WASHINGTON, D.C. – While federal TRIO programs will play a crucial role in helping the United States meet the Obama administration’s 2020 college goal, don’t expect to see the programs funded at previously higher levels anytime soon.
That was one of the blunt messages that a senior Obama administration official delivered Wednesday at the 28th annual policy seminar of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for the TRIO programs. TRIO programs include a series of eight programs—such as Upward Bound and the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program—meant to serve and assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities at a variety of stages in their academic careers that range from middle school to postgraduate programs.
“We acknowledge the critical role that TRIO programs play because, if it were not for TRIO, many of our students would not see the promise of a better day,” said Debra Saunders-White, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs within the U.S. Department of Education.
However, when asked about the administration’s shift toward competitive grant funding while TRIO programs have become decimated despite what many say is their proven track record of success, Saunders-White said she didn’t expect TRIO funding to be restored to previous levels anytime soon.
“I don’t have any money in my purse today, so I can’t tell you that these resources are going to be (available),” Saunders-White said.
She added that she was “immensely encouraged” that she “didn’t see any more bleed from TRIO,” although COE (the Council for Opportunity in Education) sees the Obama administration’s pending budget request for level-funding as a cut. TRIO programs recently have endured a series of actual reductions, going from $904.27 million in fiscal 2010 to $878.94 million and $835.50 million in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Saunders-White also noted that the Obama administration requested $67 million to restore lost funding to TRIO in 2012 but that it was rejected by Congress, although some observers believe the administration knew its request was doomed and made it anyway to save face among TRIO-supporting constituents.
Saunders-White said the nation can no longer afford to do “business as usual” and that, as the department looks to fund new and innovative programs and initiatives, “I am hopeful that we embrace some of these programs at state levels so that we can leverage the good work that’s coming out of the TRIO programs with other programs and initiatives.”
Saunders-White’s comments did little to assuage TRIO advocates who believe the administration isn’t backing up its statements about how vital TRIO is to the administration’s college completion agenda, which calls for restoring the United States to its former status as the most college-educated nation in the world by 2020. The nation currently stands at 16th in this regard.
“Throughout the administration, there’s been this rhetoric of how important TRIO is, of how supportive they are of TRIO and how TRIO is pretty much the best thing since sliced bread and canned beer,” said Kimberly Jones, vice president for public policy at COE. “Yet, there has not been the action to back up the rhetoric.”
As in previous years, TRIO workers, many of them wearing buttons that said “TRIO Works,” continued to voice criticism of the administration’s shift toward funding new and innovative programs when they believe TRIO has a longstanding track record of success.
But one of the sorest points was the Department of Education’s recent decision to move $10 million from the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program to support the Upward Bound Math/Science program.
Harold H. Campbell, Director of the Academic Achievement Programs at the University of California, Berkeley, questioned the decision to reduce funding for the McNair program when data show it is successful. He mentioned that the McNair program at his school has produced hundreds of Ph.D. graduates.
Saunders-White, citing remarks that President Barack Obama made in his State of the Union address earlier this year, said the United States faces a continual problem in producing graduates in STEM fields.
“In a perfect world, I would like to be able to fund every opportunity,” Saunders-White said. “But we also have a very interesting problem that we’re trying to address in our country. You heard our president talk about it often, and the fact is we don’t have our children in the STEM space.”
Last year, she said, 2 million jobs went unfilled due to the lack of “the right skill set.”
“I cannot and will not talk about or devalue McNair,” Saunders-White said. “I understand the value of that program. But I also think we have some critical needs within our nation, and STEM is one of them.”
He said concerns were raised about the McNair program “not being STEM-focused.”
“I know that it is indeed, but the pipeline doesn’t exist to sustain it,” Saunders-White said.
Campbell, of UC Berkeley, noted that 30 percent of the Ph.D.s in the McNair program at his school are in the STEM field.
Another issue that arose at the policy seminar is the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to reopen the Upward Bound grant competition based on a new list of “persistently lowest achieving schools”—or PLAs—that doesn’t include those listed by many grant applicants in their original applications.
Upward Bound helps high school students who are low-income or first-generation college students prepare for college through tutoring, counseling and mentoring.
The new PLA criteria pose a problem for competitors in states with few or no schools that meet the department’s new definition of a PLA, which excludes schools not in the lowest 5 percent of schools, COE says.
Funding decisions are expected by May 29, which puts Upward Bound programs whose funding expires in May in a bind as they wonder whether they will get funded in time to continue or do summer programs. There is not likely to be time for a second review for rejected applicants, one department official said.
“You’re going to bite your nails until about May 29,” Saunders-White said, explaining that department grants reviewers were putting in extra hours to meet the deadline.