How COE’s Voice in Washington Strengthens Community, Empowers Students

June 15, 2021

By Jennifer Engle

My first job out of graduate school was working with the Pell Institute. I had an opportunity to research issues affecting low-income, first-generation students, like myself; understand the barriers they face and the practices and policies we can put in place to help them through the college-to-workforce pathway.

COE’s voice in Washington is critical as it represents TRIO programs, program staff, and the students they serve — especially given that so much of the conversation in higher education is dominated by elite institutions. Many TRIO programs come from less resourced institutions that don't have lobbyists speaking on students’ behalf. That voice is critical to protecting and growing TRIO funding.

COE is an unapologetic advocate on behalf of low-income and first-generation students

The war on poverty was never won. Some of the advances in the 60s and 70’s retrenched in the 80s under different leadership, setting back the cause and generations of students. The work over the last 20 to 30 years has been making up some of that lost ground.

Our policies, as they’re related to poverty, have not kept up with the increased demands on students. This is especially so, given what we've seen during the pandemic. Low-income, first-generation students are first to interrupt their college plans — even drop out — as a result of COVID. It's more important than ever that these students are able to leverage college as a way to experience upward economic mobility. The size of the Pell Grant, or even how many students TRIO can serve is an important part of bridging that gap.

Changing perspectives in Congress and generating a sense of community

Being an unapologetic advocate on behalf of low-income first-generation students is always relevant. I helped chaperon student visits to Capitol Hill to speak with legislators and saw how these visits could change a Congress member’s perspective. Even with numbers showing high costs and low completion, when you look a student in the eye and explain why the system is insufficient to meet their needs, it makes a difference.

The other piece is the power of the TRIO community. When you get exposed to TRIO staff at the policy seminar and annual meeting, it's like a shot in the arm of optimism. It's palpable how much this whole professional community cares and is looking out for low-income, first-generation students. If they weren't there, so many people would not have been able to access that college dream and really make it a reality.

There is a lot of momentum with the new administration, as well as in Congress, to really push the affordability agenda in a way that we have not seen in years. If we leverage this moment, COE will leave a legacy for current students and future generations.

Jennifer Engle, first-generation college graduate and former director of the Pell Institute, is now acting director of U.S. program data at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.