Sens. Collins, Tester Urge Education Dept. to Reverse Decisions to Reject Grant Applications for First Generation College Students Due to Minor Formatting Issues

The Senators Criticize Inflexible Bureaucratic Procedures, Call on Department to Overturn Decisions on Dozens of Applications Affecting Thousands of Students

Washington, D.C. - U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) led a group of 23 Senators, including Senator Angus King (I-ME), in calling on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to reverse course and review dozens of applications for grant funding for first generation college students. The Department recently rejected these applications due to ridiculous formatting requirements. 

Senators Collins and Tester have learned that the U.S. Education Department denied dozens of applications for Upward Bound funding because they were not formatted according to arbitrary requirements issued by the Obama Administration. The Upward Bound program seeks to help low-income and first-generation students access higher education. Last year, 61,747 students nationwide relied on Upward Bound to succeed in high school and prepare for college.

In a letter to Secretary DeVos, Senators Collins and Tester called out the absurdity of the Department’s rejections.

“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,” Senators Collins and Tester wrote. “Many applicants that were rejected have served generations of first-time, low-income students successfully for decades.”

At least four dozen institutions in at least 17 other states have been rejected for the same or similar reasons.

“The Department of Education should be supporting successful partnerships, not constructing bureaucratic roadblocks while administering Upward Bound and other TRIO programs,” the Senators added.

The Senators highlighted inconsistencies in the Department of Education’s formatting requirements and called on Secretary DeVos to reverse these rejections.

Barring reevaluation, thousands of low-income and first-generation students could be denied a chance to access higher education because of inadvertent formatting issues.

The letter was also signed by Senators John Boozman (R-AR), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Steve Daines (R-MT), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Rob Portman (R-OH), Tom Carper (D-DE), Richard Shelby (R-AL), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Luther Strange (R-AL), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Angus King (I-ME), Edward Markey (D-MA), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Charles Schumer (D-NY). The signed letter can be found HERE. The full text is below.

+++

April 28, 2017

The Honorable Betsy DeVos
Secretary
United States Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20202-8510

Dear Secretary DeVos:

We are writing to request your urgent attention to applications deemed ineligible for the fiscal year (FY) 2017 Upward Bound Program competition due to minor formatting concerns and to request that the Department of Education reverse its rejection of these applications. Absent such a reversal, thousands of low-income and first-generation students could be denied a chance to access higher education because of inadvertent formatting issues.

On October 17, 2016, the Department published in the Federal Register a Notice Inviting Applications for New Awards (Notice) for the FY 2017 Upward Bound Program competition. The Notice includes arbitrary formatting criteria not mandated by Congress. The criteria are not related to the substance of the Upward Bound applications and do not provide any form of recourse for applicants to correct minor, unintentional deviations from these criteria.

The criteria are also inconsistent with other TRIO competitions. For example, the Notice for the FY 2017 competition required that applications be double-spaced, whereas the Department’s FY 2015 Notice for the Student Support Services Program required double spacing for narrative text only and single spacing for figures, charts, and graphs. The FY 2017 Notice for the McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program competition includes formatting instructions similar to the Upward Bound Notice, but does not say that applications will be rejected if these standards are not met. Many applicants regularly apply for other competitive grants from the Department, and such inconsistent guidelines are both confusing and unhelpful.

While we are sensitive to the Department’s need to provide application guidelines, 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. We understand that FY 2017 Upward Bound applications from as many as 17 states, plus Puerto Rico, have been rejected on the basis of formatting. At least one applicant was rejected because the line spacing in two info-graphics included text that was 1.5 spaced instead of double spaced. Line spacing and font sizes can also result from automatic adjustments made by computer programs, such as those affecting spacing on spreadsheet tables. Other applicants have exceeded the page limit by mere sentences, an irregularity that can occur when converting applications into PDF format. In some instances, the errors were so slight that the applicants could not identify them on their own. Simply granting applicants the opportunity to address these arbitrary formatting requirements could prevent these absurd results.

Focusing on formatting technicalities and administrative ease rather than the merits of these applications undermines the efficacy of this important program. Many applicants that were rejected have served generations of first-time, low-income students successfully for decades. Moreover, this year’s re-applicants would be seriously disadvantaged in future years because they stand to lose critical prior experience points which they have earned. Arbitrary formatting requirements should not jeopardize the long-standing successes of these programs. The Department of Education should be supporting successful partnerships, not constructing bureaucratic roadblocks in administering Upward Bound and other TRIO programs.

On behalf of thousands of college-bound students across the country, we ask that you read and score these applications so that they can be considered for funding during the FY 2017 competition. We look forward to working with you to break down the barriers facing our neediest students and to promote greater college accessibility and success. We would appreciate your prompt attention to this request.

Sincerely,