Why Bridging the Gap to College for Low-Income Students Is As Important Today As It Ever Was

It’s been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his historic “War on Poverty,” which aimed to bolster the federal government’s support of impoverished communities nationwide. As a result of Johnson’s efforts, the mid-1960s saw the birth of notable poverty-reducing initiatives such as Job Corps, Head Start, and the TRIO program—a group of “federal outreach and student services programs … designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Upward Bound, a program that works with high school-aged, low-income and first generation students to prepare them for college, is the signature program of TRIO and in the 50 years since its creation, has served more than 2 million students from America’s underserved communities. Notable alumni include actress Viola Davis, journalist John Quinones, DNC Vice-Chairwoman Donna Brazile, and the NBA’s Patrick Ewing.

On November 8, Upward Bound alumni, business leaders, elected officials, and educational leaders will gather at the Boston University Auditorium and Atrium to participate in a 50th Anniversary Symposium to honor the program’s achievements and plan for its future. In anticipation of this event, AlterNet’s education editor, Elizabeth Hines, spoke with the man credited as the architect of the Upward Bound initiative, Stan Salett. Salett, who is also the author of The Edge of Politics: Stories from the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty & the Challenges of School Reform, spoke with us from his home in Washington, D.C. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Elizabeth Hines: As you get ready to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Upward Bound, tell us a little bit about its origins. Whose idea was the program, and how did it come to fruition?

Stan Salett: Well, I'm generally credited with the idea, but it came, as all ideas do, out of a specific social and political context that maybe is unique in our time.

There would have been no Upward Bound without the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement, in addition to pressing for the Civil Rights Act and for opening up public accommodations, was also about jobs. If you recall the images of the signs that people carried for the March on Washington, they said "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." By chance, I was one of the local organizers of the March on Washington; I was an organizer in the civil rights movement for the Congress of Racial Equality.

So I was very much a part of that movement and that push towards jobs, and I was doing that at the same time I was working for Robert Kennedy, with the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, which was [looking at juvenile delinquency] not as a problem in and of itself, but as a symptom of a much larger cluster of problems that could be defined as an impoverished community. Just before President Kennedy was assassinated, there was some beginning work looking at the broader issues of poverty within the society, and some talk about programs. After Kennedy's assassination, a task force on poverty was set up, and the Attorney General asked me -- or told me, I guess -- to go on to this task force and work on the education aspects of what would become the Economic Opportunity Act.

When the legislation passed, many of us on the task force became the initial staff of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and I become the education person of the Community Action Program. These programs then expanded very rapidly, because we now had a president – Lyndon Johnson -- who wanted everything done right away, immediately, big time. Some of us argued against expanding too rapidly, that that would lead to inevitable mistakes and errors and a reaction, but his view was that this was a unique time in history, in part supported by the nation's unsteadiness; the assassination of President Kennedy had created a political opportunity that hadn't existed before.

As these local programs were being set up, the [OEO was] bombarded with initiatives or attempted initiatives from the local level in education and all other areas. Johnson worked out with Sergeant Shriver [Founder of the Peace Corps and a Special Assistant to the President] that there would be a series of national demonstration programs that came through the anti-poverty effort… and the first major fund was Head Start, [which opened the way] for other national demonstrations.

What began to come in from the field were that colleges and universities were beginning to approach local community action agencies to say, "Well, we'd like to be involved too and maybe there are some ways that we can be involved with high school students," with the tutoring and so on. But [the efforts] weren't coordinated at all and they were coming up with different variations on the theme of colleges and universities involving themselves with poor kids.

So what I began to do was put these together in some overall pattern, and then I wrote a memorandum that went to Shriver proposing a national demonstration of pre-college programs for low-income kids. Shriver looked at it and then he invited me out to his house in Montgomery County in the afternoon; we sat on the back porch talking about it. He saw the potential in it, but he didn't decide directly. He said, "Well, look, I'm going to call a meeting of the entire senior staff and I want you to come and make a presentation." So he did, and there was clearly overwhelming support. So Shriver turned to me and said, "Well, you've got twenty five million dollars. Make it happen."

There were initially 17 programs that were funded that summer. That was the beginning of Upward Bound.

EH: That’s some amazing history. Can you tell me a little bit about the services Upward Bound provides? What did you all identify as the key elements that low-income students really need in order to be able to access and succeed in college? And how are the students you serve identified?

SS: The prospective students had to be of low income; they were identified in some places through Community Action Agencies, in other places through local churches and other non-profit entities that serve low income communities.

Upward Bound really created a bridge for low-income students to enter the reality of what was, to most low-income kids of that time and really of much of this time as well, an unimaginable universe of higher education. They had never been on a college campus. They'd never seen one. College students were another class of people. We often talk about a culture of poverty, but part of that bubble is that these kids [were not exposed] to this other reality; it seemed so distant from them. How would they ever get there? And this was at a time when college and university costs were not completely out of the ballpark -- public college and university annual tuition and room and board was probably like $900. There were scholarships available in the community and so on that could at least do part of that. Cost was not the impossibility; it was the lack of the bridge to the content.

The first meaningful thing was establishing that [bridge]. The general tenet was there was always a summer program where the low income kids physically came to the college campuses, and that opened up the world. They were then in classes taught by college faculty, and in some cases graduate students who were closer in their age. They had people to identify with, and then there were programs after school during the school year and on some weekends, and it would continue over a multi-year period. The present Upward Bound grants are 4-year grants.

