Harry L. Williams had no doubt he was going to college, even though his parents never attended and could offer no guidance on applying or enrolling. He cleared the first hurdle by being accepted to Appalachian State University in 1982 on a track and field scholarship, but once he started school it was all a little overwhelming.
Enter Student Support Services (SSS), one of eight initiatives for students from low-income families and veterans in a federal program known as TRIO. The initiative offered Williams tutoring and counseling that he said helped him graduate. The bond he developed with his adviser was so strong that she attended his inauguration as president of Delaware State University 28 years later.
“I wouldn’t be a college president right now if I didn’t have the student support program to provide me with the foundation that I needed transitioning into college,” Williams said this week. “First-generation [college] students could easily get frustrated with the process, and if you don’t have the support at home, you could end up dropping out.”
On Thursday, the Trump administration proposed a combined $193 million cut in funding for TRIO and another initiative called GEAR UP, threatening the stability of programs that have prepared millions of disadvantaged students for college. The programs are not without detractors who call them redundant and question their effectiveness. Yet advocates say they play a critical role in college access for some of the neediest students.
“Financial aid isn’t the only barrier,” said David Bergeron, who worked 35 years at the Education Department before joining the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “It’s preparation; it’s having role models — all of those things that these programs do,”
TRIO got its name from three initiatives that date to the 1960s. Programs such as Upward Bound and Talent Search provide high school students guidance for getting to college, while others like SSS keep them on track once they enroll. GEAR UP, a Clinton-era program (the acronym stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), serves entire classes of children in high-poverty districts through grants to states and community partnerships.
Under the White House budget, appropriations for TRIO would tumble 10 percent to $808 million, while GEAR UP’s funding would shrink nearly a third to $219 million. The budget said, without any details, the TRIO cuts would only affect “areas that have limited evidence on the overall effectiveness in improving student outcomes.” It said GEAR UP money could only be used for existing grants, even though the department is in the midst of selecting new recipients. Continued funding is also conditioned on the completion of a “rigorous evaluation” of the program.
Critics of the college preparation programs say there are too few evaluations, and studies have shown a mix of modest successes and failures. Education Department examinations of Talent Search and Student Support Services showed positive impacts on participants, while the agency recently reported that GEAR UP students were enrolling in college at a 32 percent higher rate than low-income students nationally. But a much-disputed study of Upward Bound concluded that it had no detectable effect on the rate of college enrollment.
“All of the evaluations the department has sponsored have been positive, but received very little attention,” said Maureen Hoyler, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, which lobbies for TRIO programs.
By federal law, institutions and agencies sponsoring TRIO programs are judged by outcomes such as retention, keeping students in rigorous classes, enrolling them in college and graduation rates, Hoyler said. She called the college preparation programs an “insurance policy” on the billions of dollars the government spends in federal student aid.
“Many low-income and first-generation students need a support system outside their family and peers, and TRIO provides that,” Hoyler said. “It’s something that other people can be blind to who’ve had that family support.”
Julia Gusse, a city councilwoman in Maricopa, Ariz., said Veterans Upward Bound at California State University in Los Angeles was exactly what she needed after leaving the Air Force in 1992.
“When you get out of the service, no one tells you how to navigate college, staying on top of the classes for your major or making sure you’re not wasting time,” Gusse said. “There are a lot of veterans who get taken advantage of by schools when they don’t have the sort of support system I had in Upward Bound.”
Gusse is also a program coordinator at Arizona State University, where she says a majority of students are the first in their families to attend college and rely on the support of federal programs. ASU is connected to seven TRIO initiatives, much like other public colleges in Arizona, which has slashed higher education funding. Northern Arizona University, which has five TRIO programs, also runs Arizona GEAR UP, serving 4,000 students in rural high schools throughout the state.
Ranjit Sidhu, president of the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, which lobbies for GEAR UP, said the return on investment in the program is high by the Education Department’s own evaluation. He agreed that more data should be collected, but he said that the program’s resources should not be stripped away.
“For $500 a year, per student, to get 32 percent more in [college], this is one of those programs that everybody should be looking at and saying there is something working and we should be growing it,” he said. “There is culture in the program that has embraced the idea of better data evaluation and research. … It should be supported.”
Some think tanks, including the Brookings Institution and New America Foundation, have in the past called for consolidating TRIO and GEAR UP or tightening the criteria for grants. Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at New America, said neither program is the perfect solution to improve college access. TRIO, he said, too often helps students who are already high achievers, and GEAR UP often helps individual classes of students instead of an entire school. Burd said, however, that the programs have been underfunded for years.
“We have to redesign the whole effort, but we should be making it a much bigger priority than we do now,” he said. “These proposed cuts are worrying, but these programs have congressional champions and…I doubt we’ll see the Trump cuts go in as is.”
The White House proposal will likely run into bipartisan resistance on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have historically supported the college readiness programs, albeit with modest appropriations. Other presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have proposed steep cuts that were beaten back by Congress.
“We have had a lot of success in keeping TRIO marginally funded–it never has enough resources and there is always unmet demand,” said Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), an alum of a 1968 Upward Bound program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “But in our last education budget, under real austere conditions, there was a modest increase in funding, which is a demonstration of a commitment around here to continue the program.”
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