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May 24, 2013 12:33 PM Is it Time to Change How We Help Poor Students Succeed in College?

By Daniel Luzer

Since the 1960s, the federal government has operated a series of programs, called TRIO, designed to help low-income students apply to, and succeed in, college.

TRIO (made up of Upward Bound, Talent Search, Student Support Services, and other, smaller programs), which provides about $1 billion to high schools and colleges, hasn’t been shown to be effective, however.

As Daniela Fairchild of the Fordham Foundation explains, “federal government’s major efforts to better prepare disadvantaged pupils for post-secondary education have yielded no rigorous proof of success.” Poor students are still remarkably unlikely to succeed in college. Is there a better way to spend the money?

According to policy brief by Ron Haskins and Cecilia Rouse for The Future of Children, it might be more effective to just consolidate all of the money into a single program:

We propose that the $1 billion the federal government spends annually on college preparation programs be consolidated into a single grant program. In this sense, the change we propose is similar to the Obama administration’s reform of Head Start, in which every Head Start grantee in the country risks losing its money if it does not perform at a high level. Similarly, in order to keep their federal funding, those who receive college-preparation grants would need to show, based on rigorous analysis of their performance, that they are helping disadvantaged students enroll in and graduate from college.

The idea is essentially that a program can receive money if it really works to get poor students succeeding in college, whatever that takes. This policy proposal seems to make a lot of sense. There’s no reason to provide money for a program if it doesn’t work, and a lot of very good reasons to support programs that do.

One potential problem with the proposal, however, is that the ultimate scope of the interventions might be sort of limited. The barriers to poor children succeeding in college might be far more serious than $1 billion in federal money can ever correct.

The brief argues that one reason for the TRIO change is that “the Obama administration’s reform of Head Start shows that a major ingredient of evidence-based policy is to reform or terminate ineffective programs.”

Well yes, but does Heart Start really work much better now? Have we seen great improvements in the success of America’s preschool students since the administration changed the program? The change has only been in place since last year; it’s far to soon to know.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer