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Education Department Ends Controversial Upward Bound Experiment

The Department of Education has terminated a controversial evaluation of the Upward Bound program that required grantees to recruit some students for the college awareness program but then assign them to a control group receiving no services.

Despite ongoing controversy about the concept and a congressional ban on new spending for the initiative, the department had enough funds to continue the program through 2008, said Diane Auer Jones, assistant secretary for postsecondary education. But the Department of Education has “concluded it would be best to terminate the evaluation and to engage stakeholders, including Congress, in discussions about a new evaluation that would be responsive to our collective needs and concerns,” she said last week in a letter to grantees.

One of the federal government’s TRIO programs, Upward Bound works to prepare low-income high school youth for college. But under the evaluation plan, grantees had to recruit twice as many students as needed so the government could study the effects of the program on participants compared with similar youth not receiving project services.

Grantees had strongly objected to the concept, and Congress in its 2008 education spending bill prevented the department from spending any new money on the plan. The House and Senate each also have called for termination of the evaluation in separate Higher Education Act reauthorization bills working their way through Congress.

“We are greatly relieved that this ill-advised evaluation is finally behind us,” said Dr. Arnold Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, in a statement.

Aside from ethical objections, many grantees simply found it difficult to meet their enrollment targets, says Susan Trebach, spokeswoman for COE, which works on behalf of federal TRIO program grantees. To enroll 20 new students, for example, “you had to recruit 40,” she tells Diverse. “If you recruited only 36, you could only have 18 in the program.

“It hurt grantees because they were required to recruit students aggressively and then not serve them all. Some students were literally devastated by this,” she adds.

Grantees are interested in exploring constructive evaluation approaches to improve the program, she says. “Our problem all along was not evaluation per se, but evaluation that harms student access,” Trebach says.

Under terms outlined in the Department of Education’s letter, grantees can fill slots without the use of a lottery. But they still must adhere to other recent regulatory changes, including a limit on the recruitment of high school juniors and seniors. Instead, programs are to focus on 9th and 10th graders, with a special priority on low achievers.

Grantees have asked Congress to restore their flexibility to recruit older students. The House permits the change in its recently approved House HEA bill. The subject likely will be one of many topics for discussion in upcoming House/Senate negotiations on HEA.

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