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Fight Brews Over TRIO Programs for Aspiring College-Goers

The Council for Opportunity in Education, the lobby organization for a group of programs that receive federal funding to help low-income and first-generation students go to college (known as TRIO), is up in arms over a regulation floated by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this fall.

The organization was on Capitol Hill Tuesday to urge lawmakers to submit comments to the department in opposition to the proposal, which is intended to make the competition that decides which programs get the federal funding fairer for new program applicants.

Under the current scoring rubric, programs that already receive federal funds begin with a certain number of points. Critics argue that disadvantages new applicants, but supporters argue it rewards them for showing they can operate successful programs.

Too wonky for you? I thought it might be. That's why you should head over to New America's EdCentral blog, where Ben Miller, the think-tank's resident expert on higher education policy, has written an insightful and easy-to-read primer on the current spat.

While the effort to block the proposed regulations is interesting in itself, it underscores a couple of larger problems with the TRIO programs, which collectively are funded to the tune of $840 million. Miller and other education policy experts hope Congress will correct what they see as flaws when if it decides to overhaul the Higher Education Act next year.

The first problem, noted above, is the discrepancy over the competition's scoring mechanism.

"They are competitive programs, but in name only," Miller said during an interview about the Higher Education Act in September. "It's very hard to lose an existing grant."

The second issue policy experts are hoping Congress will weigh in on during reauthorization is the lack of evaluation of the TRIO programs. In 2008, there was a push by the Education Department to institute an evaluation mechanism, but a political fight ensued over the design of the evaluation (the Council for Opportunity in Education led the lobby effort against it) and it was never put in place.

The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which education committees in both chambers have made a priority on their to-do lists, would provide a perfect opportunity to address issues with TRIO programs. It's notable, however, that the two emerging proposals from each chamber only marginally address them.

"You read this 800-page bill that touches on a ton of things and there's maybe two pages on the grant programs that provide something like $1 billion a year," Miller said of a discussion draft that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the Senate education committee chairman, unveiled over the summer.

"One of the House Republican plans has a paragraph about TRIO reform, and that's the extent to which it's covered," he added about an 11-page blueprint for how Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, plans to tackle the higher education overhaul.

"I think that speaks in a lot of ways to the challenges associated with reforming those programs," Miller said. "There doesn't appear to be a ton of appetite in making changes."

He added: "There may be a strategic sense of, 'Why invite fights earlier than you have to?' But it is extremely odd to look at such broad policy documents that ignore such major investments, and I think the reasons for that are more political than policy."

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