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Upward Bound Changes Called ‘Ethically Immoral’

Upward Bound Changes Called ‘Ethically Immoral’
Some students applying for assistance won’t get it under
Education Department experiment to test the program’s effectiveness.
By Charles Dervarics

New U.S. Department of Education plans for the federal Upward Bound program are facing strong opposition from grantees and advocates, who fear that the changes will undermine a 40-year-old initiative that promotes college awareness and preparation for low-income students.
The department is making major changes in enrollment requirements for the program, which provides grants for colleges and other nonprofit organizations to prepare low-income and first-generation students for college. The policies went into effect in late October, in time for the program’s latest grant competition this fall.

Among other changes, grantees would need to recruit twice the number of students they can serve so that youth can be randomly assigned either to Upward Bound or a control group that would not receive assistance. The Education Department says this move would allow it to better evaluate program services, but Upward Bound advocates strongly disagree.

“To me, that’s ethically immoral,” says Dr. Cynthia Park, executive director of the Pre-College Institute at San Diego State University. Grantees would recruit students with promises of assistance but then have to turn their backs on half of the group, she says.

“It is definitely a human subject research issue, and a serious one,” agrees Susan Trebach, vice president for communications at the Council for Opportunity in Education, a Washington group that works on behalf of Upward Bound and other TRIO programs.

But the Education Department says it has a responsibility to evaluate whether the program provides benefits “above and beyond” the benefits of other available services, says James F. Manning, the department’s acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education.

Also, given Upward Bound’s limited budget, the program is likely to turn away many eligible youth regardless of the evaluation approach, the department argues.

In another change, students wouldn’t just be low-income. At least 30 percent of students enrolled in the program must qualify as “academically at risk,” meaning they have not met state standards on math and language arts assessments in eighth grade. Students can also qualify if they have a GPA below 2.5 or have not taken certain rigorous math courses by eighth or ninth grades.

“This whole thing takes away rights and privileges that best serve our organization and our students,” says Park, whose Upward Bound program overwhelmingly serves students of color, particularly Hispanics.

Another change would set strict enrollment limits on who may join the program. Ninth-graders are the sole targets for the academically at-risk slots. And students new to the program must be in either ninth or 10th grade to be considered for the other slots.

The Education Department says these policies would ensure that more students receive an in-depth Upward Bound experience. Past evaluations have showed that an extra year of service would benefit all participants, Manning says. Students at risk academically also “require more intensive services,” and they are more likely to succeed if they join during ninth grade.

But grantees such as Park say such policies also dilute local flexibility. Some agencies may take in new students as late as 11th grade to replace those who moved away or no longer participate in the program. “We serve highly mobile neighborhoods where people move frequently,” she says.

Replacing a high school junior with another high school junior can ensure the presence of older role models in a program, she says. Some at-risk youth also may not begin to focus on their future until 11th grade. “We’re not receiving enough leeway for our programs,” she says.

Nationally, a mounting concern among advocates is that the policy changes — enacted independently by the Education Department — may undermine Congress’ oversight role.

“Our organization is committed to reversing these policies,” Trebach says. “There are broader issues here about how much the department can take on [of what] is a congressional prerogative.”

Other groups in the higher education community agree with that view. In a letter to Manning, American Council on Education President David Ward called the proposals “precedent-setting and disturbing.” By unilaterally making the changes, the department “exchanges a congressional priority for an administrative one.”

Ward says he fears that such policy changes may become standard in other federal education programs. “If this priority-setting approach is adopted, it is easy to imagine that many other programs administered by the department will be subject to a wholesale redesign outside the normal legislative and regulatory processes,” he says.

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