An analysis of TRIO students’ success at independent colleges and universities

Fulfilling private dreams, serving public priorities: An analysis of TRIO students’ success at independent colleges and universities

Balz, Frank J

As the nation prepares to welcome and introduce an increasingly more diverse student population to higher education, many challenges must be addressed to ensure these young people’s success -and consequently the future of our nation. A good number of these prospective collegebound students will be counted among TRIO’s traditional target group. This article examines the role of private colleges and universities in contributing to the success of the TRIO target student population. The analysis focuses on how TRIO participation at private institutions affects student success in enrollment and persistence to baccalaureate degree attainment.

INTRODUCTION

The education of minority and low-income youth will be a key dimension of the nation’s economic and social future. The size and face of America’s youth population is changing rapidly. As a result, access to higher education for minority and low-income students is gaining even more importance and producing new challenges. Demographic studies show that by 2010, four states-California, Florida, New York, and Texas-will contain fully one-third of the nation’s youth population. Perhaps even more significantly, all four of these states will have “minority” youth populations of more than 50%. Three additional states will have minority youth populations of more than 40% (Hodgkinson, 1993). Nationwide, nearly 35% of the youth population will be members of minority groups in 2010 (Bureau of the Census, 1995).

As the nation prepares to welcome and introduce these students to higher education, many challenges must be addressed to ensure these young people’s future and successand consequently the future of our nation. A college education is more important than ever, yet many of these students will come to our institutions of higher learning from low-income households with limited exposure to postsecondary education. Many of them will be the first members of their families to attend college. Various policymakers and authors have detailed the unique barriers to success facing these first-generation-college and low-income students (Gladieux, 1996). How can we best prepare them for the challenges and opportunities ahead? What types of outreach and institutional support will best equip them to access and achieve at our nation’s colleges and universities?

The 1,600 independent (or private) colleges and universities in the United States play an important role in serving students from widely diverse backgrounds. Private institutions enroll 2.3 million undergraduates, including approximately 500,000 students from families earning less than $25,000, nearly 650,000 minority students, and more than 500,000 students who are the first in their families to attend postsecondary education. These institutions include traditional liberal arts colleges, major research universities, churchand faith-related institutions, historically Black colleges and universities, women’s colleges, and schools of law, medicine, business and other professions. Enrolling but 21% of all students in the U.S., independent colleges and universities award 31% of all degrees, 26% of all undergraduate degrees, 43% of all graduate degrees, and 61% of all first professional degrees in fields such as law, medicine, engineering, and business (National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, 1998). They offer students from diverse backgrounds access to higher education and a choice in the type of educational experience that will uniquely meet their individual interests, needs, and aspirations. They also offer a learning environment that has been proven successful, year after year.

The nation’s TRIO programs were established by the federal government in 1965 to ensure equal educational opportunity for all Americans, regardless of race, ethnic background, or economic circumstances. As mandated by Congress, two-thirds of TRIO participants are low-income, first-generation-college students-specifically, students from families with incomes under $24,000 and in which neither parent attended college. TRIO participants range from students in grades 6 through 12 to adult students trying to break the cycle of poverty in their families. Thirty-nine percent of TRIO students are European American, 36% are African American, 16% are Hispanic American, 5% are Native American, and 4% are Asian American (Council for Opportunity in Education [COE], 1999).

Whereas student aid helps these students overcome many of the financial barriers to higher education, TRIO programs help them to overcome the social and cultural barriers to higher education. Key components of TRIO’s success include highly targeted programs that focus on early intervention and the creation of lasting relationships with the students served. Most TRIO programs purposely serve fewer than 250 students, giving TRIO counselors the opportunity to work with each student. It is this attention to personal circumstances and consistent support that is often referred to as the cornerstone of TRIO’s success.

