April 23, 2019
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Formatting error shouldn’t jeopardize college education for low-income students

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Sam Portera and Brandon Hosford, both alumni of the Upward Bound college readiness program, prepare packages of letters from program alumni and their parents destined to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The Department of Education declined to consider the University of Maine Presque Isle's renewal grant application due to a formatting error, but supporters and Maine's congressional delegation are hoping to convince the agency to reconsider.

Vindictive. That’s the only way to describe an absurd Department of Education decision to reject dozens of schools’ Upward Bound funding applications because of small formatting errors.

The department’s decision to put bureaucratic rules above the needs of low-income students is shameful and could jeopardize a college education for thousands of students.

The University of Maine at Presque Isle is caught up in this bureaucratic nightmare. Its two applications for nearly $624,000 in grant funding to serve 800 students 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 doubled spaced. The two pages contained infographics that had 1.5 spaces between lines. The text on the pages was double-spaced.

UMPI has not been given a chance to correct the formatting error. Neither have dozens of colleges and universities across the country that had applications rejected for similar formatting problems. Grant funding for the UMPI program runs out in September.

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation, especially Sen. Angus King, are livid about the department’s actions.

“This decision by the Department of Education is one the dumbest acts I’ve seen by government anywhere, any time in my whole life,” he said in a video. “This is the kind of thing that drives people crazy about government.”

King, along with Sen. Susan Collins and Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree, sent a letter earlier this month to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, asking the department to reconsider its decision.

They note that the department’s formatting requirements, including specific margin sizes and line spacing, are not mandated by Congress and are “entirely unrelated to the substance of the application.” There is also no recourse for schools to correct the small errors.

“The department’s inflexibility and bureaucratic decision could result in the elimination of a longstanding, successful and greatly needed program on the basis of non-substantive errors before the application is even read,” they wrote.

According to a list compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 44 schools have been told their applications were rejected, most of them because of formatting errors. The schools were seeking a total of $10 million in grant funding. UMPI is the only Maine school on the list.

The UMPI program works with 16 high schools in Aroostook County. It provides tutoring, counseling and other help to prepare low-income students for college. Many of the students are the first in their family to attend college. Without the Upward Bound support, many of the program’s students may drop their plans to go to college.

Salvadore Portera Jr. began Upward Bound as a high school sophomore. He said he had little family support to continue his education beyond high school. Not only did Upward Bound set him on a path toward college, because of his Upward Bound work, he enrolled at UMPI as a sophomore and graduated in 2012 at the age of 20.

“I can’t imagine where I’d be today without them,” he told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “It’s a matter of having someone in your corner who is your advocate.” He organized a campaign to write letters to DeVos asking her to reverse the department’s decision.

Students at the schools affected by the Education Department’s foolish decision deserve to have the same support as Portera.

We sincerely hope the department will realize it has made an error and fully consider these worthy applications.

Correction: This story originally said Salvatore Portera Jr. attended the University of Maine at Fort Kent.


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