50 Years Later, Federal Program to Place Low-Income Students in College Still Vital


Fifty years ago this year, the federal government created Upward Bound, a program to help low-income students enroll in college. Today, with poverty rates again soaring and college a distant dream for too many, the need is as critical as ever.

Without Upward Bound, I would not be where I am today.

As a high school freshman I was anything but a serious student. Graduation was not even on the radar, nevermind college. Instead, my main concerns were figuring out which ditching party to attend and making sure my parents didn’t get the call from school letting them know I was absent.

Thankfully, on the urging of my counselors I applied to Occidental College's Upward Bound program. I had heard participants get to live away from home for five weeks with other high school students from Los Angeles. It sounded a lot like MTV's The Real World -- I was sold! What I did not anticipate was the structured academic and social challenge, far beyond my high school experience, that OxyUB would provide me during those five weeks and the following two years.

OxyUB's summer program offered three courses for high school credit, ranging from math, English, science, and reading seminars. These were no typical high school courses, though. They were taught at a college pace and the workload was akin to what you would expect at a university. Each course was three hours long, with a regular school day starting at eight in the morning and finishing up with a third course by nine in the evening. Once the classes were done for the day, it was time to head to the dorms to work on projects, reading assignments, math computations, and essays. As if the course load was not enough, OxyUB's summer program provided a host of cultural experiences, social activities and field trips to other college campuses.

For the students in the program, mostly low-income and first generation, these experiences were vital to making the dream of college more of a reality.

OxyUB hired an amazing staff of college students that lived with us and acted as our support providers, mentors, tutors, and advisors. A majority of them were OxyUB alumni and provided guidance on how to survive the tremendous academic rigor, and fostered leadership skills within us. They became our role models, individuals from our very own neighborhoods who had graduated high school and were attending colleges and universities in California and beyond. The staff opened my eyes to the idea that graduating high school was not the end of the road but only the beginning.

The summer program culminated in an awards ceremony that was completely student-centered; honoring our accomplishments, highlighting the most improved and outstanding students in all the courses, and listening to student speeches. By the end of the five weeks, my life had changed.

And although the summer program was over, OxyUB staff were gearing up for the services they were going to provide us throughout the academic year at our high schools and during Saturday sessions back at Occidental College. During the academic year, I received individual mentoring, tutoring, academic counseling, financial aid workshops, and during my senior year support with the college application process. By the time I graduated high school, I had successfully completed two summers with OxyUB and had been exposed to numerous hours of guidance, academic workshops, and college planning.

Upward Bound programs started at the height of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 in response to President Johnson's “War on Poverty.” The following year it served 2,061 students at 17 locations; and by 2013 it had grown to serve about 76,000 students at more than 1,000 locations in 50 states. In all, more than 2 million students have benefitted from Upward Bound programs.

The most recent OxyUB data from 2013-2014 showed 100-percent of the program’s students graduated high school, as compared to the LAUSD rate of 82-percent. Ninety-three percent of seniors who participated in OxyUB enrolled in post-secondary education upon graduation from high school, and 78-percent of the seniors did not require remediation upon entrance to their post secondary institution.

But despite its success and the growing need, last year the government cut 5 percent from Upward Bound, a reduction that caused enrollment to drop to 75,996 students, down from an all-time high of 79,672 in 2012.

The former director of OxyUB, Susan Madrid-Simon, represents an empowering group of educators who have fulfilled their passion of transforming the lives of students who could have easily fallen through the educational cracks of urban schooling. Instead, heroes like her have taught us skills to not only make it through the journey of attaining a college education, but foster our leadership capacities to impact our communities in meaningful ways. With that said, cheers to OxyUB and all Upward Bound programs, and may their services continue to provide positive influence on the students they serve.

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