(Sounf of freeway.)
Even if you were looking for it, PSU's Upward Bound program is easy to miss. It moved a year ago to the first floor of a building on the edge of campus, next to a snarl of freeway ramps. For ten years, Upward Bound director Phillip Dirks has helped students navigate the tough route out of poverty and into college.
Phillip Dirks: “Its purpose and mission is to prepare low-income students and students whose parents don't have bachelor's degrees for college, expose them to college, but also to provide them with academic classes and college preparation classes.”
But the federal Office of Management and Budget has labeled Upward Bound “ineffective,” based on a national study officials did in the 1990's. Some college leaders say the study was flawed, in how it compared program students with other teens.
Regardless, the US Department of Education says it now wants a new evaluation. It calls for some universities — including PSU — to recruit twice as many eligible students as it can accommodate, and then randomly reject half of them. Those students would form a control group for the federal study, and receive no services. PSU's Phillip Dirks calls that “unethical.”
Phillip Dirks: “The idea of developing a control group where you watch them and don't give them any treatment, it smacks of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, that were done, carried on into the 1960's - to deny a group of people a treatment known to be effective, and Upward Bound is known to be effective.”
Dirks says Upward Bound has placed 95% of its participants into college, and 80% of them have either graduated or are expected to.
Students in the program say that they're living proof that it works. Blanca Fernandez is a senior at Portland's Benson High School. She doubts that she'd be preparing for college without the program.
Blanca Fernandez: “I don't think I would, I would just have the illusion of going, and put it off til, like, ten years, and think I should go to college, ten years after high school, you know?”
Fernandez says her grades have gone up, and an Upward Bound trip to New Orleans helped motivate her. She wants to attend PSU, next fall.
Robert Gill is a sophomore at Jefferson High, in Portland. Like Fernandez, his parents didn't go to college. But he credits Upward Bound with getting his older brother prepared for college — and now graduate school. And Gill's sister is also in college.
Robert Gill: “Whatever she's doing, if she keeps working like that, getting the A's and B's she has in college, she can do whatever she wants. My brother, I'm so proud of him, first in the family to graduate college, and I can't wait for him to graduate graduate school, because that's going to be an interesting thing, to see him walk across the stage.”
Gill says the program has helped him with reading and has gotten him excited about a career as a psychologist.
Robert Gill: “I combined the joy of like, having great people skills, having patients and listening people talk, so I thought, why not have a career for that? I was like dentist, pediatrician, and then psychologist - oh my goodness, I like to talk to people, find out what's worng with them. I don't like to see people sad.”
But Gill says he does not follow the psychology of the proposed federal evaluation. Education officials have defended the proposal, as an important way to measure the program's effectiveness. No federal officials or experts planning to review the evaluation returned calls in time for this story.
Pacific University took the dramatic step of discontinuing the Upward Bound program, as of Friday. Pacific officials were unwilling or unavailable to speak on tape, though one said off-tape that the federal study was one big reason the program was closing.
PSU director, Phillip Dirks says Pacific's move could put pressure on Washington, DC.
Phillip Dirks: “I would have to say also that Pacific's act of refusing the grant, and Stanford's act of refusing the grant has brought some leverage. It's been brought out in the open more by those dramatic decisions.”
At PSU, the program will continue. But Upward Bound staffers are holding off on active recruitment.
They're hoping by mid-October, the planned study will be scrapped, and they can go back to the kind of recruitment — and student mentoring — they've been doing, for decades