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Why TRIO Programs Are Important for Student Growth and Success

TRIO programs help students from underserved backgrounds succeed in college and beyond. Here's what to know about the programs students could join.

The United States is becoming more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, and colleges and universities play an extraordinary role in ensuring diverse students have the resources to succeed and thrive in all areas of their lives. Diverse campuses create greater and more enriching learning experiences and help level the economic playing field for underrepresented groups. Despite the benefits of college diversity, underrepresented groups like students of color and first-generation college students still face barriers to entry and completion. Students of color make up more than 45% of the undergraduate population but are more likely to face challenges in staying enrolled, with higher dropout rates and the highest borrowing rates and debt. Let’s explore these barriers and the federally funded programs that are helping students overcome them.

What barriers do first-generation students experience?

According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, over half of college students are considered first generation—meaning neither of their parents earned a bachelor’s degree. First-generation college students are more likely to be older Black and Hispanic women who have dependent children and come from low-income communities. Attending college as a student of color or first-generation student can be both exciting and challenging. These students feel excited to be the first person in their family to attend but may also experience racism and discrimination, a lack of belonging on campus, or less confidence around their personal and academic readiness.

Studies show that if underrepresented students had access to social networks as well as academic and financial resources, their probability of success in college would increase. That’s why the federally funded TRIO Programs were created and are popular at many US colleges and universities. These valuable programs provide academic, personal, career, and financial resources to low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color.

Related: Making the Most of Your Campus Resources as a First-Generation Student

What are Federal TRIO Programs?

TRIO Programs were introduced through the Higher Education Act of 1965 and were some of the first programs to provide pathways and resources to increase disadvantaged students’ college access. There are seven programs that are completely free for participants, each with a unique focus. And these programs aren’t just for university students—some even begin in middle school to help teens succeed and build their college aspirations. Here’s a closer look at each program and what certain schools offer participating students.

Upward Bound

Upward Bound serves high school students from low-income families as well as first-generation college students with the primary goal of providing students the resources they need to enroll in and graduate from post-secondary education. Many Upward Bound programs are based at local colleges and universities. For instance, California State University, Fresno has an Upward Bound program that provides workshops on career development and job-seeking skills, tutoring, and a six-week residential program in which high school students can take college classes and live on campus.

Upward Bound Math and Science

Upward Bound Math and Science provides rigorous STEM training and courses while encouraging high school students to pursue these fields in college. Participants must have completed at least the eighth grade and be low income or first generation. This program is critical to first-generation college students, as they are less likely to complete a STEM degree than those with at least one parent with a four-year degree. In addition to cultural enrichment opportunities, Upward Bound Math and Science connects students with college faculty who serve as mentors, introduces students to STEM research, and provides financial and economic literacy. Boston University has an Upward Bound Math and Science program that lets students participate in hands-on exploratory science activities and work in research labs.

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Veterans Upward Bound

Veteran students face a variety of challenges while adjusting from the military back to civilian life. This includes those in the college environment, as many struggle with academic confidence, isolation, and depression. The goal of the Veterans Upward Bound program is to assist military veterans in gaining the requisite academic and life skills to successfully enroll in and complete post-secondary education. Veteran programs must provide course instruction in math, laboratory science, foreign language, writing, and literature. These programs also assist students in navigating and gaining access to resources such as the Veterans Administration and other state and local associations that serve veterans.

Educational Opportunity Centers

Educational Opportunity Centers primarily serve displaced or unemployed workers who want to enroll or continue their education in college. There are 142 Educational Opportunity Centers in the US that serve over 199,000 individuals, including the University of Hawai’i Maui College, which has an Educational Opportunity Center that provides assistance with college applications, career counseling, and finding and applying for loans, scholarships, and grants.

Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program

The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program (also known as the McNair Scholars program) prepares college students for advanced degree programs. The goal is to increase the attainment of PhD degrees by students from underrepresented backgrounds. McNair Scholars participate in summer internships, academic and financial counseling, tutoring, and a mandatory summer research project. The research project provides student-faculty mentorship opportunities and prepares students for the rigors of research in graduate school. The University of Wisconsin–Madison even provides McNair Scholars the opportunity to present their research at local and national conferences. If you’re a college student interested in graduate studies, the McNair program is for you. It also assists prospective graduate students with applications, the GRE, and more.

Related: Q&A: Promoting College Success for Students of Color

Student Support Services

Student Support Services aids students at the college level who identify as first generation, low income, or a student with a disability. The goal of the program is to motivate students toward successful completion of post-secondary education. Participants receive academic tutoring, educational planning, academic advising, financial aid counseling, and preparation in enrolling in four-year baccalaureate programs. The TRIO Student Support Services program at Cleveland Community College provides students with school supplies as well as college tours that provide information about their academic programs of interest.

Talent Search

Studies show that early exposure to college in middle school is key to expanding access and success with higher education for underrepresented groups. The Talent Search program provides academic, career, and financial counseling to its participants and encourages them to graduate from high school and college. In fact, 80% of Talent Search participants enroll in a college or university immediately following high school. The University of Notre Dame has a Talent Search program that offers workshops and programs on study skills, test-taking strategies, goal setting, the admission process, financial literacy, and scholarships.

Related: Early College: Not Your Average High School Experience

A college education has always been viewed as the gateway to the American dream. These federal TRIO Programs play an important role in leveling the educational and economic playing field for underserved students. If you’re a high school student unsure about college, consider asking your counselor or advisor about TRIO programs in your local area and how to join. If you’re a student applying to college and identify as low income or a person of color, research schools that have TRIO programs on campus and apply to them. They’re not only free but will help you build confidence and knowledge in navigating and succeeding in the college environment.

Find more advice and resources to help you succeed as a student from an underserved background with our College Diversity blogs and articles.

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