Congresswoman of Illinois’ 17th district Cheri Bustos sent her legislative aid Leighton Huch to meet with members of Knox’s TRIO program last Friday. Bustos’ team is collecting the stories of TRIO students to present in Washington D.C. next week as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.
The Higher Education Act controls requirements and regulations for TRIO and other aid programs. Recently, the House of Representatives created a bill called the Prosper Act, outlining a number of changes to national education. At the same time, President Trump’s proposed education budget would eliminate TRIO as it stands and consolidate it into another program titled Get Up.
The Prosper Act would require Knox to provide 20 percent of TRIO’s total budget. Prosper would also set aside special funds for new programs, funneling money away from TRIO. Director of Knox’s TRIO Achievement Program Risa Lopez said there is currently a misconception that new aid programs do not have equal access to funding.
“We’ve been meeting our objectives, we have success rates over 90 percent and the idea that that can be jeopardized over really a false claim that new programs can’t get to those dollars is just alarming,” Lopez said.
The Prosper Act would also reroute funding for TRIO programs from the federal to state level. This could pose a serious issue for the 185 Knox students in TRIO.
“The problem with that is all the states are in all different kinds of states of disarray right now and the financial stability of the state of Illinois was one of the lowest in the nation here not that long ago,” Lopez said. “It would make a devastating impact to have all of the funding for all those programs and all those students then be tied up in state budget issues as well.”
In Trump’s proposed budget, TRIO would be consolidated into Gear Up, an outreach program with similar goals. However, federal funding for TRIO depends on the program’s successful history. If the Prosper Act passed, it would mean starting from scratch.
Bustos is a member of the TRIO Caucus in Washington, D.C. Huch also visited Carl Sandburg College, Black Hawk College and other institutions in the region. Bustos’ team wants to give first generation and low-income students threatened by these changes a voice in Congress. Lopez said Huch seemed moved by the student leaders’ stories.
“Basically she said, ‘when I’m looking at the budget and legislative items, I see a line that says TRIO, that’s what we’re talking about,’” Lopez said. “But when she came and got a chance to interact with students in the program, it really put a face to that line item and she referenced it as kind of the highlight of her week; going into schools and getting to hear from students.”
TRIO provides crucial resources to low-income and first generation students. For junior Jaki Herrmann, TRIO has been key in learning how to use resources on campus and access opportunities.
“Freshman year, some of my friends, their parents were sending them internships and they knew about them because they had friends that were working in these professional places and my parents didn’t have that,” Herrmann said. “My parents are just working middle class jobs and they don’t really do much besides work and put the food on the table and stuff so it’s like they don’t know how to go and find internships. They didn’t do internships when they were younger, they did jobs, they did the hard work.”
TRIO also helps low income students find jobs on campus. The TRIO bridge program for first-year students has prioritized helping participants find work.
“If you’re a low income student, you don’t have time to wait around like some of these other people do,” Hermann said. “Because they just want a job on campus, they don’t necessarily need one as much as someone who is low-income. You need to be more prepared than your peers which is difficult to do if you don’t know how to use these resources which TRIO teaches you how to use.”
After she graduated high school, sophomore Soko Cheng spent a year earning money to pay for college. She entered Knox feeling alone and anxious about resuming her education.
“It was hard going back into academics after taking the year off, so I was kind of scared of like, ‘I don’t know how college will be, it’s been a year since I’ve had to speak French or do math,’” Cheng said.
Cheng is one of 13 children. Most of her siblings have left school due to a lack of support and resources. Many of the schools they attended did not have TRIO programs. For Cheng, TRIO has been an important support system, helping her use resources and build connections at Knox.
“As a person who is used to being independent and not seeking help, TRIO has taught me . . . that it’s okay to ask for help,” Cheng said. “And that’s the biggest thing, they really advocate for students.”
Cheng’s parents, who came to America from Cambodia as refugees, encouraged their children to succeed academically but did not go on to higher education themselves.
“I always assumed that I would be trying to figure out how to do things on my own, like figuring out FAFSA, doing my taxes. It was kind of scary,” Cheng said.
TRIO is currently the biggest line item in the education budget, making it a target for smaller programs looking to increase their own funding. Lopez said that despite its relatively large budget, the program is serving less than 11 percent of eligible students in the U.S.
Lopez said there appears to be little chance of the Prosper Act and Trump’s budget proposal finding much support in Congress. She hopes to see the TRIO program grow in the near future.
“It’s what we learn about in classes about social justice, about power and privilege,” Lopez said. “It plays out on this campus and TRIO is a space where not having that money doesn’t mean that you don’t have power or value. That’s why I do it.”