Can TRIO & GEAR UP Continue to Coexist?
Some education advocates say the twoprograms are different but both worthy of support. Others question whether there is really a need for both.
When Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) was signed into public law by President Bill Clinton in 1998, many in the postsecondary and pre-college communities applauded. The initiative added what they considered a critical missing piece to the federal government’s array of efforts to extend college opportunity to low-income students — the middle school piece. Moreover, GEAR UP provided secondary school systems with a financial incentive to ensure that every child was exposed to a pre-college curriculum.
Today, GEAR UP programs serve more than 1 million students, in nearly every state. It has joined TRIO as a major player in the federal government’s multimillion dollar arsenal of programs aimed at closing the gap between the haves and have-nots in education.
But 2001 has delivered GEAR UP some of its greatest challenges. Not only has the program received a cold shoulder from some key leaders in the higher education community, the Bush administration also has demonstrated tepid interest — if not outright hostility — toward the program. A few people even wonder whether GEAR UP will continue to coexist with TRIO.
“There is every indication that GEAR UP is working well,” says U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., the program’s first and perhaps most ardent legislative champion in Washington. Fattah introduced the GEAR UP concept to the inside-the-Beltway legislative and policy-making communities by promoting a program model of the same name that had operated successfully in his Philadelphia home district for years. Fattah admits that the federal program has faced some challenges in the past year, but he remains convinced that it will not only endure, it will continue to thrive.
“The Congress has been strong about GEAR UP,” Fattah says, pointing to decisions by the House of Representatives and the Senate this year to augment the program’s budget for fiscal year 2002 even after the Bush administration requested a 23 percent budget cut. At the same time, the Bush administration proposed to increase funding to TRIO by 6.8 percent. By press time, the final education budget had yet to be signed.
One reason for Fattah’s enthusiasm is the tremendous response GEAR UP has received from both within and outside the education community. In 1999, the first year that GEAR UP grants were awarded, nearly 700 applications were submitted by more than 4,500 organizations, including nearly 20 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities. More than $120 million in grants were awarded that year: 164 in the form of partnership programs and another 21 in grants to individual states (see GEAR UP sidebar, pg. 29). The following year, the Clinton administration and Congress raised the program’s budget to $200 million, awarding another 73 partnership grants and seven state grants.
Before GEAR UP, most federal programs aimed at disadvantaged students targeted those at the high school and undergraduate levels. The majority of these are bundled under the TRIO umbrella (see TRIO sidebar, pg. 29). But the experience of these programs, together with decades of research around the country, indicated that intervening at the middle school level had the potential to produce even greater results. Waiting until high school to begin preparing students for college is often too late, primarily benefiting only those already engaged in college preparatory coursework. Such late intervention can certainly enhance the number of low-income students who decide to pursue a college education, but often they are already so far behind academically that the need for remediation once they enroll in college can be great.
“GEAR UP is built on a lot that has been learned from TRIO,” Fattah says. “It involves an intimate relationship between the college and middle school in partnership with other community players.
TRIO officials did not return calls by Black
Issues seeking comment.
Complementary or Competitive?
Having emerged from the War on Poverty in the 1960s, the earliest TRIO programs, such as Upward Bound, targeted students at the undergraduate and high school levels. Now, more than three decades later, While some TRIO grantees have worked with middle school students for years, most still focus on high school students and undergraduates.
The age of students that TRIO works with is not the only factor that distinguishes it from GEAR UP, however.
“One model (of intervention) is to go into a high school and take five or so young people and say, ‘OK we’re going to help get these kids ready for college,’ ” Fattah says of TRIO, which emphasized a student-centered approach to intervention. With GEAR UP, he says, “you go to the whole group of kids and say, ‘all of you can make it.’ ”
Hector Garza, director of the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, says the issue isn’t whether one approach is better than the other.
“We believe both are worthy of support,” Garza says. “I argue that the more we invest in low-income communities and improving the education of these students, the better our communities are going to be.”
But not everyone agrees the country needs both GEAR UP and TRIO.
The U.S. Department of Education has ordered an evaluation of GEAR UP that initially will focus on 20 of the program’s partnerships and seven of its state grantees. The first of these reports was released last summer and three others are expected over the next six years. According to Garza, it is really too early to glean any meaningful conclusions from an evaluation of the program.
