by KIM HILSENBECK
For Jason Romero, 17, going to college is now a reality. He will attend St. Mary’s University in San Antonio in the fall as a biology major.
Before he entered the Upward Bound program at Lehman High School four years ago, he said college might not have been in the cards.
“I had it in my mind to go to college, but I was scared for my grades,” Jason said. “I wanted to go to college but I wasn’t really determined and focused about it .”
The Upward Bound program was created to prepare high school students for college by providing tutoring, SAT preparation, counseling and financial aid information. Students spend six weeks each summer in a dormitory on a host campus to simulate the experience of being in college.
They also receive a stipend of $40 per month during the academic year, $30 per month in June and July, and the opportunity to take one college level course, for credit, at no cost after they graduate high school.
Jason said Upward Bound taught him to put effort into his homework.
“Upward Bound really welcomed me. They motivated me to apply to college,” he said.
Along the way, they also tutored him and taught him about critical thinking, time management, note taking skills, grammar and writing, applying for scholarships and financial aid, and making good decisions in life.
“They opened my eyes to realize what was going on with my grades; they helped me change my study habits. I actually focused on the academic side,” Jason said.
Texas State University manages the Upward Bound program for about 60 students each year hailing from Lehman, Seguin and San Marcos high schools.
The university recently received a grant extension to continue the Upward Bound program for another five years.
Texas State will receive $360,000 annually to continue this long-running and popular federal tax payer-funded program designed to provide academic and college readiness support to low-income and minority students. Texas State will also receive an additional $250,000 a year to support Del Valle students.
Research has shown that while many disadvantaged students say they want to attend college, they tend to be the least likely to engage in early educational planning. They often do not take the practical steps needed in middle and high school to achieve their postsecondary academic goals.
And it’s that early intervention that experts say makes all the difference.
Critics of the program say some research indicates that participation in Upward Bound, which is run by the U.S. Department of Education, has little effect on increasing college enrollment or completion rates.
Keylan Morgan, director of Upward Bound at Texas State University, said there will be students who do not complete the program or head off to college.
“Sometimes Upward Bound doesn’t work for a student. We have those stories where we don’t have the end result we want,” Morgan said. “That’s just a reality of dealing with students from first generation and low-income backgrounds.”
A few students may lack motivation, Morgan said, but some have to get jobs to support their family; others might have children of their own.
But in his experience, Morgan said dropping out of the program and not attending college is not the norm.
“Upward Bound helps these kids make better decisions about their life,” Morgan said. “One thing I instill is, are you doing the things today to set the foundation for the opportunities you want to have tomorrow?”
On a national level, U.S. taxpayers help fund more than $260 million each year in grant money for Upward Bound to serve 62,000 students across the nation. That’s $1.3 billion over the five years of each funding cycle.
Or looked at another way, it’s an investment of approximately $17,000 per student who stays in the Upward Bound program for four years.
But some say the program, despite its popularity, does not fulfill its mission.
In a 2009 report on the results of a longitudinal study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research for the Department of Education, researchers found no detectable effect on the rate of overall postsecondary enrollment or the type of postsecondary institution attended.
The study also reported no effect on the likelihood of earning a postsecondary certificate or license from a vocational school or a bachelor’s or associate’s degree.
According to the study, rates of college enrollment and completion were no different for Upward Bound participants than for other students.
However, the study showed that Upward Bound did increase postsecondary enrollment or completion rates for students that did not expect to complete a bachelor’s degree, license or certificate.
Mathamatica also found that Upward Bound attracts mostly students who are sufficiently able and motivated to pursue a college education. This suggests some students are not motivated enough to attend college and no college readiness program will help overcome that attitude.
Created in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson during his “War on Poverty,” Upward Bound set out to close what Johnson called the education gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children.
A second college readiness program under the DOE, Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), was started during the Clinton administration. That program disperses $177.4 million to help about 275,000 at-risk students prepare for college and receive a degree.
Funding still continues for both programs, each designed to help disadvantaged students.
Some of those disadvantages have less to do with academics than with what’s happening at home on a personal or social level.
In some cases, Morgan said, kids just aren’t getting family or parental support.
“We place a lot of emphasis on the value of an education, but some parents don’t value it the way we do,” Morgan said.
Morgan thinks Jason was successful in the program because the counselors really stayed on him. Jason attended weekly academic enrichment sessions and Saturday sessions, too. Morgan said much of what his staff does is focus a lot on critical thinking.
“If we can teach a student to critically think, they can ultimately be successful,” Morgan said.
For kids like Jason, Upward Bound offers a chance to make a college dream a reality.
His sister, Astrid, an incoming freshman at Lehman High, recently applied for Upward Bound after watching her big brother go through the program.
“I think I’ve been a good role model for her,” Jason said. “She sees me studying and going on trips to visit schools. I have goals, I want to accomplish things, I want to go to college.”
Jason’s advice to his sister and other Upward Bound hopefuls emphasizes the impact the program had on him.
“Really be on top of your grades,” Jason said.