TRIO Student Support Services

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In last week’s Grant Round Up, I promised to write about one of my favorite grant programs this week, the TRIO Student Support Services program. But first, what are TRIO programs anyway? The federal Department of Education’s TRIO programs are a set of federally-funded college opportunity programs that form a cornerstone of the government’s efforts to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. The history of TRIO begins more than half a century ago and reflects a continuing commitment to providing educational access and support for students who might otherwise be overlooked.

Origins and Early Development

The TRIO programs were initiated by the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his War on Poverty agenda. The original aim was to help students overcome economic, social, and cultural barriers to higher education. TRIO began with just three programs, hence the name “TRIO”:

1. Upward Bound (1964)- Initially created as part of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 before being incorporated into the HEA, Upward Bound was designed to help high school students from low-income families and from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree prepare for higher education.

2. Talent Search (1965)- Established under the HEA, Talent Search provides academic, career, and financial counseling to its participants and encourages them to graduate from high school and continue on to complete their postsecondary education.

3. Student Support Services (1968)- Introduced shortly after the initial programs, Student Support Services was designed to help students stay in college until they earn their baccalaureate degrees, primarily through tutoring and counseling.

Expansion and Inclusion

Over the years, the TRIO programs have expanded to include more services as the recognition of the need for support at various stages of educational development became apparent. Additional programs were added:

4. Educational Opportunity Centers (1972)- Established to primarily serve displaced or underemployed workers who needed to retrain or upgrade their skills for the workforce.

5. Veterans Upward Bound (1972)- Developed to address the specific needs of veterans re-entering the academic world.

6. Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program (1986)- Named after astronaut Dr. Ronald E. McNair who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, this program aims at encouraging low-income, first-generation college students and students from groups underrepresented in graduate education to pursue doctoral degrees.

7. Upward Bound Math/Science (1990)- Created to address the need for specific skills in the fields of math and science, this program forms part of the Upward Bound initiative.

Impact and Ongoing Challenges

TRIO programs have been instrumental in increasing college enrollment and graduation rates among disadvantaged students. They have helped millions of students across the United States to access higher education and earn college degrees. Despite their success, TRIO programs often face challenges such as funding cuts, policy changes, and the need to adapt to new educational environments and technologies.

Future Directions

The future of TRIO programs continues to depend largely on federal funding and policy priorities. Advocates for TRIO programs stress the importance of increasing funding to serve more students and updating the programs to handle contemporary challenges like technological advancement and changing demographics in higher education.

The history of TRIO programs is a testament to the evolving understanding and commitment to educational equity in the United States. These programs continue to serve as vital resources for students who face significant barriers to higher education.

Why I Care So Much

Anyone who has worked in higher education probably has an affinity for TRIO programs. These gems do an incredible amount of good, particularly in addressing intergenerational poverty. I personally have an especially strong affinity for these programs for several reasons. For starters, one of my dad’s first jobs after he earned his college degree through the GI Bill was being a recruiter funded through a Veterans Upward Bound project all the way back in the 1970s. My dad was one of fifteen siblings in his family and one of the few who completed college. To say the importance of this kind of opportunity was driven home for me early in life would be a huge understatement.

In no small part inspired by my dad, I’ve done extensive work with TRIO programs and these have become one of my keenest areas of expertise. I’ve written a number of successful TRIO grants in my career, many of which have earned perfect review scores. I attribute that success to the fact that I’ve served as a Student Support Services peer reviewer in three competitions where I honed my understanding of what makes a successful grant.

Student Support Services

The Federal Department of Education administers several grant programs under the umbrella of Student Support Services (SSS), which are part of the broader TRIO programs. These programs are designed to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and those with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to post-baccalaureate programs. SSS was specifically created to provide services for students while they are enrolled in college.


The primary goal of the Student Support Services program is to increase the college retention and graduation rates of its participants and facilitate the process of transition from one level of higher education to the next. The program addresses the needs of students through academic tutoring, counseling for personal and financial issues, and other supportive services.

Services Offered

SSS programs typically offer a wide range of services, which may include:

Academic tutoring, which helps students meet the rigorous demands of higher education.

  • Advice and assistance in postsecondary course selection. 
  • Information on both the full range of student financial aid programs and benefitsand resources for locating public and private scholarships.
  • Assistance in completing financial aid applications, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Education or counseling services designed to improve financial and economic literacy.
  • Support for applying to graduate and professional programsincluding assistance in preparing for college entrance exams.
  • Mentoring and special grant aid, which may be offered to current SSS participants who are receiving Federal Pell Grants.

Funding and Reach

SSS is funded through grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Education. Colleges and universities apply for funding to establish an SSS program on their campus. These grants are competitive and institutions must demonstrate how they will meet the needs of the target student populations. The amount of funding available and the number of participants served can vary significantly based on Congressional appropriations and specific educational priorities.


Studies and reports have shown that Student Support Services have a positive impact on the academic success of participants. Students involved in these programs are more likely to persist from one academic year to the next and have higher graduation rates compared to non-participants from similar backgrounds.

Challenges and Future Directions

Despite its successes, the SSS program faces challenges such as securing sufficient funding to serve all eligible students and adapting services to meet the changing needs of students, especially in increasingly diverse and technologically advanced educational environments. The program’s effectiveness relies heavily on continued federal and institutional support, and on innovative approaches to serving students’; evolving needs.

The Federal Department of Education’s Student Support Services grant programs play a critical role in fostering educational opportunities and success for underrepresented students. By providing comprehensive and tailored support, SSS helps to level the educational playing field and contribute to a more equitable society. There are few programs I love more. If you ever want to talk about Student Support Services, or any of the TRIO programs, get in touch.

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