A lift on the road to graduation
Federal programs help disadvantaged students succeed in college

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009

Khawar Malik had written just one 10-page paper in four years at DuVal High School in Lanham, and his teacher had given him an entire year to finish it.

High school left him unprepared for college. So, Malik, 19, entered the University of Maryland through its Academic Achievement Programs division. He spent six summer weeks in the academic equivalent of boot camp, learning all the reading, writing, math and study skills he would need to keep pace with other freshmen. By the end of the sixth week, he had written another 10-page paper and several shorter ones. Today, he is an English major.

"If I didn't have this program, I wouldn't be here right now," said Malik, a sophomore who has a 4.0 grade-point average.

The federal Student Support Services program, launched during the Nixon administration, is part of a larger effort to help disadvantaged students overcome academic and cultural barriers to success in higher education. The program is part of TRIO, a group of national initiatives that have proven their ability to raise the odds that a disadvantaged student will stay in college, get good grades and graduate.

Yet supporters say the programs have languished through years of fiscal neglect. Total funding to the TRIO programs -- $848 million in the fiscal year that began this month -- has risen about 1 percent in the past five years. TRIO serves 838,591 students, fewer than it did in 2003.

The support programs are closely linked to the federal Pell grant, a $25 billion fund that helps students from low-income families pay for college. Unlike TRIO, funding for Pell has increased by more than one-third over the past three years. A student aid bill that cleared the House last month would add $40 billion to Pell over the next decade but does not address TRIO.

Advocates say the support programs are key to the success of students who receive Pell grants. Money, they say, is not enough.

"You can give them all the money in the world," said Arnold Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a nonprofit organization in the District that supports the TRIO programs. "But if you don't address the confidence issues, the skills issue, you're not going to make it."

Mitchem contends that the Obama administration will get a better return on its investment in Pell by expanding the programs that support Pell students. About 23 percent of Pell recipients receive bachelor's degrees within six years, according to federal data, while an additional 29 percent get associate's degrees. Such statistics prompt some critics to contend that Pell money is largely wasted.

Federal data show that 29 percent of all postsecondary students complete a bachelor's degree in six years and 10 percent attain associate's degrees.

But when Pell is combined with the support programs, the graduation rate rises by about 10 points, according to Mitchem's agency.

At the University of Maryland, the TRIO program is housed in an academic building across from Memorial Chapel. On Wednesday morning, students popped in and out of small classrooms to learn study skills and seek supplementary instruction in reading and math. Program directors do not consider the classes remedial. Instructors teach college-level material, but at a slower pace.

"We give the students an elongated approach to dealing with the concept," said Jerry Lewis, executive director of Academic Achievement Programs.

One classroom functioned as a collegiate study hall, with students seeking help from tutors or from their classmates. A young man turned his notebook to a classmate and asked, "How do you know if the function is even, odd or neither?" The classmate helped him solve the problem.

In another class, an instructor led several students through a list of multiple-choice graphing problems. "For these kinds of problems," he told them, "you always use elimination."

The six-week boot camp is the starting point for about 100 freshmen a year at Maryland, students who otherwise would not be admitted. Typically, they have good grades but lower SAT scores than other U-Md. students, and they come from high schools that offer less-rigorous classes. All but a handful make it through the summer program and gain freshman status.

Students remain tethered to the support programs for their first two years, taking supplementary classes, learning how to deal with professors and roommates, and getting advice on how to manage their time.

About 92 percent return as sophomores, a higher retention rate than for the university as a whole. Two-thirds of program participants receive their diplomas. That is lower than the 81 percent graduation rate for U-Md. as a whole but higher than the national average for students from low-income families in four-year colleges, which is about 40 percent, according to program officials.

Stephanie Trimnell, an 18-year-old freshman from Laurel High School, arrived at U-Md. with the sort of academic deficits that lead many disadvantaged students to drop out. After the six-week summer program, she was placed in Math 003, a developmental course that covers high school algebra. But one thing she has learned is confidence.

"They motivate you. They inspire you," she said. "Everybody's pushing you toward being a better person."

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