PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A group of U.S. senators, led by Susan Collins and joined by Angus King, is pushing the federal Department of Education to reconsider grant applications affecting thousands of potential first-generation college students around the country, including at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.
Earlier this month, UMPI learned that two applications for nearly $624,000 in grant funding to serve 960 students through the Upward Bound program over five years were rejected because of line-spacing errors on two of the 65 pages in each application. U.S. Department of Education rules require that Upward Bound applications be double spaced, but two pages contained infographics that had only 1.5 spaces between lines.
Similar formatting errors caused rejections of grant applications at at least four dozen colleges and universities in 17 states, and school officials were not given an opportunity to correct the mistakes. UMPI was the only school in Maine.
On Friday, Collins and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos rebuking the department for its actions. Twenty-three other senators, including King, co-signed it.
“The decision to exclude applications from consideration due to minor, non-substantive concerns is a clear example of the harm that results from inflexible, bureaucratic procedures,” Collins and Tester wrote. “Many applicants that were rejected have served generations of first-time, low-income students successfully for decades.”
The senators pointed out that 61,747 students nationwide relied last year on Upward Bound to succeed in high school and prepare for college. They also stressed that the Federal Register, which invites grant writers to seek new awards, includes “arbitrary formatting criteria not mandated by Congress.”
“The Department of Education should be supporting successful partnerships, not constructing bureaucratic roadblocks while administering Upward Bound and other” student services programs, the senators wrote.
They asked the secretary to reverse the rejections and reconsider the applications.
Darylen Cote, director of TRiO College Access Services at UMPI, said Friday that she was overwhelmed by the support from Collins and the entire Maine congressional delegation. Collins, King and Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree had sent their own joint letter to DeVos earlier this month, also expressing their support for reconsideration of the UMPI applications.
Cote said she felt Collins made a “really great case for the university.”
“Collins made several good points in her letter, including the fact that the guidelines were not in the Federal Register and all of the rules were made up by the Department of Education,” Cote said. “I am hoping common sense prevails, because they are not seeing the unintended consequences of what something like this could do.”
She also said that since last Friday, more than 1,700 UMPI alumni, former Upward Bound students and their parents have flooded Devos’ office with letters in support of the Upward Bound program.
“That really touches my heart,” she said.