According to the Council for Opportunity in Education (1999), currently more than 1,900 TRIO programs serve nearly 700,000 low-income Americans at 1,200 colleges, universities, and TRIO agencies. Moreover, two-thirds of all TRIO students come from families with incomes less than $24,000 and from which neither parent graduated from college. The COE estimates that 11 million Americans critically need access to and could benefit from the TRIO programs; however, at current funding levels, only about 5% of eligible youth and adults can be served.

With an average enrollment of 1,850, independent colleges and universities can emphasize through their missions and programs the development of lasting personal relationships with students. Hundreds of TRIO programs currently are in place at these institutions to assist students who might not otherwise be able to participate in higher education. Though TRIO funds are limited, independent colleges and universities help TRIO programs to extend their reach through institutional outreach and community partnerships nationwide.

The first part of this study looks at student completion, persistence, and degree attainment rates by first-generation-college status, family income, and race/ethnicity. Firstgeneration-college status and family income are used as a proxy to include much of the TRIO target population, regardless of TRIO participation, to examine any difference in achievement by institutional type. Completion rates include students who have finished any postsecondary educational program including certificate programs. Degree-attainment rates only include those students who have received associate or bachelor’s degrees. The data for this analysis was drawn from the 1989-90 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPSLS:90 / 94) conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (1996). The sample was limited to students who enrolled in postsecondary education for the first time during the 1989-90 academic year. These students were followed up in 1992 and 1994, resulting in a wide range of information regarding their academic persistence and degree attainment five years after entering postsecondary education. Estimates were produced using the BPSLS:90/94 Data Analysis System (DAS) provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Because racial and ethnic diversity is a strong component of the current TRIO programs, the data will be further examined to look at any variations in success of TRIO population students by race/ethnicity.

The second part of the analysis looks more specifically at students who have actually participated in TRIO funded programs. These students’ degree-attainment success and responses to satisfaction survey questions will be analyzed by TRIO participation and type of institution attended. This analysis yields a more descriptive and qualitative glimpse of TRIO participants’ success in and satisfaction with higher education compared to their non-TRIO counterparts. It also provides answers to some critical questions such as: Are TRIO participants better prepared and thus more likely to attain a degree? Do they have differing expectations and thus different satisfaction rates of higher education than do non-TRIO participants? The resulting data demonstrate some differences in experiences for TRIO and non-TRIO participants. Although TRIO participation alone cannot fully account for the variation in responses, this analysis provides an interesting glimpse into what could be expected if more TRIO-eligible students were served by the programs. The data for this investigation were drawn from the High School and Beyond (HS&B) survey (NCES, 1995). This survey spans more than 12 years, from 1980 through 1992, and describes the activities and experiences of high school sophomores and seniors as they progressed through secondary school, postsecondary education, and into the workplace. The estimates were produced using the HS&B: Sophomores, 1980-92 Data Analysis System (DAS).

SUCCESSES AND CHALLENGES OF FIRST-GENERATION-COLLEGE STUDENTS

Persistence, Completion, and Degree Attainment by Institutional Type

A recent NCES study found that a student’s success in enrolling and graduating from a postsecondary institution in the United States is strongly influenced by his or her parents’ educational level (Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998). Additionally, that study reports that first-generation-college attendees are more likely to be older, have lower incomes, and to have children than are non-first-generation-college students. Parents with no higher education experience often do not understand the postsecondary process or are unaware of the availability of financial assistance. Thus, they may be intimidated by their children’s efforts to enter these unknown institutions. Students from families with little postsecondary education experience may also be less likely to see the value of a higher education. Each of these factors represents a barrier to educational attainment and success. Interestingly, the NCES study found that after controlling for all other factors, socioeconomic status (SES) was not significantly related to persistence and attainment. However, it is important to note that although SES alone did not have an effect on persistence and attainment, it may be related to several other characteristics, such as part-time attendance or age, which in turn negatively affect postsecondary educational success.

