Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and higher education bosses today are unveiling a Utah Scholars initiative, aimed at getting eighth-graders, with a little guidance, encouragement and some pats on the back, to prepare now for college and the workplace.

"We want to say every student has the opportunity for a higher quality of life if they start in the eighth and ninth grade, taking classes that will prepare them," said Amanda Covington, communications director for the Utah System of Higher Education. "It does not really target overachievers as much as it does the mainstream students who might need a little help."

High school rigor is a focus for both public schools and colleges.

Business executives have criticized public schools for churning out graduates who can neither write well nor do basic math. Colleges also are struggling with costs of providing remedial classes to freshmen to prepare them for the institutions' higher-level coursework.

The State Board of Education last month raised the bar for high school rigor, requiring students take four years of English and three each of math and science — already required in some districts — in order to graduate.

Utah Scholars is an initiative of the K-16 alliance, a group working to improve educational outcomes for students age kindergarten through college, and part of the national State Scholars Initiative.

The initiative is funded by a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education. It follows a new study that Covington says found rigorous high school study is an even stronger predictor of college completion than ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Initiative details are expected to be revealed today.

But basically, the program will bring business and college leaders to schools to show eighth-graders what could happen to them in college, at work, or in life — if they prepare now.

Students will be asked to sign a Utah Scholars commitment to take four years of English and math, 3 1/2 years of social studies, three years of science and two years of a foreign language.

Higher education bosses will work with counselors to keep students on track and celebrate successes with annual parties. University of Utah and Utah Valley State College students are expected to mentor and tutor participants.

Granger, Provo, Park City and Hillcrest high schools are participating in the program pilot, Covington said. Students already on the rigorous track also can participate.

State Board of Education chairman Kim Burningham believes the program could provide the encouragement and incentives some need to reach their potential.

"In a society which gives recognition to so many other things, it's a positive means, it seems to me, when we give recognition for academic excellence," he said.

The idea follows the Regents Scholars program Higher Education Commissioner Rich Kendell has proposed.

As yet, there are no scholarships for students who complete the program, Covington said. But low-income students eligible for Pell grants could receive more aid — $750 more in the first year, $1,300 in the second — if they complete the initiative's requirements.

"I think it will be a really exciting program, and it will grow year to year," Covington said.