Guest opinion: Don’t forget low-income students in ‘Race to the Top’

2010-05-19T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Don’t forget low-income students in ‘Race to the Top’DAN BENGE The Billings Gazette
May 19, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Over the past year I have had the opportunity to meet with U.S. Department of Education officials to discuss President Barack Obama’s goal of educating every child to compete in a global economy. This is an idea that coincides with my long-held values and beliefs that all children should have the opportunity to advance their education regardless of their socioeconomic standing.

For nearly half of my professional career I have been honored to work in a segment of education that allows me to pursue my convictions, helping those less privileged to enroll and complete a college education. The federal TRiO programs — which are known as the individual entities Upward Bound, Educational Talent Search, Student Support Services, Veteran’s Upward Bound and Education Opportunity Programs and the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program — have been assisting low-income, first-generation, veteran and disabled students for over 40 years.

75% go to college

TRiO was established by President Lyndon Johnson to address social and economic inadequacies in our education system. In addition to establishing TRiO, Pell Grants were created to provide financial support to low-income students who have a desire to continue their education beyond high school. TRiO programs were meant to be the vehicle to help low-income students access these education dollars.

Frequently, I am asked to share information about the TRiO programs and the impact on the students served by these programs. It surprises people to hear that rate for students enrolled in Upward Bound and Talent Search going from high school to college is 75 percent or higher, compared to 30 percent for low-income/first-generation students not participating in these two programs. College completion rates for TRiO students are three to four times the state average.

Low-income/first-generation college students enrolled in Student Support Services programs persist and succeed in college at a greater rate than their peers. The reason for their success isn’t just the Pell money; it’s the tutoring, mentoring and one-on-one contact with project staff that students rely on to help them navigate the foreign landscape of a college campus.

Funding declines

I was very pleased that our federal legislators have increased the Pell grant program to assist more students; however, I’m very disappointed that there wasn’t an increase for TRiO. The fact is, less than 7 percent of eligible students have access to TRiO programs. This isn’t a great conspiracy, just a travesty because funding for these programs continues to decline.

I’m saddened because the programs that pioneered the college access movement have been overlooked and discarded. I’m disappointed that smart poor kids are not valued. I’m disappointed that these relevant and effective programs have not received the appropriate funding to elevate the educational opportunity for more students.

I have hope that our country will once again be the global leader in education. President Obama has ambitious goals to put our country in this position and he has proven programs in his arsenal to help him achieve this goal. I plead that he and his education officials see that they have a foundation program in TRiO to regain this lead. TRiO has been in the “Race to the Top” for over four decades. Let’s increase funding for TRiO so that we can finally finish the race!

Dr. Dan Benge is director of two federal TRiO Programs at MSU Billings, Upward Bound and Educational Talent Search, and serves as a board member for the Council for Opportunity in Education in Washington, D.C.

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