Little Change for Upward Bound

Education Dept. tweaks rules for prep program, but critics say they would turn some poor students into guinea pigs for others.
September 25, 2006

In July, when the U.S. Education Department proposed revising the standards for the Upward Bound Program, fans of the program that provides tutoring and other services to help needy middle and high school students prepare for college squawked. Scores of them objected to the fact that the department, in proposing a shift of funds to focus on 9th graders and on students who are at "high academic risk for failure," would excessively narrow the program’s focus and cut out many students whom the program has served successfully until now.

Friday, in a “notice of final priority” published in the Federal Register, department officials revised their plans in several ways for Upward Bound, one of the Federal TRIO programs.

First, the department agreed to let campus Upward Bound programs continue to accept 10th graders, although the 30 percent of program participants who must be academically at risk must be in the 9th grade. That, said Larry Oxendine, the Education Department official who directs the Federal TRIO Programs, is because “when a student enters high school underprepared, we believe that student needs intensive intervention, and needs that intensive intervention for four years.” Department officials had been persuaded, Oxendine said, that 10th graders who are not academically at risk can benefit from just three years in the program.

The department also slightly expanded the definition Upward Bound program directors could use to define which students are academically at risk. But the department did not in any significant way alter its overall push to shift Upward Bound’s focus toward students who are academically underprepared, which some commenters had argued would turn Upward Bound from a program aimed at preparing disadvantaged young people for college into a dropout prevention effort.

Oxendine was unapologetic: “We firmly believe we’re going to see a significant increase in the effect of Upward Bound as a result of targeting on students who have significant need.”

Supporters of Upward Bound said the department’s changes did little to change a shift they see as damaging to the program.

“The changes aren’t as bad as they could have been, but they still represent limitations on what we have had before,” said Sarah Morrell, Upward Bound director at Bristol Community College, in Massachusetts. “What we prize as project directors is the ability to apply our professional judgment, to compse a program of students with differing characteristics, in a balance that we know how to create and administer for their advantage educationally. To have a mandate come down from D.C. to restrict our ability to carry out our understanding of our communities limits our ability to use these funds in the best possible way.”

Morrell and others said they were particularly troubled by one aspect of the new guidelines that has received little attention. As part of a new system for evaluating the success of Upward Bound, the department will now require officials who run campus Upward Bound chapters to recruit at least twice as many students as they can serve and use half of the recruited students as a control group against which to compare the performance of those actually admitted into the program. One Upward Bound official described the control group approach as turning those not chosen into "guinea pigs."

That approach “feels unconscionable,” Morrell said, because it “means that we raise the hopes in individual students that they can participate and use our services and get assistance for college, and then we must tell them that they can’t so they can serve as a control to those students who do get in.”

She added: “It’s as if you had two children, and are told you can only save one. How can you in good conscience choose one over the other?”

Oxendine said that the new review process is in Upward Bound’s best interests, because the government’s previous assessment of the program found it to be ineffective. “We don’t want to leave that on the books as the only one,” he said. “As a result of more carefully targeting to those who need it, we believe Upward Bound can be shown to be effective.” Such a study needs to have a control group and use random assignment techniques to be credible, he added.

“I don’t buy the argument that we’re doing a disservice to the students,” Oxendine said. “In life we never get everything we want.”

Supporters of the TRIO programs say they have trouble believing it when department officials talk about having the best interests of Upward Bound and its participants at heart, given that the Bush administration has, in its last two budget proposals, called for eliminating the program.

“Given that this is being authored by people who’ve tried to kill the program for two budgets in a row, we don't have any illusions about what's at play here,” said Susan Trebach, a spokeswoman for the Council for Educational Opportunity, which lobbies on behalf of the TRIO programs.

Oxendine said Bush’s proposals to end Upward Bound have in no way suggested a desire to abandon the federal government’s commitment to helping disadvantaged students prepare for college; the president’s budget plans have called for shifting the funds the government now spends on TRIO to a new effort to expand the No Child Left Behind program to high schools, he noted.

In the meantime, Oxendine said, his job is to make Upward Bound as effective as it can be. “I believe the administration is going to give low income, first generation students a chance to succeed.”


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