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House Panel Signals Support For Expansion of College Prep Programs

House Democrats signaled last week that they want to expand the federal investment in early college awareness programs such as Talent Search, Upward Bound and GEAR UP to prepare more low-income and minority youth for high-paying jobs.

“The sad truth is, these programs reach only a fraction of the eligible population,” said U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness. At a hearing of the subcommittee, Hinojosa said these programs serve no more than 10 percent of eligible students and have lost ground in the federal budget since 2005.

“It seems to me we have to do better than that,” said Hinojosa, whose panel will play a key role in the upcoming debate on the renewal of the Higher Education Act. “We need to increase the college ‘know-how’ in the communities that have not had access to college opportunities.”

Responding to questions from another panel Democrat, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., witnesses at the hearing said they often have waiting lists of students who cannot receive services.

“Every single year since I’ve been here, and I’ve been there 20 years, we always have a waiting list of students,” said Maria Martinez, director of the Center for Academic Programs at the University of Connecticut. “We have to turn students away.”

But the center’s Upward Bound program has a strong track record of graduating students and helping them move to higher education. About 98 percent of participants enroll in college, and 85 percent complete college, Martinez said.

Programs such as GEAR UP are important because they build student aspirations for college and also educate families about college admissions and costs. At the GEAR UP program sponsored by the University of Texas Pan American, 94 percent of middle school students say they want a college degree, said Dr. Martha Cantu, the program’s director. Nearly all parents also say they want their child to attend college

But only about one-third of parents can accurately estimate the cost of college, she said, and fewer than half know college admission requirements.

“There is a perilous disparity between aspirations and the knowledge necessary to make those aspirations a reality,” Cantu said.

While the panel may seek to expand these programs this year, one Republican lawmaker expressed concern about regulations surrounding Talent Search, Upward Bound and other TRIO programs.

U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., the top Republican on the subcommittee, questioned a rule that gives prior TRIO grantees additional points during the grant award process. “The use of prior experience points often shuts new applicants out of the program,” he said. Competition “should be fair and the winners awarded on their merits as much as prior experience.”

The subcommittee is planning to work on a HEA reauthorization bill later this year. The last Congress was unable to complete action on such legislation.

–Charles Dervarics

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