TRIO Leader Says Freeze Puts Programs at Risk

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by Charles Dervarics

At a time when President Obama and other leaders talk boldly about raising college-completion rates, Kimberly Jones has a quick response: Don’t forget the TRIO federal programs.

 “We feel like we are fighting for our lives,” said Jones, congressional affairs director for the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), a Washington, D.C., organization that works on behalf of TRIO access and support programs such as Talent Search and Upward Bound.

 Jones said TRIO leaders are disappointed that, in actions from a $787 billion stimulus package to a multibillion-dollar college aid package, there was little or no discussion of TRIO. The president’s latest budget would level fund TRIO programs at $901 million next year.

 “What we’re seeing is a retreat from the federal government’s historic role in preserving educational opportunities,” she told Diverse editors at a recent in-person interview. Jones said she is disappointed with how Obama’s budget would treat TRIO, which she argues has a 40-year record of success.

 “To see level funding in the budget — it’s disheartening,” she adds.

 First created during the War on Poverty in the 1960s, TRIO programs focus on early college awareness, advising and support services to help low-income, first-generation students enroll and stay in college. TRIO encompasses programs such as Talent Search, Upward Bound, Student Support Services, Educational Opportunity Centers and the McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. This week in Washington, the organization convened its National College Opportunity Program Leadership Summit, Annual Policy Seminar and Annual Seminar on Relations with the U.S. Department of Education, drawing more than 700 college opportunity professionals to the meetings.

 At the same time the president would level fund TRIO, he proposed a $12 billion American Graduation Initiative, a new college-completion grant program and more funds for Pell Grants.  By comparison, TRIO has “been so stagnantly funded the last few years,” Jones said.

 The fear, she said, is that “programs like TRIO are withering on the vine.”

 As a result of level funding during the past five years, as many as 35,000 fewer students are receiving service through TRIO, she said. During that time, inflation has meant grantees are serving fewer youth.

 In addition, COE says, the 2010 funding freeze leaves uncertain the fate of Upward Bound programs that lost funding in 2007 but were reinstated with short-term dollars under the College Cost Reduction Act. Those Upward Bound programs need additional funding soon, Jones says.

 On its Web site, COE has described the challenge as the “2011budget crisis,” and Jones said program leaders had hoped for a funding bump from the Obama White House. “I didn’t think we would be doing this in the Obama administration,” she said.

 While Congress is just beginning to review the president’s budget plan, there are signs that the issue of TRIO funding is resonating in some quarters on Capitol Hill. During the past month, members of the Congressional Black Caucus raised the topic at budget hearings with Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

 “If we could get funding increased that would be helpful,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., at a recent House Education and Labor Committee hearing.

 Under questioning from Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., at the same hearing, Duncan said he fully supports TRIO and GEAR UP, a 10-year-old federal program that promotes early college awareness among middle and high school students.

 “I’m a big fan and supporter of TRIO and GEAR UP,” Duncan told the committee.

 In further remarks, Duncan said he wanted to address “rumors that somehow those [participation] numbers decreased.” He said, including both TRIO and GEAR UP programs, student participation increased this year to 747,000, from 738,000 last year.

 “There have been some significant increases there,” he said. Duncan also said he believed the administration’s budget is sufficient to cover the 2007 Upward Bound grantees.

 The House and Senate are continuing hearings on the 2011 budget before they write appropriations bills later this year. Jones said COE will ask Congress for a substantial TRIO increase next year to halt the funding freeze and shore up support for Upward Bound grantees.

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