TRiO will not prosper under the current PROSPER Act

This month, TRiO Student Support Services at Paul Smith’s College will recognize National TRiO Day by hosting a local food luncheon and community gathering on Friday, Feb. 23 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. upstairs in the library. 2018 also marks the 50-year anniversary of the federally funded Student Support Services program, which provides educational support to assist first-generation, low-income students and students with disabilities graduate from college. Paul Smith’s College’s TRiO-SSS project was first funded in 2005.

National TRiO Day traces back to a resolution passed by Congress in 1986:

“‘National TRIO Day,’ a day on which the nation is asked to turn its attention to the needs of young people and adults aspiring to improve their lives, to the investment necessary if they are to become contributing citizens of this country, and to the talent which will be wasted if that investment is not made.”

Over my 30-year career as a TRiO professional (counselor and director), I’ve witnessed a number of congressional updates to the 1965 authorization of the Higher Education Act, which created TRiO programs. The name comes from the first three programs established (Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services) with the passage of the law. Other programs were added during additional reauthorizations of the initial act: Educational Opportunity Centers, Upward Bound Math-Science, Veterans Upward Bound, Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement and a training program for TRiO professionals.

The last time the HEA was updated by Congress was over a decade ago. Recent attempts have been hampered by the inability of congressional leaders to craft and pass legislation during a congressional session. The 2018 PROSPER Act is likely to be voted on in the House of Representatives during the first half of the current congressional session; many of the provisions of the act are deeply threatening to the long-term prosperity of the nation’s TRiO programs. The TRiO community is looking to Rep. Elise Stefanik (a member of the TRiO Caucus and Education and Workforce Committee) for revising some of the provisions as it is debated on the floor of the House:

¯ Any institution that gains a TRiO program would have to match 20 percent of federal funds with their own money. This will hurt, not help, the effort to lift up students who need aid. Most colleges that serve low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities do not have the capacity to meet a matching requirement. It is precisely for this reason that they rely on TRiO funding to meet the needs of these students. This provision would require Paul Smith’s College, for example, to contribute approximately $50,000 annually. It’s a cost shift from the federal to state and institutional budgets.

¯ Previously, colleges that ran these programs successfully have gotten a slight edge in the form of extra points when they reapplied for grants. Such an incentive makes colleges accountable for their performance. But current proposals do away with this, and so programs that have run well for decades will be treated the same as newcomers with no track record.

¯ One provision punishes colleges that invest their own money in their own programs to help students. So New York state colleges that run the state’s opportunity programs for students may get less money from the federal government. This is all the more infuriating because federal programs only provide enough money to serve 2 percent of eligible students nationwide.

The PROSPER Act does include many positive provisions that the TRiO community supports such as “Pell Bonus” grants for an additional $300 when students complete 15 or more credits per semester. Another provision simplifies the determination of low-income status for TRiO eligibility from 150 percent poverty level (based on family size and income) to Pell eligibility. The act would also eliminate origination fees on student loans and would attempt to simplify the government’s student loan programs.

The expression, “If it aint broke, don’t fix it,” comes to mind when considering how many of the provisions of the PROSPER Act would negatively impact the effectiveness of TRiO programs moving forward. And it is a rare occurrence for a federally funded program to enjoy broad bipartisan support over the course of five decades. These provisions erode the bipartisan spirit.

It seems clear that the Tax Reform Act of 2017 was not designed to advance the interests of low-income Americans. Let’s urge our congressional leaders to develop and pass a higher education reform act that has the future prosperity of TRiO students in mind without jeopardizing the very programs designed to serve them.

Tom Huber lives in Rainbow Lake and directs TRiO Student Support Services at Paul Smith’s College.