Whenever I heard the word "trio" as a kid, I thought of either the Three Musketeers, or Snap, Crackle and Pop. Today I think of these immensely successful educational access programs. I think about the resilient, hard-working students who are served by these programs, and the dedicated individuals who staff them. On the Hill, we hear the word "trio" often, but many of us remain confused about its true meaning.
Since their inception, the TRiO programs have helped millions of students - over 800,000 each year - enter and successfully graduate from college. The Higher Education Act of 1965 aimed to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and to provide financial assistance to students in postsecondary education. Federal financial aid to attend college didn't exist before this legislation, making it virtually impossible for low-income families to send their children to college. The TRiO programs were instituted to increase the number of low-income students who were prepared to enter and to succeed in college, which they have done.
Misconceptions about TRiO programs and the population they serve are inevitable, given their complexities. One false impression is that the only students served by the TRiO programs are students of color. This couldn't be any further from the truth. The TRiO programs are class-based, not race-based; there are set criteria for admittance. Nationwide, participants in the TRiO programs reflect our nation's multi-cultural and multiethnic society: 37 percent of TRiO students are white, 35 percent are African-American, 19 percent are Hispanic, four percent are Native American, and four percent are Asian-American. The majority of TRiO participants are from low-income and first-generation college student households.
There are an endless number of barriers to higher education for many students, particularly students from low-income families. These roadblocks range from economic and social to cultural and religious. Many genuine problems students face often go unnoticed. Many TRiO eligible students come from single-parent families and have an incredible amount of responsibility in the home.
Another barrier is widespread unfamiliarity with the college application process. Parents who have not gone to college are unaware of the many financial aid options available for their child to attend a post-secondary institution, so they often think that college is out of the question. The TRiO programs act as a support system and as a resource. TRiO staff address these fundamental issues, which are a reality for many students from all walks of life.
Recently, federal funding for educational programs like the TRiO programs has been up in the air. For the past six years, the TRiO programs have been targeted for elimination by the Bush administration. But anyone who has been a part of the TRiO programs realizes that they have been incredibly successful and are necessary for the continued reduction of poverty in the United States. These are basic rights the American people are assured by our constitution and laws like the Civil Rights Act and Higher Education Act.
Hopefully now when you hear someone utter the word "trio," you may think of something other than the Three Stooges, or bacon, lettuce, and tomato. Hopefully now when you think of "TRiO," you will remember that the red, white and blue should not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, color, class, religion, sex, sexual preference, national origin, political affiliation or favorite music. The next time you see a sign or read a petition that states "Save TRiO," you'll know what we're fighting for, programs that are a product of the Civil Rights era.
Contributing Writer Kenneth Zimmerman is a GEAR UP academic advisor.