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Have College-Prep Programs Compete for Federal Money, Proposal Says

Washington — Preparing disadvantaged students for college work is critical. But there is little evidence that the federal programs meant to do so are effective, and they should be redesigned, according to a new policy brief.

The paper, “Time for Change: A New Federal Strategy to Prepare Disadvantaged Students for College,” reviews research on the TRIO and Gear Up programs. It finds that most of those program evaluations do not meet the evidence standards of the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, and the one that does meet those standards finds the program has no major effects on college enrollment or completion. The other studies do find some effects, but the paper says that research is “suggestive rather than definitive.”

In light of that pattern, the paper’s authors—Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, and Cecilia E. Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University—suggest that the government take a quite different approach. They propose a reform similar to what the Obama administration has done with Head Start, the program that prepares low-income children to begin school.

The government should roll the $1-billion it spends annually on the TRIO and Gear Up programs into a single competitive grant program, they suggest. Two- and four-year colleges, local education authorities, and other agencies should be allowed to compete for grants, with no preference given to current recipients.

In order to receive funds, programs would have to prove that their efforts were grounded in evidence, have a history of improving at least some measures of college readiness, and offer a plan for evaluating their work. The Education Department would have flexibility in selecting grant recipients and could choose programs taking a broad range of approaches. It could also use up to 2 percent of the money for research and for demonstration projects.

“Some will think our recommendations harsh,” the paper says. “But social policy should be based on evidence, and everything we know leads to the view that many, if not most, social programs produce modest or no effects.”

The policy brief was released as a companion to the new issue of the journal The Future of Children, a joint project of the Woodrow Wilson School and the Brookings Institution.

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