“The program is too new to be able to provide quantifiable measures,” he says. “The Congress needs to give us a bit of time to be able to demonstrate that.”
The lukewarm support of the Bush administration isn’t GEAR UP’s only problem. Surprisingly, some of the very educators and policy-makers that one would expect to embrace the program see it as trouble.
Among TRIO supporters, for example, there are those who view GEAR UP as a duplication of services the older program already offers. Theoretically, these critics argue, if GEAR UP continues to be successful, legislators could opt to divert funding it previously had earmarked for TRIO’s pre-college programs toward the newer program. The Clinton administration set this concern in motion in 1998 when it tried to fund the first year of GEAR UP grants by eliminating one of the long-standing TRIO programs.
“One of the problems is that from the beginning GEAR UP came in as a bull in the china closet,” says Sarah A. Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy development at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). “You had these wonderful TRIO programs. Everyone loves TRIO and thinks it does wonderful things, everyone feels good about it. Then the Clinton program came in wanting to create a signature program. We said OK, and we helped them devise the program. We said, ‘Look, is this what we think colleges could really use.’ We were fine about it.” That is, until it became known that some of the funding for GEAR UP was going to be generated by eliminating one of TRIO’s long-standing programs. The decision put many TRIO advocates of GEAR UP into a defensive mode.
While some of the initial differences eventually were worked out, remaining problems have made it hard for some TRIO fans to embrace GEAR UP.
Becky Timmons, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, says the question isn’t whether TRIO and GEAR UP can coexist at the practical level: The evidence of that is ubiquitous. In her experience, the bigger question is whether GEAR UP can be made into something that the higher education community can embrace without jeopardizing other programs.
Flanagan agrees and says that most of the time, federally funded scholarships are “the equivalent of the rich kids’ father’s check.” The scholarships become the anchor piece of a student’s financial-aid package and are then supplemented by other state, private and institutional funding. But the GEAR UP scholarships are last-dollar awards, meaning postsecondary institutions may access them only after they have tapped into other available sources.
“I think the last-dollar obstacle is not an inconsequential one,” Timmons says. Institutions that adhere to GEAR UP’s last-dollar rule could find themselves in a heap of trouble with other providers of financial aid. But if they violate the rule, they could put their other federal programs in jeopardy.
“The problem is that everyone wants to be last dollar,” Flanagan says. “Everyone wants to be the one who made the difference. But if everyone wants to be last dollar, where do you go to get that first dollar?”
As long as the last-dollar rule is included, Flanagan says NAICU will not support the continuation of GEAR UP.
“If the administration can change this reg, we’re fine. This isn’t (really) about GEAR UP, this is about institutional packaging.”
Since most of the GEAR UP awards are six-year grants that follow a cohort of students from middle school through high school graduation, most institutions have not yet confronted the “last-dollar” dilemma. If the problem is not resolved, however, GEAR UP participants could conceivably graduate from high school, get accepted to college only to discover that their GEAR UP scholarships are worthless, leaving them without enough money to pursue their college dreams.
“It is a badly flawed piece of legislation that kind of bedevils a program with a good purpose and good intentions,” Timmons says.
Certainly, Fattah and others have a contrary perspective on the legislation, but the congressman says he and his colleagues are aware of the last-dollar rule problem and are working to resolve it before the end of the year.
“I think it will be worked out,” Fattah says. “Some of GEAR UP’s strongest supporters’ main concerns are (about) the scholarships. We’re working to moderate that problem so these people won’t be affected in any (negative) way.”
Ultimately, Fattah, Garza and other GEAR UP supporters are hopeful that the success of the program will be what saves it.
“These two programs are so different, but they are both worthy of support,” Garza says. “TRIO has done some tremendous work. There are many successful people, including a few members of Congress, who have gone through that program . . . but we are living in a different era. Where the public, legislators, school educators are all requiring more accountability. Creating system-change is important. GEAR UP is doing that.”
Garza adds that the idea that TRIO and GEAR UP are in conflict with one another is largely a Beltway phenomenon. The practitioners he works with welcome both programs. Fattah agrees and urges anyone who doubts the efficacy of GEAR UP and its capacity to complement TRIO to make a site visit.
“Go out and see TRIO and GEAR UP being operated as programs on campuses by the same personnel,” Fattah says. “They can coexist.”
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