Memo to Congress: Save TRIO


How do we ensure that motivated students from low-income backgrounds pursue higher education?

Since 1964, a major part of the answer to that question has been the existence of the TRIO programs: six programs with a goal of getting economically disadvantaged students into college to help end cycles of poverty. The programs include Upward Bound, Talent Search, Upward Bound Math-Science, Veterans Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services, all designed to provide a pathway for access to college.

The White House understands the importance of a college education. Its Web site states: "President Obama is committed to providing every child access to a complete and competitive education, from cradle through career."

During this year's State of the Union address, he said:

"We only invest in reform—reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner cities. In the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education. In this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than their potential."

So if getting students to college is so vital, why are TRIO program budgets in danger? highlighted the perilous position of TRIO funding, taking a look at the allocation of program money in Congress. TRIO funds are appropriated yearly, with a combination of set funding and discretionary funding. However, the 2011 funds are delayed for many programs and discretionary funding is not yet decided, leaving 12,000 students across 200 programs hanging in limbo.

Regina? N. Barnett, a Ph.D. candidate and author of the blog Red Clay Scholar, recently wrote a scathing post addressed to the Obama administration:

"A collegiate environment is difficult. For many minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, it's an aesthetically pleasing mine field. Why would you take these valuable resources away? If color and social-economic circumstance were non-existent, there would be no need for such programs. Those biases, however, exist and restrict these potential scholars from fulfilling their full potential. If you MUST cut funding from direly needed programs like these, please put alternative solutions in place to show these students they are looked out for and that a college degree is not in the realms of impossibility."

However, some policymakers have questioned the effectiveness of TRIO programs. In follow-up research on the impact of Upward Bound, the U.S. Department of Education reveals that the program provided "no detectable effect on the rate of overall postsecondary enrollment, or the type or selectivity of postsecondary institution attended." But Upward Bound, which targets motivated high school students to be the first person in their family to earn a bachelor's degree, has proven to be effective at improving both college attendance rates and rates of advanced-placement enrollment for students who never considered college as an option. Indeed, Gerald M. Boyd, first black managing editor of the New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, credits Upward Bound with placing him on his chosen career path. There is also a link between length of participation in the program (the average student participates for 18 months) and ultimate outcome.

While it is important for TRIO to meet its stated goals, as a former student who was enrolled in Upward Bound, I would argue that the ultimate impact of the program isn't easily measured solely in terms of college enrollment.

One of the reasons TRIO is so vital is because it is struggling against the tidal wave of life, one that crashes over adolescents whose parents cannot afford to shelter them from the pressures and instability of the outside world. When I was a high school freshman in Upward Bound, I remember being perplexed by a then-junior's angry face-off with one of the tutors in our French class. While expressing her frustration at the slow pace of the class, the junior said, seething, "I don't have to be here—I have a job, and I make way more than $10 on my shift."

For many kids, the benefits of TRIO aren't just in the classroom—they extend to being surrounded by a community of other college-bound students, instead of the variety of life choices in our neighborhoods.


For me, TRIO became a refuge, a way to shift the dominant paradigm about life and work in adulthood. While I am not your typical TRIO success story, I look back on those days and remember how much my world was expanded, thanks to the efforts of the staff and volunteers. I remember the conversations we had about the military as a career option, the job market and how to present for interviews, the importance of cultivating our minds and skills, and being taken to the theater and other cultural outings.TRIO programs were designed to get us through college, but—we ended up learning a lot about life. And without that valuable experience, many of us would have never considered who we could become.

Latoya Peterson is editor of Racialicious.

Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist, anti-racist activist and deputy editor of Fusion’s Voices section, opining on pop culture, news, video games and everything that makes life worth living. 

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