The 1994 follow-up to the BPSLS:90 / 94 survey found that 71.3% of non-first-generation– college students who began their postsecondary education in 1989-90 had attained degrees or were still enrolled in 1994. By comparison, only 55% of first-generation-college students had attained degrees or were still enrolled five years later, compared to 45% who had not or were not (Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998). An examination of the overall persistence and postsecondary program completion rates of first-generation-college students, regardless of family income, by institutional type (public or private) yielded dramatically different success rates. Across the total student population, those attending four-year institutions were much more likely to have completed a certificate or degree program or still be enrolled in college than were those who entered two-year institutions. Among four-year institutions, those students attending private colleges or universities were more likely to have completed or continued enrollment than were those at public four-year institutions. This trend was mirrored for first-generation-college students: Only 46% who entered a public two-year institution in 1989-90 had completed college or were still enrolled five years later, compared to 66% of first-generation-college students entering public four-year institutions and more than 71% attending private four-year institutions.

Looking beyond persistence, program completion success within five years after beginning postsecondary education also varied greatly depending on the type of institution attended. Overall, only 54.8% of all students entering public four-year institutions had earned a certificate or degree of any type five years later. By contrast, nearly 72% of students attending private four-year institutions had completed their programs of study. Though it cannot be concluded from these completion and degree-attainment rates that overall levels of persistence differed by type of institution, this finding clearly suggests that students at public four-year institutions are taking longer to finish their programs. First-generation-college students, though not as successful as their non-first-generation– college counterparts, are also finding college completion to take longer at private fouryear institutions. Nearly 63% of all first-generation-college students entering private institutions of higher learning in 1989-90 had completed certificate or degree programs five years later; 46% of first-generation-college students entering public four-year institutions had completed a program in the same time period (see Figure I).

First-generation-college students at private four-year institutions were more successful in attaining bachelor’s degrees, with more than half (55.1%) receiving their degrees five years later compared to just 34.1% at public four-year institutions. First- generation students entering public two-year institutions were the least likely to have attained any degrees five years later (35.4%), with 18.4% having received associate degrees and 2.3% going on to receive bachelor’s degrees. This is consistent with other studies that have found students more likely to persist at four-year institutions than at two-year institutions (Berkner, Cuccaro-Alamin, & McCormick, 1996). One component of this latter finding may be that two-year institutions serve larger numbers of part-time students, whose parttime status is linked to lower rates of degree attainment (NCES, 1997).

Persistence, Completion, and Degree Attainment by Family Income

Looking at family income allows one to further approximate the success of the TRIO target population by type of institution. Not surprisingly, students from higher incomes, regardless of their first-generation-college status, demonstrate greater rates of postsecondary persistence and attainment. Approximately 55.4% of all students reporting family incomes of $24,000 or less had completed a collegiate program or were still enrolled in one five years later. More than 68.2% of such students had attained certificates or degrees or were still enrolled five years later. This trend continues for first-generation-college students, with 52.3% reporting incomes of $24,000 or less, compared to 57.7% of firstgeneration-college students in the higher income group, having completed college or still enrolled in college five years later (see Table I).

Further examination of this low-income first-generation-college cohort as a proxy for TRIO-eligible students demonstrates the continued trend of greater success and program completion, particularly degree attainment, at private four-year institutions. Five years after beginning a postsecondary education, 45.9% of low-income first-generation-college students attending public two-year institutions had completed their college programs or were still enrolled. This percentage increased dramatically to 62.3% of the low-income first-generation-college population attending public four-year institutions. Even higher was the percentage of these types of students at private four-year institutions who had completed or were still enrolled in college: 65%.

The more marked differences across institution type were found in degree-attainment rates. Low-income, first-generation-college students attending public two-year institutions had the lowest degree-attainment rates, with only 1.5% having received bachelor’s degrees and 17.8% having received associate degrees five years later. Less than one-third (31.7%) of low-income, first-generation-college students attending public four-year institutions had attained bachelor’s degrees compared to 6.4% who received associate degrees. However, at private four-year institutions, more than half of these most at-risk students had received their degrees, with 44.9% attaining bachelor’s degrees and 6.7% attaining associate degrees within five years.

