Camarillo High School senior Jonah Monte-Alegre scoffs at the suggestion that Upward Bound isn't pulling its weight.
Although the federal initiative has been branded ineffective and targeted for elimination by the Bush administration, Monte-Alegre, 17, said the value of the college prep program could be gauged by its success.
At the Upward Bound program based at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, nearly all of the 1,800 participants in the last 25 years have gone to college and more than 70% have earned degrees. Monte-Alegre said many have been students like herself, the sons and daughters of immigrants and the first in their families to attend college.
"The program opened my eyes to what was out there and made me understand that college was a real possibility," said Monte-Alegre, who is considering multiple college offers after receiving Upward Bound assistance in studying for her SAT exams and in applying for financial aid. "Without this, I don't know where I'd be."
Lawmakers have attempted before to shrink the program's budget, but officials said this is the first effort to do away with it.
With the nation's largest network of college prep programs, California stands to lose the most. Nearly 50,000 students are enrolled in Upward Bound and the companion Talent Search program on 135 college campuses from Sonoma to San Diego.
"I'm very disappointed," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, a former Oxnard teacher. "I'm just a strong believer in these transition programs that help provide a bridge from one level of education to the next. This is clearly a successful program, and we'll be working on the federal government for inclusion of funding."
Despite a growing chorus of support for Upward Bound, the U.S. Department of Education contends there is no hard evidence to show that Upward Bound students who attended college wouldn't have enrolled if the program didn't exist.
Education Department spokesman C. Todd Jones said one federal assessment concluded that the program had limited effect because services are targeted at low-income students, not necessarily those most at risk of failing and leaving school.
As outlined in President Bush's 2006 budget proposal, the department wants to shift a $460-million allocation for Upward Bound and Talent Search to a new high school intervention initiative designed to boost student achievement, especially for those in danger of dropping out. And it wants to put the decision-making power for spending that money in the hands of local school boards and superintendents.
"The efforts to serve students through Upward Bound are certainly earnest and in no way should be diminished," Jones said. "But just because these programs are doing their work faithfully and with great passion doesn't mean they are best suited to meet the needs of the local communities in which they are working."
Created as part of President Johnson's "War on Poverty," Upward Bound is one of the largest and longest-running federal education programs. Housed on college campuses, the programs aim to help low-income, first-generation youths enter college and succeed once they get there.
Nationwide, the college prep programs serve nearly half a million high school students at 1,400 sites. In 2000, the most recent year available, 92% of the 13,100 Upward Bound students who graduated from high school enrolled in college.
"People who go through these programs are prepared to go to college, and that's what it's all about," said Susan Trebach, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Opportunity in Education.
The budget threat has spurred campaigns to save Upward Bound. More than 1,000 students, parents and alumni are expected to rally Saturday at USC, which has several Upward Bound programs. And students and alumni across the state have launched phone and letter-writing campaigns to members of Congress, who will have the final say on funding.
The phone has been ringing steadily at the offices of Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), who said she will fight any attempt to kill the program.
"Upward Bound helps kids trying to be the first in their families to go to college, precisely the kind of effort we should be supporting," she said. "Instead, the Bush administration proposes to zero out this program and leave these kids to fend for themselves. That's just wrong."
Cal State L.A. student Fernando Serrano couldn't agree more.
The 18-year-old Pasadena resident joined Upward Bound after graduating from eighth grade, attending Saturday school twice a month at Cal State L.A. and receiving weekly tutoring at his high school. He also spent every summer on the Cal State campus, consuming college-level courses during an intensive six-week session.
Now the business and marketing major said he plans to do what he can to preserve the program, especially since his younger brother is involved.