February 18, 2013

Maine Voices: Federal funding cuts threaten educational opportunity in Maine

At risk are programs that help 7,000 first-generation and low-income Maine college students a year.

By BRIDGET MULLEN

BRUNSWICK - Every year, 7,000 low-income Maine residents who will be the first in their family to attend college are served by federally funded TRIO programs on campuses from York to Fort Kent.

Twenty-one Maine projects funded through the U.S. Department of Education are now threatened by impending federal budget cuts, including the Maine Educational Opportunity Center, Upward Bound, Student Support Services, Maine Educational Talent Search, Onward and Cornerstone. 

Ask any former participant, and he or she will have a story much like Tiffany Peterson from Baileyville:

"I knew that an education was essential to rising out of poverty and gaining access to not only a job, but to a career that I would enjoy. My situation, however, was a far cry from the sort of preparation that was essential to achieving the post-secondary education I deeply desired. Thankfully, TRIO was the key -- the key that opened the door to more opportunities than I ever thought existed."

MAINE NEEDS TRIO

Prospective Maine employers fret over the work force skills gap, while the chasm between high school completion and college matriculation persists. TRIO effectively moves Mainers out of poverty and into the work force.

How does TRIO work? Early intervention begins in sixth grade to help low-income and first-generation college students and families better understand educational opportunities.

Through high school, TRIO provides academic support and information about career and college admissions requirements, scholarships and financial aid programs, as well as free instruction in core classes, test preparation and electives after school, on Saturdays and during the summer break.

Out-of-school adults who are displaced or underemployed benefit from TRIO counseling on careers and college admissions and financial aid.

Once a student is enrolled in college, TRIO provides him or her tutoring, counseling, remedial instruction and financial assistance.

Tiffany explains, "Without this program, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) would be just five letters with no significant meaning and I would have absolutely no idea how to apply to colleges or compare financial aid packages. TRIO shattered every barrier I faced and showed me that being a first-generation college student was only an obstacle if I made it one."

Without this crucial pipeline of support, fewer than one in 10 students from low-income families (making less than $33,075 a year) complete degrees by age 25. With the support of TRIO, Mainers consistently beat the odds, earning degrees at a rate five times greater than their peers who are not enrolled in TRIO programs.

Tiffany sums it up, "I'm now a college sophomore, surrounded by a community of brilliant people and professors who have pushed me academically and compelled me to step out of my comfort zone.There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I would not be here without TRIO's support and guidance."

A HAND UP, NOT A HANDOUT

Maine's first TRIO program began in 1965 during the national War on Poverty. Nearly 50 years later, TRIO still works to break the cycle of entrenched family poverty in Maine communities struggling with the shift away from manufacturing and natural resource-based jobs.

TRIO has enjoyed bipartisan U.S. congressional support over the decades. Maine's senior U.S. senator, Republican Susan Collins, has served as a national champion, partnering with Democrats to write legislation to ensure continued funding.

The current battle over sequestration, however, threatens so many projects at the same time that only the squeakiest of wheels can be heard above the clamor for national attention.

TRIO has assisted more than 100,000 Mainers with college, but remains relatively unknown outside of the families it serves. It's time to shine a light on the success of TRIO, and it's time to speak up for continued federal funding. Especially in these difficult economic times, TRIO is worth our investment. The fate of Maine's young people and future work force is in our hands.

Bridget Mullen grew up in Maine and has worked with TRIO programs throughout the state since 1993. She currently directs the Upward Bound TRIO program at Bowdoin College.

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