Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

My selfie with the Upward Bound students on my last day of class in summer 2017

How Upward Bound guides bootstrapping U.S. teens into higher education

One of the great achievements of the 19th century in the United States was providing universal access to education and learning. To me, there is no greater equalizer than knowledge and skills, and public education is one of the best tools we have for providing it.

That said, as a teacher in a public university and the son of a teacher of public schools, I can confidently state that public education is far from perfect. It’s under-resourced, outdated, and often fails the least privileged of our youth. Teachers far too often have to focus on discipline and behavior instead of learning, and failures to learn are only amplified by poorly constructed assessments and feedback that devastate youth, making them feel like failures, when it’s really their parents, teachers, and communities that are failing them. The result is that many of our most at-risk youth never finish high school, let alone reach college.

More than fifty years ago in 1965, U.S. president Lynden B. Johnson championed a new program to tackled this problem through the Higher Education Act. Called TRiO, it aimed to increase access to college by low-income students and students with parents who had not completed college. One of TRiO’s three program was called Upward Bound, which included tutoring during school and a full-time summer program to bridge gaps between students’ knowledge and the knowledge they needed to reach and complete college. Students would also receive a small stipend for attending, freeing them to learn rather than work to support their families.

Jump fifty years ahead, and now there are 813 Upward Bound programs in the United States, serving over 60,000 teens a year. The average cost per student per year is around $4,000 a year, for a total of about $250–300 million per year, or around 0.006% of the U.S. federal budget.

Like many social programs at the federal level, the program ultimately redistributes money from a small group of wealthy taxpayers. In Upward Bound’s case, this money goes to a large group of youth in poverty, mostly to pay for permanent staff and student stipends.

Is it worth the money? Should we really be subsidizing this effort, or should we leave public schools to do the job? Or from an more libertarian perspective, should we leave it to families in poverty to find their own time and money to get help their children reach higher levels of educational and economic attainment?

This is where I pivot from policy to personal. Two years ago, I was seeking some way to have impact in my local community, and found out about the University of Washington’s Upward Bound program. I stepped in last year just as a new director was starting, and was excited learn more about the lower-income parts of South Seattle from which all students came. This last Friday we had the end of summer celebration, including 90-minutes of teachers celebrating their students summer achievements and students giving speeches about how the program has impacted their lives.

Last year and this year, I taught a class called “Web Design”, focusing on social justice in access to computing, while also teaching some practical web development skills. But more than just teach, I’ve tried to mentor the students, understanding what they want, what they need, and where they want to go, and trying to find ways that I can best support them on those journeys, whether that connects to computing or not.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the teens I’ve taught. First, they want desperately to learn, to be encouraged, and to make meaningful contributions to their country. Most of them, at their core, are skeptical about their abilities in a range of subjects, and doing the hard work of finding something they can do that the world values. They’ve shared stories of the incredible burdens they’ve had to carry while thriving in school. They’re supporting their single parents emotionally and financially. They’re living in a city with a rapidly rising cost of living. For many, Upward Bound is a way for them to have lunch each day. They’re taught by teachers with barely enough time to prep, teach, and grade let alone develop more meaningful, encouraging relationships with their students. And their school counselors, each managing up to 700 students, barely have enough time to make sure students are graduating, let alone meaningfully guide students toward higher education. And all of this is happening in Seattle, one of the wealthiest and most progressive cities in the country.

These South Seattle teens do six extra weeks of school each summer through Upward Bound not because they’re excited about more school, but because they’re desperate for an educational context where teachers care about their learning, support their goals, and most importantly, have time guide them along paths that help them achieve their goals. And where they’re surrounded by peers who have the same goals as them, learning, reaching college, and helping their families out of poverty. These are basic development needs that in more privileged settings are met by parents, older siblings, teachers, and counselors. Youth whose parents have never been to college often don’t have a clue about what college, how to get their kids to it, and most importantly, how they would possibly afford. And why would they? Who would guess that a key part of accessing college is filling out something called a “FAFSA”?

Like public schools, our Upward Bound program is not perfect. Our program is a bit disorganized. It’s even more under-resourced than our schools. There’s just enough money to pay for a few full-time staff, to cover students’ living stipends, and to pay for a few field trips in the summer to regional colleges and other experiential learning in the city. Most of the work comes from free volunteer efforts from teachers like me and college students, like my undergraduate RA this summer, Leanne Hwa. And there are countless ways in which our Upward Bound could be even more impactful, accessible, and scalable, but for lack of resources and leadership.

But even with its flaws, the impact of the program is unquestionable. For kids that thought they had no path at all to college, Upward Bound is the single thing in their brief adolescence that shows them the path, sets them on it, and empowers them with the believe that they can succeed at it. Not every student succeeds: sometimes, the program isn’t enough to overcome their lack of confidence or the realities of their family’s poverty. And even for those that do, being a first generation college student is not easy: it creates cultural separation between a student and their family in way that can be confusing and even harmful to a family. But there’s no question about the program’s ability to dramatically shift the economic trajectory of it’s youths’ lives, and their family’s lives. Over the past decade, the students’ high school graduation rate is an impressive 98%, and its college graduation rate is over 60%.

Is it worth the money? From a utilitarian perspective, the median American taxpayer pays less than $0.25 a year to empower 60,000 teens complete college. When those teens graduate, they almost certainly repay the $4,000–8,000 the government spent on them in the form of substantially higher federal taxes over their lifetime. So it’s hard for anyone to argue with the return on investment.

But from a values perspective, such programs are ultimately about justice. If we believe governments are partly about creating opportunity, than Upward Bound is a natural extension of those values, bridging our country’s core investments in K-12 public education to our country’s investments in colleges and universities.

Fighting to ensure that this program survives a period of government contraction is key to upholding these values. If you want to help, find the nearest Upward Bound program near you and volunteer to teach or help write renewal grants. Defend the Department of Education’s budget, which administers the discretionary budget that funds Upward Bound grants. For now, the program appears to have bipartisan support, but given the large proportion of immigrant and refugee participants in many Upward Bound programs, and the steep proposed cuts to the Department of Education, it could easily be under attack by DeVos and the Department of Education itself.



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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko


Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.