How TRIO Programs change the lives of underrepresented and low-income college students

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of discourse about corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. These initiatives help give underrepresented groups a broader voice within the workplace, and within society as a whole. But before underrepresented groups can enter the workforce as professionals whose careers benefit from those initiatives, they need higher education that matches their career goals.

Unfortunately, there’s a major hurdle: college graduation rates in the US are much lower for Black, Hispanic, and Native American students. Rates are lower for low-income students too. And there’s often a crossover, meaning that these underrepresented groups may be more likely to fall into the low-income category as well. In fact, The Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) found that low-income students earn bachelor’s degrees at a rate less than half of their high-income peers – 21% compared to 45%. No matter how much academic potential a student might have, lack of money often leads to a dead end on the road to a promising career.

In the late 1960’s, the US federal government officially introduced TRIO Programs to provide extra funding for institutions to bridge some of those gaps for underrepresented or disadvantaged students. Here’s a quick look at the goal of each of the eight types of TRIO Programs:

  1. Educational Opportunity Centers: Increase the number of adult participants who enroll in postsecondary education through financial aid counseling and financial literacy assistance.
  2. Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement: Increase the attainment of doctoral degrees by students with strong academic potential from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  3. Student Support Services: Increase the college retention and graduation rates through academic development, assistance with basic college requirements, and grant aid.
  4. Talent Search: Increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who complete high school and enroll in a postsecondary education.
  5. Training Program for Federal TRIO Programs Staff: Support training that enhances the skills and expertise of project directors and staff employed in any Federal TRIO Programs.
  6. Upward Bound: Increase high school and college graduation rates for students from low-income families or from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree.
  7. Upward Bound Math-Science: Strengthen the math and science skills of participating students so they’re encouraged to pursue postsecondary degrees and careers in related fields.
  8. Veterans Upward Bound: Motivate and assist veterans in the development of academic and other required skills for acceptance and success in postsecondary education.


TRIO Programs can increase college enrollment, persistence, and graduation rates

TRIO Programs can look different depending on which type of institution receives the funding (college, university, government agency, nonprofit organization, or a combination of these) and which programs are used. Since students can’t apply for TRIO funding directly, it’s up to institutions to plan and implement the services so students can experience the intended positive outcomes.

While flexibility within TRIO programs is encouraged, funds are limited. Earlier this year, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $1.2 billion budget for TRIO Programs during Fiscal Year 2024. The same amount was allocated for Fiscal Year 2023. But because future approvals are uncertain, it’s critical for institutions to get both creative and selective about where they allocate funds.

For example, the University of South Dakota’s (USD) TRIO Student Support Services program serves low-income, first-generation, and disabled students. It has a markedly high persistence rate of 94% for its participants. For comparison, the persistence rate for USD students with similar backgrounds who aren’t in the TRIO program is 69%. USD’s program provides tutoring as well as assistance with course selection, financial aid applications, and graduation program applications. Participants get to take special classes, receive early access to some campus resources, and are encouraged to connect with peers who are also in the program.

The University of Alaska at Fairbanks chose a different, albeit just as meaningful, route. They used TRIO Student Support Services funds to bring in a professional counselor who’s been booked solid since the program’s implementation. Program Director Victoria Smith says this was especially needed as “TRIO-eligible students are at elevated risk of mental health issues because they’ve been disproportionately exposed to adversity and trauma in their lives.” Considering Fairbanks’s brutally cold climate and Alaska’s mental health crisis, a campus counselor is a phenomenal use of the TRIO Program.

Another exceptional way to allocate TRIO funds? Career exploration and development tools. Students deserve to make informed academic and career decisions based on their unique interests, strengths, and personality types. In the next blog post, we’ll explore how –and why – institutions would want to use these tools to buoy enrollment, persistence, and overall success for students.

How TRIO Programs change the lives of underrepresented and low-income college students

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