By: Sen. Susan M. Collins
Beginning with Upward Bound nearly 60 years ago, the package of federal programs known as TRIO has expanded higher education opportunities for underserved students across the country. As the Senate co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional TRIO Caucus, I am proud to be an advocate for these important and often life-changing programs that make a tremendous difference for first-generation, low-income students, as well as for students with disabilities.
In Maine, we have 30 TRIO programs serving nearly 7,600 students all over the state. During my service in the Senate, and before that when I worked at Husson University, I have been inspired by the stories of TRIO students.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting three successful alumni of Maine TRIO programs at the non-profit Council for Opportunity in Education’s annual conference in Washington. The accomplishments of these women describe both the value of TRIO and the determination of the students the programs serve.
Doris Juarez, an alumna of the University of Southern Maine’s Upward Bound Program, was raised in Portland by parents who emigrated from Guatemala. She graduated from Smith College with high honors in Biology and was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Her goal is to become a college president.
Kate Michaud, who lives in Brewer, earned her Associate of Science in Nursing degree with assistance through TRIO. She currently works at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bangor and is continuing her education by pursuing a masters in Nursing Leadership at Franklin Pierce University.
Monique Mills grew up in Skowhegan. She enrolled in the Upward Bound program and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maine at Machias. She is currently a fourth-year Biomedical Science Ph.D. candidate at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor via the University of Maine Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering.
There are countless other success stories across Maine and the country, and each one shows why these programs are so essential and effective. Without TRIO’s individualized counseling, advising, and support, many low-income students may lose opportunities for a better life.
Each year, I co-lead the effort to fully fund TRIO. The government funding package that was signed into law in March provided the highest-ever funding level for the TRIO programs. I have also authored legislation to reauthorize and strengthen the programs.
TRIO students overcome many obstacles to achieve their higher-education goals. We must be just as persistent in securing the progress we have made. Five years ago, the federal Education Department denied dozens of applications for Upward Bound funding based on arbitrary, non-substantive formatting criteria such as line spacing or font size irregularities.
Among the rejected applicants was the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Unbelievably, its application was rejected because it used one-and-a-half line spacing instead of double spacing in text appearing in graphics in just two of the application’s 65 pages. Incredibly, the Department refused to consider the application on its merits because of this minor spacing issue.
Far worse, this absurd decision would have denied approximately 960 disadvantaged high school students in Maine the chance to realize their academic potential and achieve their higher education dreams. In short, the Education Department lost sight of the goal of serving students and instead focused on bureaucratic formalities.
After many months of advocacy, including three letters I wrote to the Department, several phone calls with the Secretary, and working with my Appropriations Committee colleagues to secure a provision in the Department’s funding bill, we were able to reverse this ill-conceived policy. The University of Maine at Presque Isle ultimately received its TRIO grant to serve those students, and several other applicants across the country were also able to participate in the program. One of the provisions in my bill to reauthorize and strengthen TRIO would permanently prevent the situation UMPI faced.
Higher education provides us with health professionals, educators, and skilled tradesmen and women and so much more. It also is the incubator for entrepreneurs, jobs, and a new economy. But economic statistics only tell part of the story. When we lend a hand to those who have the motivation to pursue higher education but lack the means, they give back to their communities, and move our state and our nation forward.