By: Arnold L. Mitchem
January 26, 2010
If we want to bridge the gap in education, government should invest in proven programs.
Any good businessperson will tell you that the way to evaluate the soundness of an investment is a return on investment analysis. ROI measures the efficiency of a financial expenditure. It is a popular metric because of its versatility and simplicity. If an investment does not have a positive ROI, a company should pass on it, or otherwise limit the assets it allocates.
The United States should apply the same principle when measuring the investment in the education of our young people, particularly in the lives of those from low-income and minority families.
Many argue that the economic future of the United States is linked to successfully investing in education. President Obama shares this belief and, as such, is poised to invest billions in education "innovation." It's a good and noble idea, but our country is at risk of having a negative ROI if it fails to invest in programs that have proven records of helping historically disadvantaged students succeed.
Let's take, for example, one of the more than 2,800 federal TRIO programs at schools across the country--programs that aim to assist low-income students to succeed in college.
The University of Oklahoma's (OU) Project Threshold, a TRIO program, invested in Sherry Williams, a first-generation college minority from an economically disadvantaged family. While OU recognized her talent and potential to succeed, the school also acknowledged that she would need additional tools and support, such as tutoring, to help her along the way. The school's message was direct: Failure is not an option. Today, Sherry serves as vice president and corporate secretary of Halliburton ( HAL - news - people ).
There are hundreds of thousands of students who, like Sherry, demonstrate ability and promise when they arrive on a college campus, but as the first in their families to go to college, have no idea how to negotiate the institution. When these students flounder--and they often do--it is the school's responsibility to offer solutions.
Established in the mid-1960s, TRIO programs have a four-decade track record of successfully helping disadvantaged students overcome the non-financial barriers to college graduation. Investments such as OU's Project Threshold are proof that federal funding of TRIO has both a positive ROI, and the potential to pay off significantly.
Serving as further proof that TRIO is a smart investment is the Upward Bound program, an intensive program of instruction, tutoring, counseling, mentoring and cultural enrichment, which targets students in the ninth grade. It costs about $7,350 on average for a single student to participate in the program. Yet this investment yields almost five times the amount in the form of additional taxes collected from UB participants, according to data reported by Department of Education researcher Margaret Cahalan to the Educational Testing Service in fall 2009.
Lest there be any doubt, consider the fact that TRIO students not only enter and graduate college at higher rates than students who do not receive such support services, but that the public reaps the benefits in the form of a better educated population, mentors who can inspire others, and--since college grads make more money--the generation of greater tax revenue.
It's simple math: The federal investment in TRIO pays off.
Yet despite these individual and collective benefits, federal funding for TRIO programs has remained stagnant over the last eight years, and threatens to remain so. Moreover, most of the programs serve fewer than 10% of the students who are eligible for them.
If we wish to make sizable gains in achievement and productivity in this country, we must seize the present moment to expand our investment in college opportunity--but we must not ignore vital and time-tested programs such as TRIO.
So at a time when we repeatedly hear about America losing its competitive advantage in the world, when we hear that American students are lagging behind in math, science, and technology, we must ask, how do we bridge the gap in education for the poor, working poor, and lower-income students? TRIO programs have been one effective answer to that question for 40 years.
Public investment in TRIO is not an abstract education policy debate; it is not about entitlements or handouts. TRIO is about a consistent, proven, long-term investment in the greatest, most renewable resource in this country--the education of America's young people.