Three Líderes Avanzando Fellows Explain How the Federal TRIO Program Helps Latinx and First-Gen College Students Find Success

Year after year, hundreds of thousands of Latinx and first-generation college students head off to institutions of higher education with the goal of attaining a degree that can improve their chances of economic prosperity and increased engagement in American society. 

According to UnidosUS’s recent report A Path Forward for Latinos: Laying the Groundwork for Equity in Higher Education, Latinos will make up 30% of the nation’s workforce by 2050, and they will require some type of degree or credential to contribute to efforts to rebuild the economy after the pandemic.

Over the last few months, three college students enrolled in UnidosUS’s Líderes Avanzando Fellowship Program have been exploring the barriers to getting that education by looking at how to bolster support for the federal TRIO program. Created in the 1960s as part of the Higher Education Act, TRIO is a series of student support programs aimed at helping low-income, first-generation, and other underserved students navigate the logistical, financial, and cultural waters of attaining their degrees. In the following blogs, Fellows Luz Velasquez, Henry Rosas Ibarra, and Citlaly Gomez Ibarra discuss how TRIO impacts their lives and those of their peers. 

Closing the College-Completion Gap for First-Generation, Low-Income Students: How Increasing Funding for TRIO Student Support Services Can Help Latinx Students Reach Graduation

By Luz Velazquez, Binghamton University, Graduating Senior, Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with minors in Latin American and Caribbean area studies and Immigration Studies

Before even entering college, I knew that the odds were stacked against me. My identities as a first-generation, low-income (FGLI) Latina and daughter of immigrants made accessing higher education difficult. When I got into Binghamton University, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment, but I knew my financial situation and limited knowledge about college would bring numerous challenges to completing my undergraduate degree. Only 40% of FGLI students complete their undergraduate program within six years. I quickly found out that I was in danger of becoming one of those who didn’t make it. 

As I started my freshman year, I felt a strong sense of imposter syndrome. In my first semester, I came close to failing a class and was constantly worried about affording my tuition. I also knew I was in the wrong major but had no idea what to do. I felt lost—like I was stuck in a maze. I was consumed with self-doubt and a feeling of hopelessness. Unable to find solutions to my problems, I began to consider dropping out. As someone who had worked tirelessly to get to that moment, the thought of dropping out heavily impacted me. I felt like a failure. 

All my dreams seemed lost when suddenly, out of the blue, someone threw me a lifeline. As I reached out to grab it, I quickly realized that this might be what I needed to persevere. The program that gave me a second chance was TRIO Student Support Services (SSS), a federally funded program that provides support services to low-income students, first-generation college students, and/or students with disabilities enrolled in post-secondary education. As I juggled the financial burden of college tuition, poor academic performance, and the eventual deportation of my brother within my first year of college, it was impossible to work through these challenges alone. TRIO SSS became my family and my support system. Through this program, I was able to find the academic and non-academic resources and support needed to make it past my first year of college. 

My TRIO academic counselor, Katelyn Newsham, became my rock. She stood by me through all my struggles and helped me find ways to overcome all the obstacles in front of me. She helped me find the right major, connected me to academic and tutoring services, showed me how to access free mental health services, and guided me through my professional development journey. Her guidance was invaluable. She taught me that my identities don’t define my future and that I can overcome any obstacle in front of me. She helped me make it past my freshman year, but there was still a lot I had to navigate and overcome to graduate. 

Returning to Binghamton for my sophomore year, I realized that the financial burden of college tuition might still keep me from obtaining my undergraduate degree. Although Katelyn provided me with a roadmap to success, college costs threatened to block my path. The constant worry of affording my tuition hindered my ability to succeed in school and heavily influenced my mental health. TRIO once again helped me overcome this obstacle. Aware of the immense burden tuition can have on FGLI students, TRIO guided me through the financial aid process. Katelyn took the time to sit down with me as I completed my FAFSA application, which was something I struggled with immensely given my family’s immigration status. Before coming to college, I was unaware of the financial aid and scholarship opportunities available to me, but TRIO ensured that I gained this knowledge. Not only did TRIO help me access financial aid, but they also connected me to campus jobs that could cover my expenses and even provided me with grant money that helped close the financial gap. Programs like TRIO are pivotal for the success of countless FGLI students like me because they help us overcome obstacles that are influenced by our financial status and background.

