TRIO Student Support Services at Iowa Central Works!

Iowa Central students recently celebrated National TRIO Day. Congress created federally funded TRIO programs almost 50 years ago and Iowa Central has had a TRIO program since 2001, yet people still ask “What is TRIO?”

TRIO programs were created to motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds as they pursued a college degree and a better life. More than 790,000 low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities, from sixth grade through college, are served by more than 2,800 programs nationwide. TRIO programs are awarded by the U.S. Department of Education based on grant competitions.

Student Support Services are TRIO programs that serve college students. The goal is to increase the retention and graduation rates of its participants, and for a two-year college, to facilitate the transfer of students to a four-year institution. Currently, there are 1,028 SSS programs serving 202,750 college students across the country. In Iowa, 26 colleges and universities host SSS programs that serve almost 5,000 students.

Fort Dodge is fortunate to have three TRIO programs. Fort Dodge public schools are served by both the Educational Talent Search and Upward Bound programs from grants given to Iowa State University. And Iowa Central hosts a SSS program to serve students on the Fort Dodge campus.

Grant funding allows us to serve 175 students, which is just a fraction of all the students who are eligible for services. The grant requires that we provide academic tutoring, advice and assistance in course selection, information about financial aid and scholarships, help in completing the FAFSA, education on economic and financial literacy, and assistance in transferring to a four-year institution. Students are taken on campus visits to the University of Iowa, Iowa State and the University of Northern Iowa each semester as well as to private colleges. We also provide personal and career counseling, cultural and social activities, scholarships and technology resources.

TRIO tries to provide a comfortable and supportive atmosphere for our students where they can make connections to our staff and other students. That’s one reason why we have food days and social gatherings. TRIO staff have put on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners for our students. We have taken students skiing and roller skating. And at the end of the year, we celebrate our students’ successes with the TRIO graduation dinner.

In 11 1/2 years at Iowa Central, TRIO has provided services to more than 1,300 students. Approximately 850 students have received tutoring, 650 have attended workshops, 500 have attended cultural/educational activities and 160 have been taken on campus. And 485 low-income students have received over $326,000 in scholarships/financial aid from the TRIO grant.

We are proud of the nine TRIO students at Iowa Central who have been named to the All-USA Community College Academic Team. And since 2006, nine students have earned scholarships given by Iowa TRIO, the state organization of TRIO professionals.

Our program is evaluated by the Department of Education each year on meeting objectives related to retention, GPA, graduation, and transfer of students to four-year colleges. Thanks to the hard work of our students and the TRIO staff, the Iowa Central program has met all grant objectives each year. In fact, the retention rate and graduation rate for TRIO students at Iowa Central is higher than the rest of the college. That’s quite an accomplishment considering we serve students who historically have lower percentages.

A phrase we use in the TRIO community is that TRIO Works! Current students tell us how much TRIO helps them, and former students stay in touch and let us know how much TRIO at Iowa Central meant to them. Jade Schramm, a graduate of Iowa Central and the University of Iowa, said “I knew I could always count on the TRIO staff for trusted advice. This is a program that kept me on the right track. … TRIO truly helped me learn to be a successful student and in turn achieve my goals.”

Dominique Gilmer, an All-American on the Triton track team, has earned his B.A. in education and is working on his master’s degree. He writes “The help and support you receive from TRIO makes you feel like family; it is an extended family while away from home. TRIO helped me tremendously.”

Tom Beneke, vice president of enrollment management and student development at Iowa Central, is a big supporter of the college’s TRIO program. He said “The Student Support Services Program (TRIO) is an outstanding program for students. I truly wish that this model of support for students could be used for every student on our campus. It not only provides academic support for students but our staff goes above and beyond to provide financial, social, and mentoring as well as many other support systems to ensure the students in the TRIO program obtain their educational goals.”

Unfortunately, the continued success of TRIO programs is in jeopardy because of federal budget cuts. In 2011, many federal programs, including all TRIO programs, received a 3 percent decrease in funding. In 2012, all TRIO programs were level funded (no increase). In 2013, we are staring at a 5 percent reduction in funding because of sequestration. Costs for our program go up each year, yet funding goes down. That means a lot less money in our budget for student services.

Thankfully, the college has pitched in to help. Iowa Central administrators, faculty and staff have made donations of money and supplies to our program. The college has paid for tutors, computers and other needed items. There is a Jeans Day for TRIO. We are so thankful for the added support, but with a projected 5 percent reduction looming, it won’t be enough. It is disappointing that a program that does so much good for so many students, with a proven record of success, is not adequately funded. But we continue on, because TRIO Works!

Jay Birkey is project director, TRIO Student Support Services, Iowa Central Community College.