Addressing Inequality with Trio Programs


Today is Blog Action Day and the theme is inequality. It is appropriate, therefore, to share some thoughts on some programs that have been around a long time to help alleviate the challenge of inequality–federal Trio programs.

Most people have not heard of Trio, yet the first programs began in 1965 and have helped millions of people gain education beyond high school. They are called Trio programs because originally there were three programs–Upward Bound, Educational Talent Search and Student Support Services. The first two work with students in high school and the third with students in college. The idea of these programs is to assist disadvantaged students with higher education attainment and success. Disadvantaged in this case means students from low-income families, who are of the first generation to go to college, or who have disabilities.

Upward Bound was the first program, started in 1965, as one response to the War on Poverty. The program continues to work with high school students, guiding and coaching them on how to succeed in high school, how to apply to college, and how to be successful once they get to college. Talent Search was added in 1964, a similar but not as time-intensive program, and Student Support Services, working with college students to help them be successful once they got to college, began in 1968. Since then five more programs have been added to work with adult learners, veterans, college students who strive to attain graduate degrees, and others.

The Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), a nonprofit membership organization for Trio programs across the country, notes that over two million students in Trio programs have attained higher education degrees. These programs are a huge success for this country. They help those who might not otherwise go to college to do so. This obviously helps them, but I would argue it helps us all. Getting a degree means having more opportunities, and it means being a more informed citizen. Our democracy wins when more people go to college.

I have worked in these programs for several years, and I have seen stories of success. I have seen the Bosnian and Vietnamese and Sudanese refugee families send their children to college, despite working minimum wage jobs because that is all they can get in the United States. I have seen students who have gone to several public schools before graduation (in one case a student I worked with attended 12 schools in as many different towns) still get the support they need to get to college. I have seen students become college student government presidents and start their own businesses and become nurses. And students have told me that they would not have gotten as far without Trio programs.

Does it work for every student? No it doesn’t. When I see a student get pregnant her first year in college and then drop out, when I see a student give up in her first semester, when I see a student simply not start and work for minimum wage for years, I do get discouraged. But then I see a former student who is still plugging away part time in Community College classes, determined to get that degree, and I am hopeful again.

We all should know more about these programs, and we should support them. They are cost effective, they are well respected, and they work. For more information check out COE’s Trio programs summary page. And if you are up for it, tell your representatives in Washington to support Trio programs. They are the ones who vote to keep them going. If we want to fight inequality we sometimes have the tools we need in hand. We just need to know we’ve got them to use.

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