump,'' he said. ``This is performance-based money. Perform and you will have a possibility of continuation of money. That's why I like this program.''

Federal education officials say GEAR UP isn't as effective as Trio, another program proposed in Bush's education plan. Trio is a consortium of education programs awarded to higher education, but not to common education.

Oklahoma became an ideal place to start GEAR UP because by the program's first year in 1998 the state had made significant gains in graduation rates and college preparedness because of cooperation between common and higher education, said Assistant Vice Chancellor Dolores Mize.

``My thought was 'they built this for Oklahoma,''' said Mize, who helped start GEAR UP in Oklahoma. ``We knew what our next steps needed to be, but we were challenged to find the funding to move on and make a real impact on the schools.

``GEAR UP made it happen.''

Three members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation were among the House and Senate supporters hoping to increase the program's funding from last year's budget.

Now, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and U.S. Reps. Wes Watkins, R-Okla., and Brad Carson, D-Okla., are hoping to stop the proposed $68 million cut to GEAR UP.

``We've taken advantage of this more than any other state in the country,'' Carson said. ``Already in my six months (as a congressman), I've visited GEAR UP programs in Muskogee and saw firsthand what they're doing. They've helped 2,000 at-risk and low-income students.''

Carson said he is cautiously optimistic the effort to save GEAR UP will be successful.

``When you can unite people across the spectrum like me and Senator Inhofe, I think there will be a strong coalition to maintain GEAR UP.''
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