On the Chopping Block Again

Administration again goes after programs preparing low-income students for college -- leaving educators puzzled and angry.
February 7, 2006

When high school graduation season came around last year, Lucy Jones noticed that every single senior in the Upward Bound program run by Rich Mountain Community College not only graduated, but had been accepted by a college.

For an enrichment program to see all of its graduates go to college may not sound unusual. But Rich Mountain's Upward Bound program serves three rural Arkansas counties in the Ouachita Mountains -- where going to college is decidedly not the norm. Only 9 percent of adults in the region have college degrees. With federal support, Rich Mountain has funds for 75 high school students a year -- students who have been identified as having college potential, but who generally don't have anyone in their families who has gone for a higher education.

The college provides them with tutoring, motivational speakers, explanations of the ACT, guides to financial aid, trips to college -- and constant monitoring to make sure that the students are enrolled in college prep programs and are working hard enough to earn good grades.

"This program is really making a difference in their lives, and in the community," said Jones, who coordinates the program for Rich Mountain. To put it mildly, she was upset Monday to learn that President Bush has proposed to eliminate all federal funds for the program -- even the part that focuses on preparing students to study math and science in college. "I just can't understand why they would zero this out," she said.

The president also proposed eliminating all funds Talent Search (which, like Upward Bound, is part of the cadre of programs known as TRIO ) and Gear Up -- all of which try to reach out to students who have college potential but who might otherwise not realize that they could afford a higher education or know to prepare for one.

Together, the president is proposing to save $750 million by killing the three programs. In budget documents, the administration did not attack the programs, but said that their aims would be better served by other administration efforts, in particular by a Bush plan to extend No Child Left Behind -- his controversial school-reform initiative -- to high schools.

Backers of the college outreach programs -- as they did when the president tried without success to kill the programs a year ago -- are coming out fighting. They note that the programs have data (largely gathered by the federal government) to show their effectiveness on a national scale. They argue that these programs put an emphasis on encouraging more rigorous study in high school -- a theme repeatedly endorsed by the Bush administration. They say that these programs use income level, not race or ethnicity, to determine eligibility -- again consistent with Bush administration principles. And the programs are decentralized, involving state and local agencies and nonprofit groups to run them -- again, characteristics that could be Republican mantras.

The problem, many educators say, is that these programs are associated with Democratic politicians and Bush needs the money to pay for his pet projects.

So advocates for the programs are planning a swift response to the proposals, hoping to win enough Congressional support to keep the programs alive.

A strong emphasis of the campaign will be on data. The thinking is that there is Congressional skepticism -- particular among Republicans -- about whether various education programs actually accomplish anything. In the case of Upward Bound and Talent Search, supporters will point to Education Department statistics showing that the college enrollment rates for high school graduates in the two programs are 91 percent and 73 percent, respectively -- compared to 41 percent for students similarly situated economically but who do not receive the enrichment programs.

At the same time, advocates for the programs also plan to make more of a political argument this year. The Council for Opportunity in Education commissioned a public opinion poll by Widmeyer Research and Polling on public attitudes about programs that prepare students for college. While no one expected any large segment of the public to be against college preparation, the idea behind the poll was to combat the belief among many in Congress that people don't care these days about programs to help low-income students. In fact, the polling found that overwhelming majorities -- among all racial and political groups -- back programs like the ones the president is trying to eliminate.

Arnold L. Mitchem, president of the council, said such data will be used to combat apathy. "We get told [by some in Congress] that there isn't much interest or support. This shows that is not the case," he said.

Mitchem called the president's proposals "totally irresponsible," and questioned how the White House could champion math and science education and try to kill off a program that helps low-income students prepare to become science majors. "The budget really unmasks the rhetoric," he said.

Likewise, he noted that the programs being slated for elimination serve diverse students -- and more than one third are white.

Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, a group that promotes ways to increase Latino college success, said that all of the research indicates that the programs proposed for elimination have increased Hispanic enrollments. "Eliminating these could be very detrimental," she said.

As for the argument that an expanded No Child Left Behind could take these programs' place, Santiago said that one doesn't need to get into a debate on the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind to see the flaws in that argument. "The reality is that we're not there yet," referring to the gains promised by the administration. "What is the alternative for students right now?"

Gear Up has a more difficult lobbying job in many ways because it is a younger program (started during the Clinton administration) and so it has a shorter track record to point to. But the record that is there suggests that the program is having a positive impact on the academic success of low-income students. For example, Education Department studies have found that Gear Up increased parents' and students' awareness of college requirements and encouraged students to take more rigorous mathematics in junior high school and high school -- achieving more in math as well.

Ranjit Sidhu, vice president of the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, said that even if Congress rescues the program, time and effort is wasted when something is on the chopping block. "What happens is that you take the focus away from program implementation and direct service,' Sidhu said. "Our people are hugely committed to this program, but when they see the program in jeopardy, it makes it hard to plan and people question it."

This is especially the case, he said, because Gear Up works with so many community agencies, who want to be sure that their partners aren't going to disappear.

For her part, Jones of Rich Mountain Community College, said that she sees no choice but to push her program on -- whatever budget proposals are on the table. The main manufacturing jobs in the area have departed, with the relocation of several clothing factories to Mexico. That leaves jobs in logging and chicken farming.

"We need programs that show students why they need a higher education," she said.


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