Expanding Educational Opportunities

Weekly Column by Sen. Susan M. Collins

As Maine and our nation face the challenge of a global economy, it is more essential than ever that the doors to higher education be open to all, regardless of economic status.  For more than 40 years, a package of federal programs called TRIO has been the key to educational opportunity for low-income, often first-generation college students.


Throughout my time in the United States Senate, I have made expanding access to high education a priority.  I have joined time and again in bipartisan efforts to increase TRIO funding and am leading another such effort this year.


Maine provides an excellent case study in why these programs are so essential.  Despite having excellent K-through-12 schools and one of the best high-school graduation rates in the country, Maine lags in participation in post-secondary education.  The reasons for this paradox lie at the core of the issues the TRIO programs address: many Maine students grow up in families that have not had any experience with higher educationl; and far too many students who aspire to higher edcuation are stymied by the rising cost and staffering deby they would incur.  This cycle can only be broken by the affordability and aspirations that TRIO provides.


As the name indicates, the original TRIO was three programs launched in the late 1960s: Upward Bound, Educational Talent Search, and Special Services for Disadvantaged Students.  Since then, three more components have been added to expand outreach, to help students stay in college, and to encourage graduate studies.  The results have been remarkable. Today, more than 1,200 colleges, universities and agencies offer TRIO Program services to low-income students and veterans throughout the United States. It is estimated that 2 million former TRIO students have college degrees.


Lifetime earnings for those with post-secondary education are as much as $1 million higher than for those without.  Post-secondary education gives displaced adult workers a fresh start and a chance to move farther ahead.  It is also the incubator for our next generation of entrepreneurs and a new economy.


But economic statistics tell only part of the story.  When we lend a hand to those who have the motivation to pursue higher education but who lack the means, they give back.  I have had the pleasure over the years to meet many students who have benefited from TRIO, and who have overcome great obstacles to achieve great things.  Recently, a group of current TRIO students – some of the 6,145 Maine students who will be served by TRIO this year -- visited my Washington office. It is heartening to know that their futures are limited only by their energy and commitment, not by their economic background.


We have accomplished much, but there is much more to do. Last year, 877,000 students were able to participate in TRIO programs that provide them with the tools necessary to achieve their educational goals.  That number, impressive as it seems, is only an estimated seven percent of the total U.S. students in need of TRIO services.


In order to close this gap between aspirations and available resources, I am leading an effort, joined by a bipartisan group of 48 Senators, to increase TRIO funding by an additional $120 million. This increase would bring the total funding for TRIO to $948.2 million and would allow approximately 1 million students to be served by TRIO.


As the pace of change in the global economy accelerates, it is vital that we help every student aspire to and achieve a meaningful post secondary education.  Increased funding for TRIO will improve the effectiveness of existing services and expand its capacity to reach additional students.  The world moves forward, and enhanced support for the TRIO programs will help ensure that our state and our nation remain in the forefront.