The part of TRIO that has had the biggest impact on my college experience is the mentorship program. In this program, new SSS students can request to be matched with a TRIO Mentor through a survey sent out to eligible students in the fall. I took advantage of this opportunity because I knew having someone I could look up and go to for questions would be instrumental for my success. My mentor was someone I could count on who looked like me, understood my struggles, and had overcome the challenges I was facing. She was always there for me to answer my questions about college whether it was what classes to take or where to study in the library. The support I gained through the mentorship program allowed me to feel like I could finally navigate college. As I began to gain the skills and tools to succeed, I aimed to give back my new knowledge to those who were once in my shoes. I volunteered to become a mentor and helped other FGLI students overcome their obstacles. From being a mentee to a mentor, I was able to form a strong sense of community within the TRIO program. The most beautiful thing about TRIO is that we all work to support each other and be there for one another. I truly don’t know where I’d be without TRIO and the countless services they provide. TRIO has given me a sense of community and the confidence to ask for help and seek out further opportunities that have contributed to my success as a student and will continue to benefit me in the future. I owe my success and accomplishments to this program. Although I was fortunate enough to have such an amazing TRIO SSS program at my institution, countless other students continue to navigate college without these resources. Others have already dropped out. 

As Latinx college enrollment rates increase, the college completion gap continues to widen. Many Latinx students are lacking the adequate academic and non-academic support needed to attain a college degree. Given that approximately 70% of Latinx students who enroll in higher education are first-generation like me, this pressing issue is alarming for our Latinx community. Higher education is foundational for the success and growth of the Latinx community because obtaining a college degree enables economic mobility, and access to employment and wealth-building opportunities. To best tackle this issue, we must advocate for the increased funding for TRIO SSS, a program that aims “to increase the college retention and graduation rates of its participants and to help students make the transition from one level of higher education to the next.” TRIO currently serves 209,075 students with a $365,918,070 budget, however, this leaves countless others behind. UnidosUS asks that Congress increase investment in federal TRIO programs by $1.2 billion. Nationally, 56% of undergraduate college students identify as first-generation college students, meaning we are barely scratching the surface with the current funding and participation within TRIO programs. To carry out its mission and lower the college completion gap, TRIO requires consistent support and funding. A comprehensive analysis of SSS services conducted by the Department of Education demonstrates that the program on average boosted GPAs, the number of credits earned by a student, and degree attainment. If we want to ensure the success of our fellow FGLI Latinx students, then it’s time we act and ask for the resources needed for them (our community) to succeed. Educators, parents, students, I urge you to contact your respective representatives and ask them to advocate for the increased funding of TRIO programs. The future of our community depends on it! The time to act is now! 

Fulfilling the Promise of Our Parents: Addressing the Crisis of Low College Persistence Rates Among Latinos.

By Henry Rosas Ibarra, Yale University, Graduating Senior, Bachelor of Arts in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration.  

When I was growing up in a mixed-status household, my parents worked and invested in a fundamental promise: that a college degree could unlock social and economic mobility for their children. My mom worked as a housecleaner and frequently took me with her. I did my homework on the dining tables of extravagant rooms or the staircases of multilevel mansions, working tirelessly to ensure her labor paid off. When I got to high school, I applied to more than 20 colleges—eventually settling on Yale, one of the most prestigious schools in the world. Mentors and organizations guided me on how to create a perfect application, but nothing could have prepared me for what came next. 

As soon as I walked through Yale’s Phelps Gate, any further  guidance vanished  —and it wasn’t their fault. Back home, I had never met anyone who had gone to Yale or any Ivy League school. Only a handful of students from my school ever left Arizona to go to college. There was no handbook for me to follow or reference to consult. As a first-generation, low-income (FGLI) college student, I had to write that guide for myself. 