In looking at low-income, first-generation-college students as a proxy for the TRIO– eligible population in this manner is imperfect, some lessons may be learned. Throughout this data analysis, it is clear that in the absence of TRIO programs for all eligible students, some institutions have exhibited a better history than others in assisting these students to meet their postsecondary goals. Clearly, private colleges and universities outperform public institutions in terms of degree-attainment rates.

SUCCESSES AND CHALLENGES OF MINORITY STUDENTS

Part two of this study involved analyses of BPSLS:90/94 college persistence, completion, and success data for the TRIO target proxy by race/ethnicity, regardless of firstgeneration-college status. Although not as dramatic as the differences by family income, continued variation was found in the college success rates of these students by institutional type. Overall, White non-Hispanic and Hispanic students-63.5 and 63.7%, respectively– were more likely than African American students to be still enrolled in college or to have completed their postsecondary programs within five years. Only 55% of Black nonHispanic students were still enrolled or had received their degrees or certificates within that same period of time. These findings are consistent with earlier TRIO studies examining student success by race/ ethnicity that found Hispanic students to have benefitted the most from TRIO programs (Myers & Schirm, 1996).

The differences in success rates, however, do not apply when first-generation-college status is taken into consideration. Overall, Hispanic first-generation-college students were the most likely to still be enrolled in or have completed their postsecondary programs five years after entering college (59.8%). Fifty-four percent of White non-Hispanic firstgeneration-college students and 53% of Black non-Hispanic first-generation-college students had earned college certificates or degrees or were still enrolled five years later. It is not clear why completion rates for non-first-generation-college Black students-that is, those whose parents have completed or had some postsecondary education-are not persisting at the same rates as their White or Hispanic non-first-generation-college counterparts. This is an interesting question for further study. However, it is clear that for firstgeneration-college students overall, the barriers to success and rates for overcoming them are not influenced by a student’s race or ethnicity.

Persistence and Attainment of First-Generation-College Minority Students by Institutional Tvpe

The differing rates of persistence and enrollment for first-generation-college students by institutional type are magnified when examined by race/ethnicity. Though 70% of White non-Hispanic first-generation-college students were still enrolled in or had completed collegiate programs in 1994, 64% of these students at public four-year institutions, and only 44% at public two-year colleges and universities, had met with similar success. A Surprising 83% of Black non-Hispanic first-generation-college students had completed their postsecondary programs or were still enrolled at private four-year institutions five years later compared to 72% of Black non-Hispanic students at public four-year institutions. Data were not available for similar students at public two-year institutions. Among Hispanics, 57% of first-generation-college students at private four-year institutions had completed their programs or were still enrolled in college; unfortunately, comparable data for similar students at public four-year institutions were not available. However, 56% of Hispanic students at public two-year institutions had completed or were still enrolled five years later.

The overwhelming persistence success of first-generation-college Black non-Hispanic students at all four-year institutions represents notable success in overcoming social and cultural barriers to higher education. Previous studies have found similar rates for all Black non-Hispanic students entering four-year institutions but have not identified the source of the remarkable success of these first-generation-college students at private institutions (Berkner et al., 1996). These data also clearly demonstrate the existing challenges to minority students’ persistence and completion at two-year institutions.

Degree Attainment of First-Generation-College Minority Students by Institutional Type

Beyond persistence at degree attainment, stark differences exist by race/ ethnicity and type of institution attended in five-year rates of degree attainment. Again demonstrating remarkable success, Black non-Hispanic first-generation-college students at private institutions were most likely to have attained bachelor’s degrees (60.2%), followed by 54.9% of White, non-Hispanic, first-generation-college students and 43.8% of Hispanic firstgeneration-college students. At public four-year institutions, 37.2% of Black first-generation-college students and 33.6% of White non-Hispanic first-generation-college students had attained bachelor’s degrees. Despite the shorter program length, only 16.7% of Hispanic and 19.9% of White non-Hispanic first-generation-college students had attained associate degrees five years after entering public, two-year institutions. Consistent with earlier findings, students attending private four-year institutions, regardless of race/ ethnicity, were more likely to receive bachelor’s degrees within five years than were their counterparts at public four-year institutions (see Table 11).

