An Obligation to Give Back
The 40th anniversary TRIO celebration that almost wasn’t
By Kendra Hamilton
Advocates for college access are celebrating a big anniversary this month: the 40th anniversary of the Higher Education Act, the landmark legislation that paved the way for the TRIO suite of programs for low-income and disabled students.
But the toasts at the anniversary gala may be a bit more heartfelt than usual, says Dr. Arnold Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), the nonprofit organization that provides support and advocacy for the TRIO community. This anniversary comes on the heels of Upward Bound, Talent Search, Student Support Services and all the other TRIO programs’ narrow escape from elimination in the 2006-2007 federal budget.
Mitchem, long a voice for expanding college access to the disadvantaged and disabled, does not attempt to play down the
seriousness of the threat. The Bush administration, in effect, proposed eliminating Upward Bound in order to pay for the expansion of No Child Left Behind to high school, he explains.
Had advocates not prevailed, the loss for the college access community would have been devastating. Two-thirds of TRIO students are mandated to come from families with incomes less than $28,000, in which neither parent graduated from college. Elimination would have decimated 2,700 TRIO programs serving nearly 866,000 low-income Americans.
Thirty-seven percent of those low-income students are White, 35 percent are African-American, 19 percent Hispanic, 4 percent American Indian, 4 percent Asian American, and 1 percent “Other,” a category that includes students claiming more than one race. There are also 22,000 students with disabilities and more than 25,000 military veterans served by TRIO programs.
Those statistics lent passion to the battle to save the program, says Susan Trebach, COE’s vice president for communications. COE and the TRIO programs marshaled a group of advocates whom Congress found it difficult to ignore: a parade of current students and TRIO alumni.
Their pleas did not fall on deaf ears, and now the TRIO community is savoring its victory. “We discovered that our base of support is strong — and it’s certainly bipartisan, or we would not have survived,” Trebach says, adding, “though in this age, with very difficult budgets, you can’t assume too much.”
But right now, with the council’s 24th annual conference in Washington, D.C. this past week, the emphasis is definitely on the positive.
The keynote speaker for the opening plenary session, Jonathan Kozol, earned acclaim as an anti-poverty activist and author of Savage Inequalities, Illiterate American, Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace. The gala event celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1965 Higher Education Act — which gave birth to Talent Search and paired that program with Upward Bound, creating the TRIO concept — featured John Quinones, co-anchor of ABC’s “Primetime” and a TRIO alumnus.
Another TRIO alumna, Aloida Zaragoza, the conference chair and director of Upward Bound programs at the University of Minnesota’s General College, is excited both about the lineup and the opportunity to celebrate.
“Our work is hard and it’s getting harder,” she says. “Poverty is becoming ever more complex. In the 15 years I’ve been working in inner-city Minneapolis, I’m seeing more and more families struggling with multiple crises — housing crises, employment crises, health and mental health crises. We’re servicing more and more kids who are not living with either parent. We’re also servicing more and more kids who are in transitional housing. So the work is extremely challenging.”
And the challenge is underlined and given an exclamation point, says Mitchem, by the images of raw suffering pouring in from the storm- and flood-ravaged regions of the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“The television images we’ve been seeing,” he says, “this the TRIO population. These are the faces of low-income Americans, Black and White. Their circumstances — their lack of access to information, to transportation — to some extent brought about this tragedy, along with our penny wise and pound foolish social policy,” which scrimped on $2.5 billion to improve the levees only to create a catastrophe whose toll the Wall Street Journal estimated will reach $200 billion.
Mitchem recalls his vast relief on learning recently that a friend from New Orleans had survived the tragedy.
“She got out. She got out because she was on the faculty at Xavier,” Mitchem says. “She has a Ph.D., a car and a credit card. She made the 18-hour trip to Houston — normally, it’s seven — and she’s staying with friends who have jobs and lives like her own. But 35 years ago, she would have been trapped along with the rest of the poor in New Orleans. Thirty-five years ago, she was a low-income person in the projects in Pittsburgh.
“TRIO helped her to get out. Student Support Services helped her get her bachelor’s at Marquette,” Mitchem says.
TRIO has a proven track record of success. Upward Bound alumni, for example, are four times more likely to earn an undergraduate degree than students from similar backgrounds who do not participate.
Undergraduates in the TRIO Student Support Services program are more than twice as likely to remain in college than those from similar backgrounds who do not participate in the program.
It’s results like these that give TRIO professionals a passion for their jobs — but they are inspired by relationships as much as by statistics. Zaragoza remembers that she was in line for a lucrative consulting career until her TRIO director talked her into working with Upward Bound for just one year.
“I told him, ‘This is not the direction I’m going in with my life. I can give you one year, and I want you to honor that.’” Zaragoza recalls. Fifteen years later, she’s still at it.
“I’ve chosen a career in TRIO, as most alums do — we feel an obligation to give back,” Zaragoza says. “This is work that gets into your soul.”
Trebach echoes the assessment. Indeed, she says she believes it was the personal stories of alumni and current students that helped save the programs from the Bush administration’s budget axe. Those stories were captured on video by high school students, then edited down to an eight-minute film, titled “Reasons for TRIO,” which was to premiere at the conference.
“When you watch the video, it’s easier to see why TRIO survives. These programs do work. They change lives,” Trebach says. “And when people see that,” they open their hearts and their wallets. Indeed, one of the corporate sponsors of the COE conference, USA Funds, is funding the nationwide distribution of the video.
But Mitchem fears for the future in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Voices are already warning that “we’ve got to be careful — we’ve already got a deficit and we can’t raise taxes so, when the bill comes due for Katrina, we’ve got to find some offsets. And where do offsets come from? They come from domestic discretionary spending. And what is domestic discretionary spending. Usually, it’s educational spending. So the TRIO programs are supposed to be at level funding — we lost our cost of living adjustment. And now, there’s the threat that we’re going to be reduced even more in the face of this domestic crisis. So the victims will lose a tool that can lift them out of vulnerability to just such a tragedy as Katrina,” he says. “The victims will be victimized twice.”
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