I am not alone. Despite institutional barriers, hundreds of thousands of Latinx students have entered lecture halls and seminar rooms at universities across the country. Of these, around 70% of students identify as either the first in their families to attend a university or come from a working-class background. While we have seen these incredible improvements, Latinx students are not completing their degrees at a rate comparable to their White peers—in some cases there is a double-digit gap. According to The Pell Institute, only around 59% of Latino students enrolled at four-year public institutions finish their degrees within six years compared to 73% of White students. Among FGLI college students, the rate drops to about half of students. 

When students don’t feel empowered, or don’t have the resources necessary to pursue their studies full-time, students with the ability to complete their degree will drop out. The lack of dedicated funding and support risks losing an entire generation of engineers, teachers, and doctors. To prevent this crisis, it requires us to recognize both the deeply rooted social and economic needs of students and approach them with holistic models. 

The federal TRIO program called Student Support Services (SSS) does just this. Already utilized by about 200,000 students, SSS provides FGLI students with access to professionally trained staff members, programming, and additional financial support to keep students engaged and encouraged to complete their degrees on-time. Studies have shown students enrolled in SSS are more likely to remain enrolled, obtain more college credits, and have higher GPAs than their non-SSS FGLI counterparts. At four-year universities, SSS students are 12% and 13% more likely to continue into their second and third years, respectively. In addition to meeting the immediate needs of students, the goal of increasing the number of Latinos with college-degree is also a long-term oriented one. Children of parents with college degrees are more economically mobile, and more likely to pursue higher education themselves. By increasing the funding for the SSS program, we can create mobility for generations to come. 

The structural inequities causing this disparity in degree completion have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasingly, Latinx students are finding themselves becoming essential workers, or providing emotional and psychological care for their families. As a result, more and more students find themselves struggling to balance these responsibilities with their education or pausing them entirely. When students don’t feel empowered or have the resources necessary to pursue their studies full-time, we will undoubtedly lose potential college graduates. To prevent this crisis, we must recognize both the deeply rooted social and economic needs of students, and approach them with holistic models. 

To say my transition to college for the first couple of years was “rough” is a complete understatement. The social, economic, and cultural differences between Yale and my Mexican neighborhood in Phoenix were incalculable. In lecture halls and seminars, I struggled to catch up with my private school-educated peers or sit across from students with jackets worth more than my mom made in a month. By spring semester, I was calling home every week, ready to transfer to my local university. At that moment, upperclassmen and my peers pushed me to continue and learn to take care of myself while navigating elite spaces. Through their guidance and mentorship, I made it through my first year of college bruised, but full of hope and determination to pay that mentorship forward. I was given that opportunity the following year when I joined The Community Initiative, Yale’s FGLI student support office, to ensure no student had to come into Yale blind. Through building dedicated programming and by mentoring students navigating the same hurdles I did, I saw how sustained investments in students can push them to take on new challenges and excel in elite learning spaces. We need more funding to continue the programming and hiring of staff that will inspire students to persist in their studies and become leaders in their community. 

The Latinx population of the United States will approach one out of five Americans in 2030 and could be one out of three by mid-century. Empowering these emerging Americans students to finish their college degrees is critical to our nation’s economic recovery, and future economic health. By equipping Latino students with the means to achieve, we can work toward fulfilling the investments of people like my parents. We have the opportunity to ensure students don’t step foot on their college campus empty-handed. By funding programs like SSS, we can help write the guidebook for FGLI students to make it easier and more accessible to attain a college degree.

Investing in Tomorrow’s Leaders: Accessibility to Resources Enhances Student Success.

By Citlaly Gomez Ibarra, Arizona State University, Incoming Senior, Bachelor of Arts Political Science and History with a Minor in Transborder Studies

Higher education is arguably the best investment in one’s financial future an individual can make, yet inequity in college access and enrollment continues for students who are low-income, face language barriers, or are the first in their families to go to college. Those are scenarios that disproportionately burden communities of color. As part of the Higher Education Act of 1967, the federal government created TRIO, a series of educational opportunity and support programs designed to benefit students from disadvantaged backgrounds. First-generation college students from specific school districts can participate in TRIO throughout their college and professional careers. To combat persisting achievement gaps, Arizona State University at Tempe and West campuses offer TRIO’s Student Support Services program which provides academic advising and tutoring, financial literacy and scholarship research, career counseling, mentoring, and, in extreme cases, assistance in securing housing. 

