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Federal budget crisis threatens USU program for at-risk students

By Todd Hamann

LOGAN—The federal budget crunch could soon affect low-income and first-generation students at Utah State University, the director of the school’s Student Support Services (SSS) program said Tuesday.

Student Support Services, USU’s only federally funded TRIO program, already had been cut 3.1 percent of its budget for 2011-2012, and is fighting to keep its doors open amid a major deficit reduction move by Washington.

“Congress needs to save a little money for the young people,” says Nazih Al-Rashid, USU’s student support services director.

The office is funded yearly by the U.S. Department of Education, so its budget is very sensitive to economic trends. The Budget Control Act of 2011, signed by President Barack Obama to break the congressional budget deficit impasse in August, creates a 12-member “Super Committee” to reduce deficit spending. The committee’s first target is to cut $1.2 trillion by Nov. 23.

And Al-Rashid fears where those cuts might come. “They can cut whatever they want,” he said, explaining that education programs are often among the first things to go.

“That is why it is important for students, alumni, and parents to write Congress and let them know how important TRIO is,” Al-Rashid said.

TRIO is a federal higher education funding program created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 as part of his War on Poverty. The commission he established found that education was the driving force to fighting poverty, and so TRIO was created. USU’s Student Support Services is part of that program.

The office focuses on students who fall into at least one of three categories: First-generation college students, low-income students, and students with a documented disability.

The program goals are threefold: to increase retention of disadvantaged students, to raise their academic success rates, and to help more of them graduate.

The program has attracted a large group of at-risk students. “We are budgeted for 190 students,” said SSS staff member Jennifer Mansfield. “We are serving 210 students right now.”

And the program works, she said, pointing to a 97 percent graduation rate among the students it serves, compared to 43 percent among USU students as a whole.

Research has found a positive relationship between income, family educational background and academic performance. Student Support Services is designed to break negative cycles and to benefit future generations.

Interested students and families should visit the Student Support Services website or offices on the ground floor of the University Inn.

TP