The recommendation that may be derived from these data is that access to all types of postsecondary institutions is critical for at-risk or TRIO populations of students. However, some attention within TRIO counseling and other outreach programs should be given to the types of institutions selected by these students. Despite the rhetoric surrounding the strong community college and part-time enrollments for TRIO students, these data show that the most likely path to success for the TRIO population may be through a four-year institution. Beyond that, in the limited five-year degree-attainment data available, firstgeneration-college students are persisting and obtaining degrees faster and at higher rates at the nation’s four-year independent colleges and universities.

TRIO PARTICIPANTS’ SATISFACTION WITH HIGHER EDUCATION

The analysis turns now to a closer examination of the activities and experiences of TRIO students who have continued their pursuit of postsecondary education. This TRIO population, first-generation-college students from families in the lowest SES quintile, is compared with a group of 1982 college sophomores who are TRIO-eligible but non-TRIO participants. In response to questions the HS&B survey, the students indicated that they had never heard of nor participated in any TRIO programs (NCES, 1995). Students’ satisfaction with their postsecondary experience was based on survey responses on several topics including course curriculum, development of work skills, intellectual growth, and counseling or job placement. Most respondents were generally satisfied or very satisfied with all aspects of their higher education; however, there was some disparity in responses from TRIO participants compared with similar non-TRIO students.

Satisfaction with Course Curricula

More than 86% of TRIO participants responded that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the course curricula at their institution. Eighty percent of the low-income, firstgeneration-college, non-TRIO participants responded similarly. Looking at the type of institution attended, more than 89.1% of TRIO students attending private four-year institutions reported being satisfied or very satisfied with course curricula, compared to 86.0% at public four-year institutions and 85.1% at public two-year institutions. Across institution types, TRIO participants responded more positively about their course curricula than did non-TRIO students. Eighty percent of non-TRIO students at private four-year institutions reported that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the curricula, while 85.5% and 79.6% of these students reported the same satisfaction levels at public four-year and twoyear institutions, respectively.

Satisfaction with Development of Work Skills

Nearly 82% of TRIO participants responded that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their development of work skills at their institution. Approximately, 79% of the lowincome, first-generation-college, non-TRIO participants responded similarly. Regarding the types of institutions attended by TRIO participants, more than 88.2% attending private four-year institutions reported being satisfied or very satisfied with their job skills development compared to 80.0% at public four-year institutions and 82.1% at public two-year institutions. Overall, TRIO participants were more positive about their work skills development than were non-TRIO students. More than 81.0% of non-TRIO students at private four-year institutions reported that they were satisfied or very satisfied, while 77.8 and 78.1% of these students reported the same satisfaction levels at public four-year and two– year institutions, respectively.

Satisfaction with Intellectual Growth

TRIO and non-TRIO participants alike attributed the highest satisfaction ratings to their satisfaction with their intellectual growth at the institutions they attended. In this area, however, there was no variation in response according to TRIO participation. Overall, 88% of all students responded that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their intellectual growth. Students attending private four-year institutions had the highest satisfaction levels (90.8%), followed by students at public four-year institutions (89.4%), and students at public two-year institutions (85.6%). Within institutional type, no variation was found by TRIO participation.