EH: A study conducted by Pew indicates that Upward Bound participants are three times more likely to complete their degrees in six years than similar students who do not participate in the program. Why is it that Upward Bound students are so much more likely to succeed?

SS: It's always a good idea to compare low-income students and their culture with other students of much more accessible means. When a middle-class parent has a high school student and even before, typically if there are any insufficiencies -- and there often are -- in their school education, if they're behind in reading or math or the school doesn't offer a program in the arts or whatever, these middle class parents assume that they're going to pay for special help.

When one measures or evaluates this via standardized testing and they're testing kids of various income background, they find that kids of lower income backgrounds don't do as well in school. But they never measure the total input that these kids have or lack.

Low-income kids don't get to go to summer programs; they don't get after-school reading help and so on. Sure, in some cases there probably are some federal programs, but as a matter of course they don't. And their parents -- you can say low-income kids probably have a higher proportion of single-parent households, and they probably have a higher proportion of [homes] where both parents work long hours. Low-income parents have fewer books, if any, in the house, and less places to study. You look at the total input, and then you look at what Upward Bound does in terms of compensating for that lack of input. So when you compare Upward Bound students and what they get to other low income students and what they don't get, you can see why there would be a difference in college entrance, in college sustainability and then graduation.

EH:  You have an incredible, 50-year perspective on the history of education in this country. How has the educational landscape changed in the 50 years since the program started? Do you find that the program’s services are as much in need as ever? Or do you see things somehow getting better?

SS:  If you look at the past 10 or 15 years in both Republican and Democratic administrations, you don't see a lot of leadership from the White House in trying to vastly expand Upward Bound and related programs, called TRIO, which include student support services and financial aid. The programs have kept up, probably, with inflation -- they've been modestly expanded. [But] my estimates are that in the first four years of the Obama administration, there could have been probably 5,000 more slots available [for students in these programs]. 

What the Obama administration has done is really morph the program into a competitive grant program, whereby fixing the review standards from year to year, they basically control the budgetary expenditures and then, in the name of quality or effectiveness, basically reduce, not expand, the numbers. It's somewhat similar to Head Start: both Upward Bound and Head Start and the other programs have been much more popular on bipartisan basis in the Congress than they have in the administrations.

At the same time, what's happened is that since the universe of engagement of low income students through Upward Bound and TRIO has not dramatically expanded to fill the universal need, the nature of that need has become much more dire. The gap between the available resources to low-income students and the cost of higher education is so much greater than it was in 1964. Now, the current administration has come to deal with that by expanding the Pell Grants -- but the Pell Grants cover less and less of the real cost of college. So in a sense, that in itself is a losing battle; one that's necessary, but losing.

The Obama administration has used this phrase "Race to the Top" and used the Pell Grants as part of that picture of how they're expanding opportunity. But by not expanding programs like Upward Bound, you have created a ladder with three missing lower rungs.  How do low-income students even get to the point where they can take advantage of a Pell Grant?

EH:  I want to talk a little bit about the 50th anniversary celebration that’s coming up, because often, when organizations celebrate these big milestones, it's all about the party, right? But you really have an ambitious agenda set for the gathering. You're calling it a symposium; there are actual workshops planned. What do you hope to get out of bringing so many experts and leaders and alumni together in this way?

SS: Well, the purpose is two-fold.  The purpose, obviously, of the symposium is to reflect, recall, analyze and project -- and that's all going to happen.

But the other, and in some ways the more important, part is to use the 50th-anniversary occasion to reach out to some of the 2 million people who have come through Upward Bound and related programs, and basically tell them that these programs that were so important -- in most cases essential -- to where they are today, are in danger of being minimized and certainly not expanded. They have a responsibility to give back something for something that they've received. They have profited from and continue to profit today from wells that they did not dig, and it's time to dig new wells.

We've got to reach out and find as many of the alumni as possible, bring them together in some sort of alumni organization, and have them see themselves as a political -- not partisan, but a political -- force that tells the country, as well as the Congress, that the current efforts are not enough. That these bridges, like the infrastructure bridges in Minneapolis, are decaying and collapsing through lack of support. Unless they organize and they tell their stories, which are very powerful, we're not going to have a future for low-income kids in higher education.

EH:  So what does the future of Upward Bound look like? What do you hope the organization will be doing at its 100th anniversary?

SS: Well, fortunately, in terms of maintaining the level of effort, there's a wonderful organization called the Council on Opportunity in Education. Over the last maybe 35 years or so, they have almost been a unique success story of how a not-for-profit organization can come together and basically help sustain this effort and grow it to some extent, though, unfortunately, not as dramatically as needed. They've done remarkable work as a national organization. They are also forming an alumni network and I think increasingly seeing that that [is important to] their future, as well. But they're not going away.

EH: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. You’ve impacted so many lives across this nation – 2 million and counting. That’s a pretty remarkable legacy.

SS:  It wasn't really me. I was fortunate to be at a particular place, in a particular time, and there was this opportunity that we knew would never come again. I was able to put together a few things and send them forward; I got a lot of support and it happened. But it was a very unique, special time in our nation’s history. Johnson was right: it was not a time that would come again in our lifetime. And we all understood it.

If you are interested in participating in Upward Bound’s 50th Anniversary Symposium, limited seating is available. A registration form is available via EventBrite. For more information about Stan Salett, Upward Bound, or its alumni, contact Kathleen Fillion at (508) 999-8714 or kfillion(at)umassd(dot)edu.


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