Paul Smith’s faces TRiO dilemma

Jonathan Carman, a representative for Rep. Elise Stefanik, walks around Paul Smith’s College’s TRiO anniversary event, to celebrate the federal education program that helps first-generation and low-income students through higher education. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

PAUL SMITHS — Students and staff at Paul Smith’s College celebrated the 53rd anniversary of the TRiO program, a federal education program that supports first-generation and low-income students, while addressing concerns about the program’s future.

Meeting in the top floor of the library Friday, students dined on food made on campus by culinary students and staff members talked with Jonathan Carman, a representative for Rep. Elise Stefanik, about the program’s tenuous future.

As the name implies, TRiO provides financial support to three groups of people: first-generation college students, low-income students and students with learning disabilities. A 2015 study from the Pell Institute shows that students from wealthy families are eight times as likely to graduate, and at Paul Smith’s, students are twice as likely to graduate with TRiO support.

The college receives $1.2 million in grants every five years, supports 165 students through TRiO funding and has had around 40 to 50 percent of its students qualify as low-income in the past 13 years the program has been operating at the college.

However, due to limited funds, TRiO only supports around two to three percent of the eligible American population.

The program is funded by Title 4, which covers financial aid, and has existed since the 1960s.

“Right after the Civil Rights Act was passed, Martin Luther King in particular, and many people in that movement said, ‘Okay, we’ve got the right to vote, but to what degree in America do we have opportunities to find good jobs?'” Paul Smiths’ TRiO Student Support Services Director Tom Huber said.

Funding frights

Huber said education funding has been on a downward spiral since the 1980s, mostly coming from the fact that while prices rise, funding stays flat. Citing a study by Tom Mortenson from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Huber said if Pell grants kept pace with inflation over the past decade, they should be well over $10,000. They once were around $5,500 and now are typically $5,900.

The staff at the college were worried about portions of the Trump administration’s proposed budget that would end federal block grants and shift the federal burden to states by 2020.

“This would kill TRiO programs; they would be done,” Huber said. “States aren’t going to keep TRiO programs in play.

“The states aren’t funding higher education; the federal government is not funding higher education. Really, since the ’80s we see this downward funding scenario, and it’s shifting to households. And again, the Trump administration would shift it completely out of the federal role.”

PROSPER concerns

The PROSPER Act, a bill reforming the federal government’s student aid programs, is currently being considered by Congress, and Huber said it contains several provisions that could harm both students and institutions.

The act has a provision that says if an institution benefits from a Higher Education Opportunity Program (private colleges) or Education Opportunity Program (public colleges) that they are ineligible for a TRiO grant. Most colleges have one of these programs and would have to make a choice between eliminating one of two programs focused on student success.

PROSPER would also require institutions to match funding at a 20-percent level. Huber said the college currently matches at more than $30,000 per five-year funding cycle, and he feels it is important for institutions to “have skin in the game.” However, he said the new requirement would add $20,000 to the college’s bill, and that Paul Smith’s would have to pony up that extra cash or lose TRiO funding.

Huber said the program is essential to the college’s success and that the extra matching should not be required of cash-strapped colleges that already contribute tens of thousands of dollars.

“Our success rates — institutionally, higher retention and graduation rates – are going up … with these investments,” Huber said. “We would not be where we’re at today without the $1.2 million grant every five years.”

This is not the first time there has been attempts to eliminate TRiO; the 90s and mid 2000s each saw unsuccessful efforts to end the program during tight budgetary times.

Huber said these calls to eliminate it are made by millionaires and billionaires who are divorced from understanding how the program benefits low-income students.

Stefanik

Huber called on Stefanik, through Carman, to be a strong voice in favor of TRiO, and to represent the low-income students of the North Country. The congresswoman, he said, is the perfect person to stand up for the program. A first-generation college student herself, she also sits on the Congressional TRiO caucus.

He said Stefanik has been a moderate congresswoman and that TRiO has historically been a bi-partisan issue.

In the past Stefanik has pushed for year-round Pell Grants, supported the idea of a “Pell bonus” for students taking 15 credits or more and supported the removal of origination fees on student loans.

Carman said the congresswoman appreciates hearing from the people who are well-versed on pending legislation. Carman said he will take the college’s hopes for the TRiO program back to Stefanik to inform her voting.

Huber said that on top of removing the PROSPER and budget provisions that threaten TRiO, he would want additional provisions included in both pieces of legislation.

He wants to simplify the process by making a rule that if someone is eligible for Pell, they are automatically eligible for TRiO. He also hopes to get a two to three percent funding increase for the program over the five-year funding cycle to better keep pace with inflation.

Other colleges involved with a TRiO program include: St. Lawrence University, Clarkson University, SUNY Potsdam, SUNY Canton and SUNY Plattsburgh.

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