WASHINGTON -- A report from the Brookings Institution released Tuesday makes a harsh judgment about the federal government’s college preparation programs for low-income students: After four decades, the programs have little to show in return for the Education Department’s $1 billion annual investment.
The policy brief , which appears in the journal The Future of Children, a joint project of Brookings and Princeton University, calls for a major overhaul of federally funded college preparation programs. Under the authors’ proposal, funding for all federal preparation programs -- including TRIO Programs, such as Upward Bound and Student Support Services, as well as GEAR UP -- would be consolidated, creating $1 billion in federal grants. Colleges, school districts and for-profit and nonprofit agencies could apply for the grants, which would be awarded to applicants using “evidence-based interventions.”
Calls to overhaul or consolidate TRIO programs and GEAR UP aren’t entirely new.  But this proposal could get attention, in part because it comes as Congress begins preparing to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which governs the TRIO programs. And one of the proposal’s two co-authors is a former member of the Obama administration: Cecilia Rouse, a former member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. (The other author, Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings, was an architect of the 1996 welfare-system overhaul.)
Concluding a review of the research into the effects of TRIO programs and GEAR UP, Haskins and Rouse don’t mince words: “Half a century and billions of dollars after these federal college-preparation programs began,” the write, “we are left with mostly failed programs interspersed with modest successes.”
The programs all attempt to get more disadvantaged students into, and through, college through counseling and tutoring. Most of the research on the programs’ success or failure doesn’t meet the highest evidence standards of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, but the study the authors cite as the best followed students randomly assigned either to Upward Bound or to a control group beginning in 1991. That study , published in 2009, found positive effects on some subgroups of students -- students who did not expect to complete a four-year college degree when they enrolled in the program, for example -- but no detectable effect of the Upward Bound program overall.
Other studies, which the IES decided didn’t meet the highest evidence standards, did find that Upward Bound and other TRIO programs made a difference. The Council for Opportunity in Education, which lobbies for TRIO programs, has contested the 2009 study, saying its design was flawed.
“To state that programs like Upward Bound should be consolidated based on a flawed study is not fair policy to the hundreds of thousands of families who are impacted by the TRIO programs every year,” Maureen Hoyler, executive vice president of the council, said in a statement e-mailed to Inside Higher Ed.
The Obama administration has created stricter funding standards for Head Start, the preschool program for low-income children. Under the Brookings proposal, college preparation programs would be held to a similar standard. Grant applicants would have to demonstrate that they were using “ interventions” and had a history of conducting effective programs. A certain percentage of the funds would be set aside for helping low-income students once they’re enrolled in college.
Colleges and other entities that currently receive the grants would have to reapply and compete with new applicants for the funding.
“Some will think our recommendations harsh,” the report’s authors wrote. “But social policy should be based on evidence.”