What do Daniel Hernandez, the University of Arizona student who helped keep U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords alive after the tragic January shooting in a Safeway parking lot, and Donna Brazile, the political operative/analyst and chairman of former Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign, have in common?
Both are products of Upward Bound, one of eight TRIO programs that help low-income students gain access to opportunities in higher education.
“TRIO plays an important role in ensuring that students have the skills they need before, during and after postsecondary education to achieve success in their education- and career-based goals,” said Eduardo Ochoa, assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.
He delivered his remarks at the Council for Opportunity in Education’s 31st annual policy seminar Monday afternoon. “TRIO programs develop and fortify the fundamental skills that students need to succeed and to set the stage for future success in college and in the workforce. Without these basic skills, students are highly unlikely to enroll in college, and if they do enroll, it’s even less likely that they will succeed.”
Ochoa cited grim statistics about minority and low-income students being left behind. Only 38 percent of graduating high school seniors from low-income neighborhoods move on directly to college, compared to 81 percent of those in the highest income quartile. After matriculating, only 21 percent earn bachelor’s degrees compared to 45 percent of students from more affluent backgrounds.
He also reiterated the Obama administration’s mantra about raising the nation’s college completion rate to 60 percent by 2020, a figure which will require higher graduation rates from minority and low-income students.
“We are facing critical and growing achievement gaps between races and income levels,” Ochoa said. “Given the current demographic trends in the U.S., increased college attainment levels on a national scale cannot be achieved without higher education levels for Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities. We need these growing groups to be able to compete globally in order for us to maintain a competitive edge.”
Achieving the administration’s ambitious goals, Ochoa said, will require the higher education sector to undergo the kind of “transformational change” taking place at the K-12 level as a result of the “catalytic impact” of such initiatives as Race to the Top and TRIO programs.
“In TRIO programs, students are empowered to perform and succeed and there are many promising programs that demonstrate that fact,” he said, pointing to the Upward Bound summer program at the University of South Carolina as an example. Through the program, graduating high school seniors can take a college-credit research methodology course taught by one of the university’s professors.
“We know that TRIO programs work. But in this age of accountability, knowing that these programs do well is not enough,” Ochoa said. “We will need to develop a body of evidence that both quantifies the impact and cost effectiveness of these programs and that can demonstrate that effectiveness to legislators, policymakers and the public.”
The Education Department plans to enhance existing data collection activities to measure outcomes and impact, help identify best practices and disseminate the results to all its grantees.
The assistant secretary also highlighted investments in higher education in the White House’s fiscal year 2012 budget. They include $920 million for federal TRIO programs, which represents a $67 million increase. The budget also includes $123 million for the First in the World competition.
“To improve student outcomes, we need to spur the field to come up with innovative solutions to address the completion challenge and improve higher education productivity, build evidence of what works through rigorous evaluations and scale up and disseminate those strategies that prove successful,” he said.
The first year of this competition would prioritize projects that demonstrate the potential to reduce the net price paid by students, improve learning outcomes, reduce time to degree, or reduce instructional costs and then improve college access or completion rates, including projects that focus on students with disabilities, he added.
The budget also includes $1.25 million for College Completion Incentive grants and $150 million in funding for state access and completion initiatives.
“We are poised to lead in this new century, and it is through the investments that we all are making on behalf of our nation’s disadvantaged students,” he said. “The single most important thing we can do is to make sure we’ve got a world-class education system for everybody. It is a prerequisite for prosperity. It is an obligation that we have for the next generation.”
COE President Arnold Mitchem said that he was encouraged by the high level of support the administration continues to give TRIO programs. He is, however, preparing to launch an aggressive campaign to win the same level of commitment from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“The social and economic costs to our society are indeed unbearable if these proposals in the [House-passed continuing resolution] were to come to fruition. It’s going to be a long struggle. The cuts are motivated by an ideological crowd,” said Mitchem. “What they’re going to run into is ideology vs. ideology, and it’s going to be a Wisconsin moment.”