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CHERYL KINGSBURY: TRIO closes the college achievement gap

GRAND FORKS -- Higher education is a top priority in this country, as shown by President Barack Obama's goal to have more college graduates than any other country by 2020.

The administration's goal stems from the fact that the United States needs to boost its academic and economic competitiveness, and this requires a strong, highly-educated and competent work force.

The new senator-elect from North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp, recognizes this and the importance of North Dakota's role. To be on par with other regions around the world, North Dakota needs students who are both motivated to achieve success and academically prepared to do so.

The problem is that there is a tremendous gap in educational attainment between North Dakota's highest and lowest income students, despite similar levels of talent and potential. And the result is that low-income students, including many students from North Dakota's rural areas and American Indian reservations, are being left behind.

The percentage of low-income high school seniors who go straight to college is less than half that of students in the highest income quartile. And even after they've enrolled in college, low-income students earn bachelor's degrees at a rate that's less than half the rate of their high-income peers.

The federal TRIO programs help to close this gap.

TRIO is a set of seven federally-funded outreach programs that seek to motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, meaning low-income and first-generation students as well as adult learners, veterans and students with disabilities.

TRIO programs, which currently serve nearly 840,000 students from middle school through post-graduate study across America, provide tutoring, counseling, mentoring, financial guidance and other supports that are needed for educational access and retention.

The TRIO programs were created as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. They were the first national college access and education programs to address the cultural and social barriers to higher education .

And since their creation in 1964, the federal TRIO Programs have helped more than 1 million students prepare for, enroll in and graduate from college. These programs change the lives of the students who take part, giving them the chance to achieve their full potential -- and in some cases, sending them down a completely different path in life than the one they might have gone on.

In North Dakota, nearly 5,000 students currently are taking part in TRIO programs at nine different colleges or universities. A UND student who has benefitted from TRIO is Branden Kaste. Kaste recently graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. He is interviewing process with an engineering firm in Fargo; and after working as a mechanical engineer for a period of time, Kaste hopes to achieve his personal goal of earning a Ph.D.

I urge Heitkamp to visit a TRIO program and to get acquainted with some of the other remarkable stories of TRIO students whose lives have been altered by these programs. You cannot talk to these students without realizing that TRIO changes lives for the better.

As we like to say in North Dakota, "TRIO works."

Kingsbury works with TRIO programs in the Student Support Services office at UND.