TRIO celebrates achievements, faces challenges

Participants at a recent TRIO event at Klamath Community College in Oregon.

The future is bright for Chantal Ramirez, a 21-year-old at Klamath Community College (KCC) who will transfer to Southern Oregon University as a junior this fall after receiving a KCC associate degree in psychology. She plans to pursue a master’s degree and then a career as a clinical social worker. 

Ramirez is the first in her family to graduate from college and says a venerable federal grant program, the Federal TRIO Programs (TRIO) – which provides coursework tutoring, career counseling and training in applicable skills like resume-writing and applying for scholarships – is a large reason why.

“I think that I would have not had the confidence to go into higher education without the help of TRIO,” Ramirez says. “My background is full of family members struggling with addiction or alcohol, so TRIO has given me the confidence to say, ‘You can be the person that breaks that cycle and goes to college. And despite you having to work this much, we’ll find the resources you need and connect you with the right people.’ And I feel as though TRIO has given me those resources. I am eternally grateful because they were always in my corner, helping and encouraging me and telling me, ‘You can do this.’” 

Community colleges are a pathway out of poverty for many, and the TRIO programs, which are designed to increase college recruitment and completion, have played an outsized role in facilitating this journey at many community colleges. But despite many champions, tough fiscal times may make just treading financial water an achievement for these programs.

The battle for funding

TRIO advocates are currently enmeshed in a Capitol Hill battle to increase funding for the program by $107 million for fiscal year 2024 (FY24) for a total appropriation of $1.3 billion — the same amount proposed in the Biden administration. But the debt ceiling legislation signed into law in June means that Congress would have to cut another program for TRIO or any other non-discretionary program to receive an increase in FY24.

In fact, virtually all social programs will have to compete effectively with each other just to avoid a reduction in the current level of funding. For many, that is a disappointing result given that the current TRIO program only serves a fraction of those eligible and a high rate of inflation continues to erode that reach and the level of services that existing funding can buy.

Sidebar: The eight TRIO programs

“We only serve about 7% of eligible populations, and we’d need $10 billion to serve them all,” says Maureen Hoyler, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE). “TRIO has historically had very broad bipartisan support, so we’re utilizing everything we can to fight any potential cuts in either 2024 or 2025 – but it’s just too early to tell what will happen.”

Hoyler says that it is essential community colleges lobby their legislators to support the program, noting COE has asked all TRIO supporters to invite their members of Congress to visit their students and programs this summer and throughout the year, noting the House and Senate will be in recess for the entire month of August.

“Our biggest priority now is to make sure that members of Congress meet our students and their parents so that they understand what these programs mean,” Hoyler says. “Most of our institutions run programs in the summer for TRIO students. And so we want to ensure the members connect with the students.”

TRIO programs enjoy strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, with 135 senators and representatives, including 29 Republicans, participating in a Congressional TRIO Caucus, a bipartisan, bicameral group in Congress supportive of TRIO.

“I moved here from Oklahoma, and I was in U.S. Rep. Tom Cole’s (R-Oklahoma) district working at a college,” says Boomer Appleman, San Juan College’s (SJC) vice president for student services. “We loved having Tom Cole as a champion for TRIO programs in a Republican, red state. I am now at an institution in New Mexico, a Democrat, blue state. However, when it comes to TRIO, every representative or senator wants to help their constituents and the residents in their area. TRIO is one of those programs where everybody has really rolled up their sleeves and works together to make it accessible for students. At the end of the day, for 40 or 50 years, it’s been effective.”

San Juan College students and directors of the New Mexico college’s TRIO programs visit the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The purpose of the visit was to tour colleges and participate in cultural activities. (Photo: SJC)

COE has also recently begun a new project, Powering the Federal TRIO Programs, to address how TRIO programs can help address the needs of community colleges in terms of enrollment and retention, Hoyler says.

“We have TRIO programs at 1,200 of the 1,300 community colleges, so we see it absolutely critical that we work more closely with community colleges,” Hoyler says. “We met with (Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges) at the end of last year, we have involvement of a number of community college presidents, and we’re hoping to have involvement of the board of the AACC, too.”

Opportunities and challenges

At Klamath Community College, the TRIO Student Support Services program serves 140 students every year, about 15% of KCC’s students, but only about 28% of the students who could qualify for the program, says Zach Jones, KCC’s TRIO program director.

