This year marks the 50th anniversary of two federally funded TRIO programs that assist hundreds of thousands of adult learners in completing their education.
Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) offer counseling and information to eligible adults who desire to enter or continue a post-secondary education program. Many are displaced or underemployed workers. EOCs assist with college admissions and financial aid. Currently, there are 170 projects throughout the U.S. and its territories serving almost 210,00 adults.
“The adult population is overlooked. These students intended to continue their education, but life got in the way,” says Lee Williams, President of the National Educational Opportunity Centers Association (NEOCA) and Executive Director of EOC at Texarkana College in Texarkana, TX. “We’re life change agents,” he says of EOC staff. “We not only help them navigate college admissions and financial aid but serve as coaches to cheer them on.”
Each EOC is funded to serve an average of 1,000 adults 19 and older per year, according to Mateo Arteaga, former COE Board Chair, Past President of NEOCA, and EOC Director at Central Washington University. Two-thirds of the adults served in each project must be low-income and the first in their families to attend college.
“EOC staff is incredibly dedicated to helping adult learners access a college education, which opens the door to careers that provide a livable wage for their families,” Arteaga said.
EOC staff have one or two contacts with each client to facilitate their college admission. For those who have never enrolled in post-secondary education, this typically involves referrals for GED programs, assistance in completing the FAFSA, or support with other college and career planning. EOC staff assist returning learners in restructuring student loans or appeals to reinstate academic course credit in a degree-granting program. They can refer them to TRIO Student Support Services and McNair programs on campus for further support once they are enrolled.
Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) is also turning 50 this year. The pre-college program aims to motivate and prepare military veterans to enter and succeed in post-secondary education, best using their education benefits. Sixty projects operate in 32 states and Puerto Rico and serve almost 8,000 veterans each year with basic skills development and short-term remedial coursework. Like EOC, two-thirds of the veterans served by each project must be low-income and first-generation. Each project serves an average of 125 veterans.
“The camaraderie and dedication to our purpose” to assist veterans “has never waned throughout the 50 years,” said Lt. Col. Tommie Campbell. “How our nation has perceived veterans over those 50 years has changed,” and the veteran population itself has changed. Campbell is the president of the National Association of Veterans Upward Bound and VUB director at Henderson State University in Arkansas.
VUB programs assist with academic readiness and help veterans manage their educational benefits to ensure that they can complete a course of study before running out of financial aid. According to Campbell, fewer than one-third of veterans coming into VUB have college credit. VUB staff assist veterans in obtaining academic credit for their military training, provide academic refreshers, and offer college admissions test prep.
Reaching an Out-of-School Population
EOC and VUB programs must do extensive community and regional outreach to reach an out-of-school adult population. That means working with schools, college admissions personnel, veterans’ organizations, local media, community-based organizations, and government agencies.
“Our business is very relational. You can’t just do a briefing,” Campbell, a 23-year veteran of the U.S. Army, says of the outreach. “You have to go out and create awareness throughout veterans’ offices in the community. You have to connect with V.A. counselors in your area, with military units and reserves, and you have to go in wearing a VUB polo and khakis, not a coat and tie. You have to do a lot of listening. You have to know where to find the information because the one thing a veteran can see through is B.S. Veterans are very mission-oriented.”
EOC Director Arteaga says today’s environment with high labor demand and apparent decreased emphasis on the benefits of post-secondary education poses new challenges in recruiting adult learners. “In the past, it was easy to [recruit participants] when the economy dipped. Now our potential recruits are convinced it’s too expensive to go to school.” In addition, some are putting college plans on hold until they can attend in person. His EOC works with schools in Washington’s Yakima Valley to persuade recent high school graduates to get back on track.
The message? College is worth it — and affordable.