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‘Learning’ inks Epps

Omar Epps, who starred in “The Program,” will take on a key role in “Higher Learning,” helmer John Singleton’s next Columbia Pictures outing, sources said Thursday.

Epps — who came to prominence in the 1992 inner-city gangster pic “Juice”– replaces rapper/actor (and fellow “Juice” thesp) Tupac Shakur, who was previously eyed by the studio for the role of Malik.

“Six Degrees of Separation” star Will Smith’s name also surfaced briefly for the part.

Pending finalization, sources said, Epps will join an ensemble cast including rapper/actor Ice Cube (Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood”), Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Rappaport, Kristy Swanson and Regina King. Columbia reps declined comment.

“Higher Learning” is billed as a college piece in which the sensibilities of “Nashville” meet “Boyz N the Hood,” although the filmmaker is keeping most details under wraps.

Epps is repped by Raelle Koota and Lorrie Bartlett from the Gersh Agency. The 22-year-old Shakur reportedly exited the “Higher” race after two recent legal incidents that sources said could have become a liability for the pic.

In November, Shakur was charged with aggravated assault in Atlanta for allegedly shooting two off-duty police officers. Later that month, a New York criminal court indicted him and two friends on charges of sexually attacking a 20-year-old woman in Shakur’s Manhattan hotel room.

“Higher” is produced by Singleton and Paul Hall, with Dwight Williams as co-producer.

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