New Mexico Higher Education Department helps high school students preview college with federal program

Stephanie Montoya

GEAR UP college readiness program takes students on the road 

Over 40 high school students had the opportunity to visit campuses and learn about the many college and career options available in New Mexico during the GEAR UP New Mexico Summer College Bus Tour this June.  

Students from six different school districts visited campuses across southern New Mexico, took part in workshops and activities, and enjoyed stops at White Sands National Park and City of Rocks State Park during the three-day tour.  

The GEAR UP New Mexico college readiness program at the New Mexico Higher Education Department organizes the tours, which aim to help high school students set foot on college campuses outside of their home communities and learn about degree programs, financial aid options and more. GEAR UP New Mexico partners with school districts across the state that serve a high proportion of rural and first-generation students. The U.S. Department of Education renewed funding for the program in 2020 at $31.4 million for the next seven years to support around 10,000 students and their families each year. During the prior grant cycle from 2012 to 2019, graduation rates for participating districts increased by nearly 15 percent and college enrollment rates increased by 21 percent. 

“These tours give first-generation GEAR UP students some of the skills and advantages that students from multi-generational college-going families take for granted,” GEAR UP New Mexico Regional Coordinator Aaron Mitchell said. “Students can do a lot of comparing and checking out colleges online, but nothing can replace being on the campus and speaking with the faculty or sitting on the quad and envisioning what their life would be like at that school.” 

The tour featured visits to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, Western New Mexico University in Silver City, and New Mexico State University and Doña Ana Community College in Las Cruces. Students heard presentations from admissions and financial aid staff, learned about program offerings from college faculty, and toured lab and classroom facilities. Other highlights included lunch at the campus dining hall, exploring residence halls, and playing “college bingo” with fellow students.  

Warren Kurtnaker is entering his senior year at Socorro High School and says that the tour helped him connect with like-minded students and gave him the motivation he needed to move forward on the college application process.  

“I was a little hesitant at first since I was going with a group of people I didn’t know, so I wasn’t sure, but I really started getting into it. I built relationships with these people and overall it was a great experience. This tour has accelerated my growth to looking at colleges further. It’s showed me what I can do,” he said.  

Kurtnaker applied to Western New Mexico University during the tour and has already received an acceptance letter.  

“I felt great – like I could accomplish something now. I’m so thankful for the people who guided us.”  

Photos from the 2022 Summer College Bus Tour are available via GEAR UP New Mexico’s Facebook page

The GEAR UP New Mexico at the New Mexico Higher Education Department provides college and career readiness programs and services to middle and high school students in seven districts across the state. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the program will invest $31.4 million over seven years to help thousands of K-12 students and their families access higher education. During the prior grant cycle from 2012 to 2019, graduation rates for participating districts increased by nearly 15 percent and college enrollment rates increased by 21 percent.  

The New Mexico Higher Education Department was established in 2005 and oversees the state’s public and Tribal colleges, universities, and special schools. It also oversees adult education and literacy programs statewide, manages state-funded financial aid programs and capital projects for higher education institutions, provides college readiness services via the GEAR UP program, and grants state authorization to private colleges operating within New Mexico. For more information, visit