For Your Consideration: The College Access & Success Enterprise (CASE)

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

In the mid-1960s, as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the creation of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the Federal TRIO programs were created, originally consisting of Talent Search, Upward Bound, and Student Support Services. Together, these three programs targeted low-income students, many of whom were and are minority students. Talent Search and Upward Bound focus on middle and high school, while Student Support Services operates at the postsecondary level to help students stay in college.

The TRIO programs, since expanded to include offshoots of the original programs (e.g., Veterans Upward Bound Program), provide direct services to students. The typical TRIO program is run through a higher education institution, but Talent Search and Upward Bound services are provided at the local school level and SSS at the host institution. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges of TRIO is its inability to change how institutions deal with students, especially at the secondary school level. More on this later.

Fast forward thirty years: Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act and includes a new program called Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. Thankfully, we just call it GEAR UP. GEAR UP does many of things that Upward Bound and Talent Search do (e.g., academic preparation; FAFSA completion, etc.), but the intent was for it to do what TRIO does not: push systemic reform in public schools.

Together, over $1 billion in funds are provided to these programs each year. And while that may sound like a lot of money, it isn’t. It certainly isn’t enough to have a meaningful impact on college access in the United States. But even if there was more funding, the truth is simple: these programs, in their current form, have limited capacity to increase the college preparation and going rates of low-income students.

Let me be clear: these programs offer many of the “right” opportunities and programs to increase college access. The challenge is that they don’t do them very well in many cases, and the variation between projects (they are called “projects” at the local level) is massive. A few projects demonstrate remarkable results; but many have lackluster outcomes, at huge costs to the taxpayer.

I base this statement on two things. First (and weakest), is that I have seen, first hand, how these programs operate in the field. I have visited them; I have evaluated them; and I am not buoyed by what I have seen. Second, there are no large-scale studies that show a large, positive impact on students in either program. None. The major Upward Bound study by Mathematica in the 2000s, noting that there were some design flaws, found limited impact on students, but students from very low-income families had a larger, positive impact. For GEAR UP, the national evaluation was limited in its design and shows limited information. We simply don’t know, on a large scale, how successful GEAR UP is. Almost half a century into TRIO and 12 years into GEAR UP, we should know. Unequivocally. But we don’t.

Here are my quick concerns about the programs, and some ideas of how we rectify this for the future.

Challenges to Program Success

  1. Too much variability. In both TRIO and GEAR UP, there is simply too much variability among projects at the local level. Some are good. Some are not. This shouldn’t be the case. In both programs, there should be a fairly standard mode of operation. The positive or lack of impact on students typically comes because poor projects do not apply themselves like strong projects. Leadership is important and has an impact on project outcomes, for sure. But projects should be towing the line in how they operate. Critics say that there needs to be variability in application because of the variations in school districts. Nonsense. That just doesn’t apply. In almost all cases, what works “here” will work “there.” With SMALL variation.
  2. Program Breadth. This is a bigger challenge in GEAR UP, since TRIO typically does limit the number of students it serves. Many GEAR UP programs shoot themselves in the foot by trying to serve everyone. While an altruistic thought, it kills the possibility of a positive impact by watering down the strategies for success. GEAR UP needs to focus on only so many students given the tight budgets (in many cases).Federal projects are best when they target the neediest students; not just because that is what research suggests. Rather, because such targeting is the ultimate role of the federal government. Everything else should remain a state responsibility.Even with a tight focus on needy students, these individuals must also have the potential to succeed. That’s a heavy statement, because we want to believe that all students can learn, and learn at high levels. The truth is that too many students served by these programs fall into two categories: (a) students who are “creamed” (that is, those who are better students and who plan to go to college anyway); or (b) students who, because of various aspects of their schooling, community, and family, are so behind that these programs have no real chance to help them.  This is the saddest case, of course, but no less true. We have failed some students so miserably that they simply don’t have a chance—at least not through these federal programs. They need something far beyond TRIO and GEAR UP.
  3. Funding. GEAR UP got this issue right, in theory through a 50/50 match, but it has been a mess in practice. TRIO programs, however, are direct dollars. All program dollars are from the federal government, and in this day and age, the state, if not the LEA, should be matching funds to some extent. A primary principle of GEAR UP was a 50/50 match between the federal government and either the state or the partnership (the two separate types of GEAR UP funding mechanisms). TRIO should adopt this strategy. For those who say this would kill the program in some states, let it be so. Matches can be altered by SES in particular states or LEAs, but there should be a match.The biggest challenge with the match, as it currently exists, is the “in-kind contribution” that counts for the local agencies’ match. This essentially means that the LEAs can match with the cost of their services, such as staffing, paid for by the district or state. In theory, this works fine. In practice, we know that this becomes an elaborate shell game. The money isn’t real in many cases, so it never really is a 50/50 match. What they should do is ensure at least 25 percent is in real dollars, and 25 percent match (perhaps some projects do).
  4. Program Operations/Leadership/Staffing. Great projects have great staff. You can fill in the blank on poor programs. Staffing is a challenge in any type of program, but some of these projects have revolving doors which make it difficult to keep quality up given the constant retraining. Leadership is incredibly important. It takes a leadership with vision and training to lead these programs, especially large-scale GEAR UP programs, which may be millions of dollars a year in funds and serve thousands of students. We need to ensure great leadership and great staff. This comes through training. There must be assimilation to the core model.
  5. Evaluations/Impact Analysis. Simply poor in almost all cases. Even on larger-scale projects, the quality of third-party evaluations is limited, if not laughable. Some of the evaluations I either see or hear about are horrific. Basically rubber stamping data collected by the district, and that does not define a project evaluation. No comparisons. No data cleaning. Glorified excel charts that provide data for the APR (Annual Performance Report). But the APR is not an evaluation. It is widget counting. Until the requirements for evaluations, internal and third-party, are strengthened, “garbage in” will continue to result in “garbage out.” It is no wonder, in many cases, that we don’t have better research findings: there haven’t been better studies.

