Higher education has seen a significant drop in enrollment in 2021. The exodus from higher ed began during the pandemic but declined even further this fall. NPR reported this week that enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities is on track to fall by another nearly 500,000 undergraduate students this fall, a decline of 3.2%. TRIO programs are intended to help with enrollment but have been challenged since the start of the pandemic. 

The U.S. The Department of Education came about as a result of the Higher Education Act of 1965 and was designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Over 1,000 colleges, universities, community colleges, and agencies offer TRIO Programs and funds are distributed through competitive grants. The ongoing dream of these programs to provide education for all Americans regardless of race, ethnic background, or economic circumstances was undermined by not only the impact of the pandemic but also the social and political climate of 2020 and 2021. 

Challenges of TRIO Programs

TRIO programs received attention this year when a group of 56 senators pushed for continued funding for these important programs in a bipartisan letter in which they highlighted the impact of the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 crisis has challenged every stage of our nation’s education system, thus making the need for targeted investments in TRIO all the more urgent. In fall 2020, the college enrollment rate of students from high-poverty high schools plunged nearly one-third lower than the year before. Meanwhile, U.S. Census data reported that students in low-income families are twice as likely to drop out of community college during this crisis. As TRIO programs seek to address these challenges, we urge the Committee to continue to prioritize TRIO funding to help ensure students are prepared for, persist in, and graduate from college.”

The hardest hit population during the pandemic were the very people TRIO programs were designed to help. 

The U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services released a document in April confirming an increase in poverty during COVID-19, and reported that, “while federal income supports have helped, communities of color continue to experience higher rates of poverty. ASPE estimated that 13.6 percent of Americans were in poverty at the end of 2020, compared to an annual poverty rate of 10.5 percent in 2019. Rates were estimated to be over twice as high for Black and Hispanic Americans as for Whites.” Food insecurity, already severe housing burdens, and other economic hardships made higher education drop in priority for the population TRIO programs serve. Available grant opportunities in higher education may help more potential students in the coming year. 

The Good News

There is a bright spot, however. Earlier this month, The Department of Education announced updates to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program to make more TRIO educators and other public service workers eligible for student loan forgiveness after 10 years of student loan payments. TRIO staff members and alumni in other public service jobs have until October 31, 2022 to apply for this one-time opportunity. This extension will help extend the reach of TRIO programs for those who qualify and hope for those who are considering higher education enrollment. 

TRIO programs can continue to benefit those who might not otherwise have access to higher education. For more information, check out this resource for a quick summary.