“We’re coming up to renew our grant application in 2025, and I have proposed to senior administration that we ought to write grants for higher funding so we can serve more students because the need is huge,” Jones says.

Engagement by entire institutions is important, Jones says.

“TRIO programs really live and die on whether we as a community, we as a college, believe in the program,” Jones says. “Because if we do not have the effective stakeholder relationships with all the important offices that we work with, like financial aid, or the instructors, the faculty side of the house, it is really difficult to do the work.”

Many interviewed note TRIO programs are also noteworthy because they often cause groups of similarly situated and challenged students to form a cohort of students receiving TRIO services, providing a support group for them, a feeling of camaraderie and allowing them to collaborate on problem-solving some of the challenges that they face. 

Helping high schoolers achieve dreams

For Natalie Carmona, 18, participation in an Upward Bound program administered by Tarrant County College (TCC) in the Ft. Worth, Texas, area as a senior at South Hills High School helped her decide to pursue an ambitious dual-degree program in computer science and a minor in art when she starts at the University of North Texas in fall 2023.

“They’ve helped me plan out what I’m going to do after high school because originally I didn’t have a clue of what I was going to do after I graduated and received my diploma,” Carmona says.

Tarrant County College holds a banquet for local high school students in its TRIO Upward Bound program. Joining them are TRIO Programs Director Trichele Davenport (center left) and Mandy Hernandez, coordinator of the Upward Bound program. (Photo: TCC)

Twenty years ago, TCC launched its first TRIO Upward Bound Program at South Campus, says Trichele Davenport, director of TRIO programs at that location. The program has remained constant in the community since 2003, serving more than 3,000 local high school students. In addition, TCC has two TRIO Student Support Services Programs serving 310 students at its South and Trinity River campuses, and a TRIO Talent Search Program serving 500 middle school and high school students. TCC intends to continue expanding such services across the institution, Davenport says.

Alignment of TRIO grants to enable students to continue receiving TRIO support from high school, through community college and four-year institution educational pathways is one area where many said more effort is needed. Occasionally, two-year colleges and four-year institutions have cooperative agreements or partnerships that allow students to continue participating in TRIO programs during their transfer process, says Crystal Mohamed, director of TRIO Programs at Oklahoma City Community College (OCCC). In such cases, participation is coordinated between the two institutions – if the student continues to meet the eligibility requirements – allowing for continued support, Mohamed says.

Collective strength

For TRIO programs, there is also strength in numbers. In addition to COE, in most states and in 10 regions there are TRIO associations, which vary in level of complexity and organization.  Oregon’s state TRIO association, Oregon TRIO Association, is among the more robust given it is organized as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that can accept donations and has funding, now $560,000 annually, to fund an executive director.

The organization, which includes 54 members with TRIO grants in the state, produces an annual Factbook Oregon TRIO Factbook – Oregon TRIO Association of TRIO leaders and student achievements throughout the state. That is important to help give legislators success stories and buy-in for the program, says Matt Bisek, executive director of the Oregon TRIO Association.

In addition to supplementing TRIO grantees with additional institution funds, Bisek notes the grants can also attract outside funding, particularly if the TRIO organization, like the Oregon TRIO Association, has the staffing to negotiate such arrangements. The association recently received a $30,000 grant from the Battelle scientific organization to send eight students to an Arctic Alaskan Research Station to engage in virtual field design.

At SJC, TRIO SSS serves 160 students, STEM 120 students, EOC  850 students, and Upward Bound 60 students. Helping students complete and submit the federal student aid application is a priority, says Yolanda Benally, SJC’s dean of students, who oversees the college’s TRIO programs. 

“We focus a great deal on FAFSA. We want our students to know they are eligible for FAFSA,” Benally says. “We try to help them understand the entire process — from filling out the forms to how to remain eligible.”

The program produces powerful transformational changes, Appleman says.

“Several years ago, we had a student who attended a trip to the East Coast for cultural immersion.  The student said, ‘this was great; this is the first time I ever got to do that.’ And I thought the student meant it was his first time in a plane or staying at a hotel,” Appleman says. “And to my surprise, the student replied, ‘this was my first time sleeping in a bed.’ Some of these stories can be heart-wrenching — students are given an experience in TRIO that they would never have on their own.”

About the Author

David Tobenkin
David Tobenkin is a freelance journalist in the greater Washington, D.C. area.
The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.