Satisfaction with Counseling or Job Placement

Counseling and job placement is a key dimension of students’ continued success beyond their postsecondary education. However, the high school students surveyed in the HS&B study were overall much less satisfied with their institutions’ counseling and job placement activities (NCES, 1995). Less than half of all students reported that they were satisfied or very satisfied with these activities. Though TRIO participants rated this aspect significantly lower than they did other categories, they generally reported higher satisfaction levels with counseling and job placement than did their non-TRIO counterparts, with one exception. Non-TRIO students attending public four-year institutions reported the lowest levels of satisfaction overall but higher satisfaction levels (44.3%) with regard to their institutions’ counseling and job placement services than that attributed by TRIO students at these institutions (39.0%). At private four-year institutions, 63.5% of TRIO students and 53.9% of non-TRIO students reported that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the counseling and job placement at their institutions. More than half (51.1%) of TRIO participants at public two-year institutions reported high satisfaction levels with their college’s counseling and job placement services compared to 45.9% of non-TRIO students.

EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT OF TRIO PARTICIPANTS

With regard to the highest levels of educational attainment achieved 10 years later, the TRIO participants included in the HS&B Study reported greater academic success than did their non-TRIO counterparts. Nearly 11% of TRIO participants reported having some graduate school experience compared to only 5% of the non-TRIO group. Over 30% of TRIO participants had attained their bachelor’s degrees within the 10-year timeframe compared to 12.9% of the non-TRIO population. Among the total population, students who first entered postsecondary education at a four-year institution were much more likely to have attained bachelor’s degrees or to have done some graduate work 10 years later. TRIO students entering public four-year institutions enjoyed higher educational attainment than did their counterparts at two-year public institutions, with 38.1% receiving bachelor’s degrees and 14.9% completing some graduate work compared to 14.7% and 3.0%, respectively. Of the non-TRIO students at public four-year institutions, 28.2% received bachelor’s degrees and 14.1% had some graduate experience. However, nearly half (49.6%) of TRIO students who entered private four-year institutions had attained their bachelor’s degrees 10 years later, while 22.9% had continued on to graduate school. Approximately 43.7% of the non-TRIO participants who entered private four-year institutions had attained their bachelor’s degrees and 9.1% had done some graduate work (see Table III).

CONCLUSION

Despite the social and financial barriers to postsecondary access and achievement, low-income, first-generation-college students in the United States are attending and succeeding in college in record numbers, and TRIO programs are helping them succeed. However, there are many eligible students who are not being served by TRIO who require additional assistance to get them into and through our nation’s institutions of higher learning. The changing demographics of students entering U.S. colleges or universities over the next decade will put an even greater demand on these services. Many institutions nationwide are creating community outreach programs to assist these nontraditional students in considering and attending postsecondary education.

Across institutional types, private colleges and universities have realized unique success in enrolling and graduating students who are the first in their families to attempt postsecondary education. The rich and diverse missions of these independent institutions place a primary emphasis on providing all students an opportunity for higher education, regardless of income or family background. Like the TRIO programs, many private colleges and universities find success through encouraging and cementing personal relationships backed by strong institutional missions. The partnership of TRIO programs and private colleges and universities is powerful and effective in helping at-risk students achieve and meet their goals in higher education. It is a partnership that should be looked to and strengthened as the nation faces the academic challenges ahead.

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Council for Opportunity in Education. (1999, March 1). What is TRIO? [On-line]. Available: http: / www.trioprograms.org

Gladieux, L. (1996). College opportunities and the poor: Getting national policies back on track. Washington, DC: The College Board.

Hodgkinson, H. L. (1993). Independent higher education in a nation of nations: The effects of demographic changes on independent colleges and universities. Washington, DC: The National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Myers, D. E., & Schirm, A. (1996). The short-term impacts of Upward Bound: An interim report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Planning and Evaluation Service.

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National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. (1995, February). High school and beyond, fourth follow-up (HS&B: 1992). Washington, DC: Author.

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National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. (1997). The condition of education 1997. Washington, DO Author.

Nunez, A-M., & Cuccaro-Alamin, S. (1998). First-generation students: Undergraduates whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education (NCES Report No. 98-082). Washington, DO National Center for Education Statistics.

Frank J. Balz and Melanie R. Esten, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities

Copyright Howard University Fall 1998

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