The Department of Education gives grants to schools and organizations to help disadvantaged students prepare for, enroll in, and graduate from college. These eight grant programs are collectively known as “TRIO”—named for the three original programs.
Congress provides over $1 billion annually to TRIO programs and Education could do more to understand how well these grants work to help students enroll in and complete college. For example, studies of some programs are outdated and Education never assessed 3 of the current TRIO programs.
Our recommendations include developing a plan to assess TRIO's effectiveness.
Why This Matters
The Department of Education gives grants to schools and organizations that provide disadvantaged students with services to help them attend college. These eight grant programs are collectively known as “TRIO”, named for the original three programs.
Congress provides over $1 billion each year to these programs, but Education could do more to understand how well these grants work to help students.
Education could improve the information it has about TRIO programs in two areas: (1) grantee performance data, and (2) program assessments.
Schools and organizations report data to Education to show how the TRIO grants they receive have been working. For example, organizations that receive grants to encourage students to complete college report on the numbers and percentages of students who received services and earned degrees.
Education evaluates grantees’ performance using the self-reported data, but has done little to verify the data. Accurate performance data are important because returning grantees can earn points for past performance in the next grant competition—increasing the likelihood that they will receive new grants. Almost 80 percent of recent TRIO grants went to returning grantees.
Therefore, grantees may have an incentive to report a more positive picture than warranted. Officials from an organization representing TRIO grantees told us there is a risk that some grantees may report inaccurate information.
As for assessing the individual TRIO programs, studies of some programs are outdated. In addition, Education has never assessed the effectiveness of three of the seven TRIO programs that serve students, and did not have any new assessments planned as of August 2020.
How GAO Did This Study
We analyzed data from Education about TRIO grantees and applicants. We also reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations and agency documents, and interviewed Education officials and other TRIO stakeholders.
Education should take additional steps to ensure the reliability of grantees' performance data and develop a plan for assessing the effectiveness of the TRIO programs that serve students. Education generally agreed with our recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Education||The Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education should take additional steps to ensure the performance data TRIO grantees report are reliable. (Recommendation 1)|
|Department of Education||The Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education should develop a plan—with specific actions and milestone dates—for assessing the effectiveness of TRIO programs that serve students using methods that are consistent with its statutory authority. (Recommendation 2)|