Realizing the promise of TRiO …

On the last Saturday of February, communities across America will once again commemorate National TRiO Day, which dates back to a resolution passed by Congress almost 30 years ago.

The resolution states: “‘National TRiO Day,'” a day on which the nation is asked to turn its attention to the needs of young people and adults aspiring to improve their lives, to the investment necessary if they are to become contributing citizens of this country, and to the talent which will be wasted if that investment is not made.”

While we look forward to celebrating the achievements of TRiO in increasing college graduation rates among first generation, low-income and students with disabilities, we must also confront our lack of commitment as a nation in making a significant investment in addressing educational and economic inequality. A decade of both budget cuts and level funding severely limits the reach of TRiO, which today serves less than 5 percent of eligible Americans.

Although the first TRiO Day was celebrated in 1986, its origin traces back 50 years ago with the civil rights movement, LBJ’s War on Poverty and the authorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965. This historic legislation created the first three “TRiO” programs (Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services) as well as establishing basic educational grants for low-income Americans (later renamed Pell Grants after Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell). Unfortunately, funding increases for Pell over the past few decades have not kept up with the rising cost of college tuition for low-income students, burdening students and their families with record amounts of student loans. The state and federal share of funding higher education is at the lowest level in American history, having plummeted dramatically in the last 30 years.

Despite chronic underfunding, TRiO programs continue to increase student success and degree completion of these at-risk students. As a direct cause of our failure to invest in the promise of higher education, these increases come at the cost of further increasing student loan debt, burdening not only the student and their families but also putting a drag on the growth of the U.S. economy.

Current estimates calculate the total amount of outstanding student loan debt across the nation to be well over $1.2 trillion. In turn, profits taken by the federal government in interest payments have grown in excess of $100 billion over the past few years. A higher percentage of this profit taking comes off the backs of the poorest students, who must borrow more to cover the cost of their education. Policy experts such as Tom Mortenson at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education have called for reinvesting these profits to increase Pell Grants for the financially neediest students. Mortenson and others have called for raising the maximum Pell Grant to $10,000 to keep up with the rising cost of college tuition. Currently, the maximum level is a little more than half this amount.

Along with the growing debt problem for college students is their growing concern about the sustainability of life on planet Earth – living their entire lives under the cloud of climate change. Some writers have gone so far as to suggest the possibility of massive student loan default as a strategy of civil disobedience in protesting on a range of causes such as income inequality (Occupy Movement), rejecting dirty oil pipelines (Keystone XL) and calling for divestment from fossil fuels to address climate change. Although such radical tactics are unlikely – can millions of students pull off such a feat of organizing? – it is a provocative possibility to mull over.

Certainly there are other options for addressing the debt problem without going to such extreme measures. Graduating from college is still one of the best ways that low-income individuals can raise their economic opportunities over their working lifetimes. These young minds also want to contribute to society and the greater good without adding to unsustainable planetary consumption. Are there other feasible ways to grow the number of full-time jobs in ecologically sustainable ways? Can we create different forms of public service jobs to green the economy while lightening the load of so much student loan debt?

In 2007, Congress established a Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program for federal student loan borrowers. After making 120 income-based payments (10-year repayment period) on direct federal loans, the remaining balance is forgiven if the individual is employed full-time in a range of public service jobs including positions in government, education and other nonprofit organizations.

Of course, more public service positions have been cut than created over the past several years as a way to balance deficit budgets. Along with creating more public service jobs with loan forgiveness in mind, some “job creators” in the private sector could play a critical role in paying down loan debt as a benefit for new employees on top of paying a living wage.

While more than 98 percent of the economic gains since the last recession have been earned by the top 1 to 2 percent of wage earners, incomes for the rest have remained stagnant. As we head closer to the 2014 elections, perhaps it is time for political leaders to reach out to all those left behind who also want to take part in the dream of equality in America.

Tom Huber lives in Rainbow Lake and directs a TRiO Student Support Services program at Paul Smith’s College. This Saturday, TRiO-SSS staff and students will celebrate National TRiO Day in conjunction with the North Country Musicians Unite for Local Food Pantries benefit concert at the Adirondack Carousel in Saranac Lake.