Bootstraps: Federal Trio Programs, if Funded, Could Help Close Income Gap

I realized how poor my family was when I was a high school senior. While filling out a financial aid form to go to college, I looked at my mom’s tax return to see how much she made. I asked her if it was a mistake. It wasn’t. She made $11,000 a year to support a family of four. Today I make four times as much as my mom did mainly because of one reason. Not dogged ingenuity or self-determination. My mom has more of those traits than I do. The great equalizer for me was a college education. Regretfully, because of some potential cuts, fewer New Englanders will have a chance at a degree.

According to a new study by University of Massachusetts economists, since 1979, the chasm between the rich and the poor has grown in Massachusetts. Across the nation, research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that child poverty increased in 38 states from 2000 to 2009 (including Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island). As a result, 14.7 million children, or 20% of all children under age 18, were poor in 2009. In addition, the current recession has increased the overall number of Americans living in poverty by 18% since 2000.

The good news is that since 1964, our government has had two successful programs that have helped Americans from low-income and first-generation college backgrounds (whose parents never enrolled in higher education) prepare for and earn their college degrees, helping to stop the cycle of poverty. The federally funded TRIO programs (Upward Bound, Veterans Upward Bound, Math-Science Upward Bound, Educational Talent Search, Student Support Services, the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Program, and Educational Opportunity Centers) and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR-UP), serve more than 50,000 low-income, first-generation college students and disabled individuals throughout New England.

The TRIO and GEAR UP programs have had millions of successful participants, including many with New England ties, like University of Massachusetts Boston Chancellor Keith Motley; astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz; Vice President at Spelman College Arlene Wesley Cash; Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis; basketball coach and Olympic medalist Patrick Ewing; and CNN Commentator Steve Perry. The programs provide college preparation and awareness, working with individuals from middle school through adulthood. Usually located on college campuses, more than 125 of these federally funded programs operate in New England, for example, at Boston University, Bowdoin College, MIT, the Community College of Rhode Island and the universities of Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Regretfully, although these successful federal programs only had funding to serve about 10% of the eligible population, they have faced budget challenges this year. As a result of across-the-board domestic spending cuts of the continuing resolution passed by Congress in May, the president and Congress cut TRIO and GEAR UP by 3%. Instantly, about 75,000 low-income students across the nation lost a chance at a college degree. The debt ceiling package may cut these effective programs even more.

My mom use to tell me, “You pay now or you pay later.” The typical college graduate working full-time paid over 82% more in total federal, state and local taxes than the typical high school graduate. College graduates are also healthier, vote more often and are less likely to be unemployed. The government can chose to invest now or pay much more later.

President Obama and Congress talk about the importance of an educated America, setting a goal to be No. 1 in the world in higher education degree attainment by 2020. However, due to recent cuts, the resources that the poor have have decreased while the preparation needed to go to and be successful in college has gotten more complicated and expensive. With only the privileged going to college, we will never reverse the poverty trend or get close to reaching the 2020 goal. But we do know what works. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students who have participated in TRIO’s Student Support Services program are more than three times as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree compared with their peers who received a Pell Grant without TRIO services. TRIO is a way to make good on the investment of Pell.

There used to be a time when people didn’t have to go to college to become successful. Society has changed. It’s hard to pick yourself up by the boot straps if you have no shoes. Postsecondary education is the only systematic way out of poverty.

By maintaining and increasing funding for these programs, congress and the “super committee” will take real action in increasing college graduation rates, shrinking the divide between the rich and the poor, while also creating jobs. When I was in high school I knew that only a college education would help my family get out of poverty. Around the country, millions of children in schools, veterans returning from military service and unemployed adults feel the same way. They only need our representatives in government to lend a hand. What they will give back will be tenfold.

Reggie Jean is president of the New England Educational Opportunity Association.

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