Since the creation of the Higher Education Act in 1965, federal policymakers have supported multiple programs aimed at raising the college aspirations and improving the academic preparation of disadvantaged students. However, as we recently reported, these programs suffer from significant redundancies, potentially wasting resources and undermining what should be a coordinated effort to carry out this important goal.
The government has four main programs that aim to better prepare and motivate low-income students for college – the long-standing Talent Search and Upward Bound, both of which are part of the TRIO programs; GEAR UP, which Congress created in 1998 as an alternative to these efforts; and the relatively new, but well-funded College Access Challenge Grant program, which provides matching grants to states to support efforts to prepare more low-income students to enroll in and succeed in college. Together, these programs received $872 million in 2010. [The final 2011 budget cut funding for GEAR UP and TRIO by approximately $45 million, but the Education Department has not yet made public how the cuts to TRIO will be divided among its seven programs.]
Both GEAR UP and the two TRIO programs connect colleges with schools to provide students at disadvantaged schools with the help they need to pursue a higher education. Each of these programs, to varying degrees, provides tutoring and/or instruction to participants in core academic fields, such as math and English, and provides academic guidance to insure that they take college preparatory courses. They also work closely with students to help them prepare for college admissions tests, take them on visits to college campuses, and help them fill out college application forms and obtain financial aid.
The greatest overlap between Talent Search and GEAR UP is that both programs provide college outreach services to financially-needy students at middle schools and high schools. The two programs, however, differ somewhat in focus and scope. For example, Talent Search projects typically recruit students who have been recommended by their schools because they have been deemed to have “college potential.” In contrast, GEAR UP aims to provide academic support and college outreach services to entire grades of disadvantaged students, helping many whose potential may not be clear yet.
GEAR UP and Upward Bound also share a similar goal: increasing the academic preparation of low-income students. Both provide instruction and tutoring and run summer enrichment programs at college campuses. The level of instruction tends to be more intensive in Upward Bound than GEAR UP, but Upward Bound serves only a select group of high school students chosen largely on the basis of recommendations from guidance counselors and teachers. At the middle school level at least, GEAR UP works with all of the students within a particular grade at a participating school.
Federal evaluators have expressed concern about how much the three programs overlap. A 2006 report by the Department of Education’s Inspector General said that the lack of coordination between GEAR UP and the two TRIO programs makes it difficult for the government to make sure the programs are meeting the needs of the at-risk students they are designed to serve in the most efficient and effective manner.
In 2007, Congress only made things more complicated by creating an entirely new college outreach effort, the College Access Challenge Grant program. While the program was initially modestly funded, Congress last year chose to dramatically expand it -- by devoting $750 million over five years to the program under the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.
Unlike TRIO and GEAR UP, the College Access Challenge Grant program allows states to decide how to use the money. The legislation gives states such wide latitude to choose among a variety of activities to finance (including, but not limited to, promoting financial literacy; providing professional development for middle school and high school guidance counselors; and offering student loan forgiveness to borrowers employed in high-need areas and professions) that it is unclear whether the program will be effective overall. And while the legislation directs grantees “to attempt to coordinate the activities carried out with the grant payment with any existing activities that are similar to such activities,” it does not require them to work with or build off of successful GEAR UP and TRIO projects in their states. In addition, while Congress provided a dedicated funding stream for the program through 2014, it will eventually have to vie for funding in the annual appropriations process.
The fractured nature of the federal college-readiness programs makes it harder for the government to carry out the goals that have been part of the Higher Education Act since its start in 1965. If policymakers believe that raising the college aspirations and improving the academic preparation of disadvantaged students still serves an important public policy purpose, then they need to develop a coherent and coordinated strategy for achieving these goals that takes advantage of the best features of these programs.
Check back with Ed Money Watch, in the coming weeks as we take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of these programs, and how the uneasy relationship between TRIO and GEAR UP has left policymakers looking for alternatives.