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Study: TRIO Programs May Ease College Racial Gaps, But Parent Support Still Needed

If the nation is to have any shot at President Barack Obama's goal of posting the world's largest share of college graduates by 2020, educators say it will have to close the racial disparities among college-going students. New research suggests closing the gap in college planning and preparation must start by middle school, and two of the nation's oldest college interventions may have a bigger impact than previously thought.

The federal TRIO Upward Bound and TRIO Talent Search programs were created more than four decades ago in the Higher Education Act, as adolescent interventions designed to reduce racial disparities in college attendance and increase the number of first-generation college-goers. Upward Bound provides intensive academic enrichment for first-generation college-bound students from low-income and racial-minority families, while Talent Search identifies high-performing students in poverty and provides them with college counseling and support.

Both programs have considerable support from lawmakers and parent and civil rights advocates, but have had difficulty securing the evidence base to protect them from political budget fights. Upward Bound and Talent Search Allocations.pdf

In fact, both were on the chopping block for years during President George W. Bush's administration, after the Office of Management and Budget's Program Assessment and Rating Tool found Upward Bound ineffective in 2002 and 2004 and Talent Search moderately effective in 2005. A more recent, randomized controlled study of Upward Bound was canceled in 2008 because of public outcry against recruiting a control group of students who would not receive services.

Critics of the programs understandably point to the fact that college racial gaps remain stubbornly wide. The Education Trust reported in August that 60 percent of white students but only 40 percent of black and 49 percent of Latino students who enter college earn a bachelor's degree within six years.

Among low-income students, the numbers are even more dismal: Alberto F. Cabrera, an educational leadership professor at the University of Maryland, found (see Cabrera Presentationpptx) that out of 1,000 8th graders tracked from 1988 on, 80 percent expressed interest in attending college, but only 215 even applied to a four-year college after graduating from high school. And of those, only 134 actually attended one.

Mr. Cabrera found Latino students were much more likely to earn at least a bachelor's degree if they created a college plan by 8th grade, took three years or more of high school math classes, and had the support of their families in college planning, among other things.

New research suggests the Upward Bound and Talent Search programs may be particularly effective in helping black and Hispanic students go on to college, but need more involvement from students' families to completely close racial gaps. In a study published in the December issue of Education and Urban Society, Rachel Walsh, a researcher with the U.S. Census Bureau, tracked a nationally representative sample of 10,204 African-American and Hispanic students through the 1988 National Education Longitudinal Study, from the study's beginning in 1988 through 2000. Of those, 358 students participated in at least one of the two college-intervention programs.

Ms. Walsh found Upward Bound and Talent Search did improve participants' college-attendance rates as compared with those of students of the same racial and socioeconomic background who did not participate in the program. Without controlling for poverty status, participating students were 14 percent more likely to attend college than nonparticipating students. When a student's socioeconomic status was taken into account, participating students were 17 percent more likely to attend college than nonparticipating students of similar background. In fact, adolescent interventions brought the college-going rates of low-income Hispanic and black students up to the level of middle-income white students. "Upward Bound and Talent Search are examples of adolescent intervention programs that can benefit African-American and Hispanic students immensely when properly implemented," Ms. Walsh concludes.

The downside? The programs still do not make up for family support and resources in the college-planning process, a critical intent of the programs. As the Education Department considers the future of its adolescent interventions to promote college-going, studies like this one suggest family involvement may be a critical pressure point.

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