TRIO participant Crystal Carreto, a sophomore at Arizona StateUniversity, is studying psychology and Spanish with the goal of working with adolescents and children, primarily those who face a language barrier. The TRIO program has helped her make connections other students might take for granted. 

“TRIO has given me the resources my high school counselors were unable to provide, without this assistance, I would have been an undecided major coming into college,” says Carreto, “I am a first-generation Latina, navigating through college is difficult because I didn’t know who to reach out to. TRIO has given me the much-needed support to continue my education and it was through the program that I got my interest in psychology.”

 Crystal said being one of the oldest in her family made it difficult to navigate all the logistics of enrolling at a four-year university. There was no family member up ahead on the road to show the way. Being a part of Arizona State University’s TRIO programs has relieved much of her stress and uncertainty.

 The pandemic has only heightened existing educational inequalities because it has further limited resources and increased the rate of unemployment. This further illustrates the challenge first-generation college students face while attempting to complete their bachelor‘s degrees. If institutions like Arizona State University want to continue graduating classes that look like the diverse state of Arizona, they must increase retention rates by helping students overcome financial hardships.

Colleges and universities are undergoing constant physical change as they race to meet demand for dorms and classrooms, but institutional change has gone stagnant. Each year, U.S. News & World Report puts out college rankings, inviting and informing prospective students and measuring schools’ overall reputations. Retention rates are an important data point for measuring a school’s commitment to student achievement. Four-year institutions commonly rise and fall in their overall rankings and in comparison with other institutions. These rankings vary by characteristics and can influence the amount of applications that a school receives and affects their competitiveness which reflects their institutional reputation. Prospective students often use these rankings to navigate their decision making process, so it’s important that universities achieve institutional progression.

Low rates of retention and degree completion can pull down a school’s ranking on tables like U.S. News & World Report’s annual survey. Improving retention can lead to improved ranking. Administrations with an eye on climbing the tables can serve their students and their marketing ambitions by going to work on seeing students of color through to completing their four-year journey.

Attending a predominantly White university can already be daunting. According to the

University Office of Institutional Analysis, Arizona State University is a predominantly White school reaching a 47.9% enrollment compared to the 18.5% rate of their Latinx counterparts. Increased federal funding for TRIO would allow the program to reach more students from diverse backgrounds, such as first-generation college students, to provide assistance in achieving their bachelor’s degrees.

Crystal told me TRIO has offered a variety of resources, including free tutoring, mentoring, and other programs that vary from campus to campus. These resources have shown improvements in retention rates by helping first-generation, low-income students gain a sense of confidence through nurturing a place of belonging by establishing strong relationships with mentors and promoting inclusion of students by improving diversity and cultural density of faculty members. With adequate funding for TRIO Student Support Services programs can deliver these much-needed services to students. For now, TRIO programs are limited on how many students they can serve. Many first-generation students still struggle due to their inability to access these programs and the resources they offer, or if they are in the programs, the available resources may vary due to a lack of funding.

“TRIO does not stop helping you once you get to college, they [TRIO] help you all the way to your graduation,” Crystal said, “This encouraged me to work with them [TRIO Upward Bound at Tempe] during undergrad because I want to give back and help other students who are in the same situation as me by being a role model.”

Educational funding for college programs is primarily focused on enrollment. However, in order to properly assess institutional performance, policymakers should focus on retention rates, which better measure the challenges for low-income, first-generation students. The factors that cause a gap between college retention rates and enrollment—financial concerns, inadequate academic resources, familial pressures—can help guide policy towards a more effective means of improving these issues, by providing more funding for critical student support programs. With the proper funding, these institutions are capable of increasing their efforts to identify and provide academic support to students who could potentially be at risk of not completing their education.

The U.S. government, and the state of Arizona should be asking hard questions about returns on investments. Investing in students from under-represented and under-resourced groups is just the beginning.