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Competition Between GEAR UP and TRIO’s Talent Search Have Left Both Programs at a Standstill

Published:  July 7, 2011

At Ed Money Watch, we have written recently about how federal programs that aim to raise the college aspirations of low-income student lack coordination and suffer from significant redundancies. Of all these efforts, GEAR UP and Talent Search (part of the long-standing TRIO programs), have the greatest overlap. While there are significant differences between the two programs, they both provide college outreach services to low-income students at middle schools and high schools. Each works closely with students to prepare for college admissions tests, and helps them fill out college applications forms and obtain financial aid.

They also share something else in common: budget troubles. Since the creation of the GEAR UP program in 1998, these programs have had to compete for resources out of the same pot of funding (the annual Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations legislation) -- and neither program has fared particularly well over the last decade. In fact, the competition between these programs has pretty much left them both at a standstill.

Talent Search is a product of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative, which sought to curb poverty and give all citizens an equal opportunity for success. Established in 1965, as part of the original Higher Education Act, Talent Search identifies disadvantaged middle-school and high-school students with “college potential” and encourages them to pursue a higher education.

In 1998, Congress created GEAR UP largely as an alternative to the TRIO program. The Clinton administration and GEAR UP’s champions in Congress felt that Talent Search was too limited in its scope and reach to make a meaningful difference for most low-income students. The aim of GEAR UP, which is primarily made up of school-college partnerships, is to provide counseling, mentoring, academic support, and college outreach services to entire grades of students, starting in middle school. Unlike Talent Search, GEAR UP aims to make lasting changes in the middle schools and high schools the students attend. For example, the partnering colleges are expected to work with schools to overhaul curricula and provide professional development activities for teachers.

In terms of funding, the GEAR UP program got off to an auspicious start. The program initially received $120 million, and by the time President Clinton left office, it was up to $295 million. But the program’s budget has barely budged over the last decade. Appropriators did provide the program with small bumps up over the last two years, to $323 million in 2010. The final fiscal year 2011 spending bill, however, cut the program’s budget back to $303 million, the level it was funded at from 2005 to 2009.

The Talent Search program has fared even worse. While the program received a boost in the first year of the Bush administration, from $110 million to $143 million, its budget has remained flat ever since. And the final budget deal for 2011 reduced spending on the program even further, although the Department has not yet revealed how the $25-million cut that the TRIO programs sustained has been divided among the programs.

To some extent, the programs’ fiscal woes can be tied to the Pell Grant's budget problems. As the cost of even maintaining the maximum Pell Grant at its current level has exploded, Congress has had little new discretionary money to spend on the other federal higher education programs.

But it hasn’t helped that the two competing college outreach programs generally serve the same purpose. Ever since President Clinton left office, administration officials and lawmakers have been loathe to favor one program over the other, as they both have strong constituencies fighting for them. The uneasy relationship between these programs has, in fact, left policymakers looking for alternative approaches to achieving the same goals.

The Bush administration, for example, repeatedly called on Congress to kill both of these programs, as well as TRIO’s Upward Bound program, and devote the savings to support its efforts to reform high schools. Under President Bush’s proposal, states would have been able to use this money to provide interventions of their choosing to help high school students who were struggling academically. The plan never went anywhere, and the administration eventually dropped it.

In 2007, Congress created an entirely new college outreach effort, the College Access Challenge Grant program. While the program was initially modestly funded, Congress chose to dramatically expand it last year with $750 million in non-discretionary spending over five years. Unlike TRIO and GEAR UP, the challenge grant program allows states to decide how to spend the money for these purposes. The program, however, gives states such wide latitude to choose among a variety of activities that it is unclear whether it will be effective overall. In addition, the dedicated funding stream Congress gave the program expires in 2014, so it’s unclear whether it will continue beyond that time.

As we have said before, the fractured nature of these federal college readiness programs has made it harder for the government to carry out the Higher Education Act’s goals. If policymakers still believe that raising the college aspirations and improving the academic preparation of disadvantaged students serves an important public policy purpose, they not only need to develop a coherent and coordinated strategy, but they also need to provide the funding necessary to carry it out effectively.

Check back with Ed Money Watch in the coming weeks as we take a closer look at the strengths and weakness of each of the federal government's college outreach and early intervention programs.

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