College Opportunity

The Council for Opportunity in Education was founded to advance the vision that every student – regardless of their class, parents’ education, or race and ethnicity – would have the opportunity to earn a college degree. Over four decades, this broad coalition of educators has worked to achieve this ideal through fierce advocacy at the institutional, state, and federal levels.

A unifying principle of the Council’s work

Both financial and non-financial supports are necessary to enable first-generation, low-income students, as well as students with disabilities, to successfully enroll in and complete college.

A unifying principle of the Council’s work has been the notion that financial aid alone is insufficient to ensure postsecondary success. Rather, both financial and non-financial supports are necessary to enable first-generation, low-income students, as well as students with disabilities, to successfully enroll in and complete college. Congress affirmed this view in the House Report to the 1980 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, stating:

“Without the information, counseling and academic services provided by the TRIO programs, disadvantaged students are often unable to take advantage of the financial assistance provided by the other Title IV programs, and, more importantly, such students do not develop their talents by gaining access to postsecondary educational opportunities and completing a course of study once they have embarked on it.” (H.R. Rep. No. 96-520, at 25 (1980), as reprinted in 1980 U.S.C.C.A.N. 3141.)

introduction of the concept of the “first-generation college student”

Another key feature of the Council’s work and impact has been the introduction of the concept of the “first-generation college student.” First embedded in the 1980 reauthorization of HEA, this term has been widely adopted by institutions of higher education and organizations to identify students who are in the first generation of their family to earn college degrees.

Since these early days of organized TRIO,” there has been a great deal of advancement of the equity agenda in higher education; however, much work remains. For example, although there have been gains in college participation for students from all economic backgrounds over the last several decades, as recently as 2020, there was a 31-percentage point difference in college enrollment rates between students from the wealthiest families and students from the poorest families (79% enrollment vs. 48% enrollment). (Jehangir, R. R., & Romasanta, L. (2021). How TRIO Sparked the Fire That Fuels the First-Generation Movement: An Interview With Arnold Mitchem and Maureen Hoyler. Journal of First-generation Student Success, 1(1), 3-19.)

COE and TRIO Programs

Our approach

To that end, COE remains committed to increasing the body of knowledge to support and provide opportunities for low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities.

COE works to improve educational equity for low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities by advocating and providing resources and services to support colleges and community agencies around the country. We address this mandate by:

  • Implementing evidence-based program improvement and student development services for more than 3,100 college access and success programs nationwide;
  • Advocating for federally-funded programs critical to college access and success, including TRIO, GEAR UP, Pell Grants, and other college access and success programs that assist low-income and first-generation students;
  • Providing professional development for college access and success professionals–through COE’s annual conference, seminars, video conferences, online courses, webinars, communities of practice, and other web-based idea exchanges; and
  • Conducting research and policy analysis through COE’s Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education to inform policymakers, educators, and the public on issues impacting educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities.

Our Initiatives

  • Promote leadership development and global citizenry through student leadership programs such as the National Student Leadership Congress, the Thomas R. Wolanin Congressional Internship, and the Keith Sherin Global Leaders Program;
  • Develop partnerships with businesses and government to introduce low-income and first-generation students to 21st-century careers–particularly those requiring intense preparation in math and science–and to better prepare them for the workforce;
  • Strengthen the academic preparation of TRIO pre-college students to assure they have the mathematics and writing skills necessary to excel in disciplines of their choice–through curriculum development for STEAM Clubs and Book Clubs available for free to over 4,000 college access and success programs nationwide;
  • Through the annual First-Generation College Celebration, COE uplifts and expands the visibility of first-generation students on campuses across the country to increase institutional campus-wide engagement in providing comprehensive support to this student population;  
  • Annually publish the Pell Institute’s Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States, which increases public awareness of disparities in college opportunity for low-income, first-generation students and provides data to help develop educational policies and programs targeting these students;
  • Cultivate college access and success program alumni to serve as mentors and role models for current program participants, act as advocates for the programs, and serve as ambassadors to the broader community;
  • Convene leaders of COE-affiliated state associations for executive leadership training to advance college opportunity efforts at the state and national level through partnerships with institutions such as Princeton University, Yale University, and Cornell University; and 
  • Connect college access and success programs and community partners to COE’s cloud-based data system–empower™–for effective real-time tracking and analysis of student outcomes.

Our Outcomes

College access and retention services are essential to providing genuine educational opportunities for all Americans, including low-income and first-generation students and students with disabilities.

At present, college access and success programs reach only a tiny fraction of the students and families who could benefit from them. For more than 40 years, COE has worked to make the following outcomes a reality:

6M+
STUDENTS
More than 6 million students have graduated from college with the special assistance of TRIO programs.
3K+
ACCESS AND SUCCESS PROFESSIONALS
Annually, more than 3,000 access and success professionals receive professional development and technical assistance either in-person, virtually, or both.
1.09B
FEDERAL APPROPRIATIONS
Garnered $1.09 billion in federal appropriations to support TRIO programs (up from $156.6 million in 1981, the year the Council for Opportunity in Education was founded).
840K
LOW-INCOME STUDENTS
Over 840,000 low-income students and students with disabilities receive college access and retention services annually through our member colleges and agencies.

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