The fact that the federal government has not been able to complete a decent national study is also cause for concern. I am hopeful that future studies will be better.

How to Strengthen TRIO and GEAR UP

If we keep the programs relatively status quo, the most obvious response is to focus on each of the areas discussed above:

  1. Decrease project variability by standardizing practice;
  2. Improve targeting on the needy and not try and serve the world;
  3. Leverage federal dollars with state and local dollars to provide more fiscal resources focused on the problem;
  4. Improve the leadership and staffing; and
  5. Provide a true empirical foundation for the assessment of these programs.

That’s a start. That’s status quo. But I’m going to suggest something much more creative, encompassing, and as some will suggest, sinister.

Eliminate TRIO and GEAR UP.

There is a caveat.

I would ONLY suggest eliminating the programs IF we are engaged enough to replace them with a better mousetrap. We can ill afford losing these programs without something better in place. Too many students require support services, and there aren’t enough that exist today. As well, there are many TRIO and GEAR UP programs that do an excellent job of improving access for our youth. It’s just we don’t have enough research to emphatically, if not empirically, determine which is which.

With this preface, I recommend a new federal program—The College Access and Success Enterprise—or CASE, a hybrid of the best of both TRIO and GEAR UP. CASE, ultimately a systemic-reform initiative, could be funded, in part, through Race to the Top (RTTT) funds. The new program would not only serve as a band-aid for needy students (TRIO), but provide an impetus to simultaneously reform schools (GEAR UP). And instead of $1 billion in funding, let’s double it to provide at least $2 billion/year in federal stimulus, which, in turn, would leverage over $4 billion in total funding for these programs, given state matches.

For those who do not believe that all states have the resources to match the funds, well, too bad. I’m good with tinkering the match, as stated before, but there must be a match. A real match, not just in-kind contributions. If they aren’t willing to do that, they don’t deserve the leveraged funds from the feds.

And while we are at it, let us provide a limited number of funding years available to LEAs, which was the original design for GEAR UP. GEAR UP, back in 1998, was supposed to provide a maximum of six years of funding. At that point, school districts and states were to have embedded the practices and fund the strategies internally after completion of the grant. That simply hasn’t happened. Some GEAR UP projects around the country are currently finishing their second six-year grant cycle while working on a third seven-year grant (yes, this is “very” creative grant writing). This is absolutely not what the legislators had in mind back in 1998. I know, since I sat on the US Department of Education’s Negotiating Rulemaking Committee for GEAR UP at its inception. This point should not be lost: GEAR UP was not meant to be a sustaining program, and the federal government simply does not have the funds to provide sustainable funding for school districts.

And let’s standardize programs so they do the same things in the same ways. Again, if states want the federal money, this is the way it needs to be: these strategies done this way. Some flexibility based on peculiarities of the LEAs, but limited. States have the option of opting out, which Virginia and Texas would likely do. That would provide about 10 percent more money to the other states. I don’t think they will complain.

As well, we need to embed research funds into the model. Ensure that at least 7.5 percent of all project funds are earmarked for research. And that research must be done by an independent, third-party evaluator; an evaluator with the credentials to do the job, not like much of the hack work being done out there. Many programs (as I have written before) use evaluation funds internally (to save money), but let’s be real: you can’t conduct a viable evaluation on yourself, especially if you hope to get a new round of funding (another reason for a term limit on funds!). A doctor doesn’t conduct surgery on him or herself; a program should not evaluate itself, either.

And with the evaluation findings, we need to embrace the good and eliminate the bad. Separate the wheat from the chaff, and learn from and make the programs stronger. There is no such systemic manner in describing and articling which programs are best or which strategies are best because we do not have the corresponding evidence, one way or another. While former Supreme Court Justice Stewart stated that he couldn’t define pornography but knew it when he saw it, that isn’t good enough for us. Impact must be tangible. Success must be quantifiable. And strategies must be replicable. Otherwise, we have nothing, except wasteful government spending.

So welcome to CASE: a well-funded, federally-leveraged college access initiative, complete with strategies that resemble, in some ways, the current Upward Bound and Talent Search programs, but most certainly require the buy-in and support of the state and the local education agency (like GEAR UP). We then would provide SSS-type supports at the postsecondary level, to ensure that “access” truly means “success.”

As with any federal or state program, there can be a tendency to protect turf. Let us try and move past the turf wars and build a new model of college access and success. Let’s fully fund it, even in this economic climate, because our society will reap the educational and economic rewards in time.

Can we do this?

Interested in your thoughts, yeah or nay, in how we increase college access and success.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at
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