What Effect Does Upward Bound Truly Have?

Upward Bound (UB), a federal TRIO Program that provides support to educationally and financially disadvantaged high school students to increase secondary graduation and enrollment in and graduation from postsecondary institutions, is one of the oldest and biggest federal programs geared towards this purpose. UB programs offer a variety of support, but must provide academic tutoring, entrance exam preparation, secondary and postsecondary course selection assistance, counseling on financial aid and planning, guidance on secondary reentry and postsecondary enrollment, as well as instruction in math, laboratory science, literature, composition and foreign language. As the U.S. Department of Education released the projects that will be funded for the 2012-13, attention is once again shifted to UB’s effectiveness.

This fiscal year grants for the program totaled $324,902,000 and the average grant was $321,079 [1]. Such funds are awarded to institutions of higher education, public and private agencies and organizations focused on disadvantaged students. The state with the greatest number of grantees was California, which had over 110 awards, and between 50-178 participants in each program. Overall, the grantee with the largest allocated funds for the 2012-13 fiscal year was Columbia University with $852,958 and 190 participants in the program.

Although funding has continued to be allocated to UB programs nationwide, there has been a great deal of debate in Congress regarding the program’s funding, priorities and evaluation procedures. Due to these issues, the 2008 re-authorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act required a rigorous evaluation within TRIO and prohibited new TRIO evaluation studies that required projects to recruit more students than they had typically served in order to perform a random assignment evaluation. This decision came after UB had been deemed “ineffective” in the OMB Program Assessment Rating Tool process based on the results of the National Evaluation of Upward Bound, a random assignment study.

In 2009 the program’s impact was once again evaluated and revealed positive results. The study examined the technical issues of the 1992-2004 UB National Evaluation random assignment study and presented results of re-analyses [2]. Findings showed that when study error issues are addressed (e.g. supplementing non-respondent’s survey data with financial aid administrative records) UB had statistically significant positive results with postsecondary enrollment, increases in financial aid applications and postsecondary credential attainment.

Despite these positive results, a study produced that very year casted doubt on UB’s effectiveness. Mathematica’s study, which combines the final year of data collection and administrative records from the Upward Bound Evaluation, revealed major shortcomings [3]. The study found that UB had no detectable effect on: postsecondary enrollment (both overall and by type of postsecondary institution); completion of financial aid applications and receipt; or completion of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. However, it was determined that participating students with lower GPAs were more likely than similar students from the control group to earn a certificate or license, and a statistically significant increase in postsecondary completion overall was reported.

There is no question that UB effectiveness has been shrouded in controversy. Thus, as UB programs continue to be funded, it is imperative that more in-depth evaluations are conducted to have a better sense of UB’s impact and, if need be, to determine necessary improvements to make to better achieve its program goals.

Patrice Fabel is a research assistant at the American Institutes for Research and a member of the National High School Center’s Research Team.

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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