Missoulian: Upward Bound funding appears to sill be in limbo

Grant money for a college preparation program that helps people from low-income families appears to still be in limbo.

In March, the U.S. Department of Education ruled some Upward Bound applications, including the one from the University of Montana, ineligible for funding due to minor formatting errors. For example, UM failed to double-space one page, the budget page, out of a total of 65 pages.

UM resubmitted its application with correct formatting, and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, has been a leading voice calling on the federal agency to reconsider grant requests based on substance, not spacing. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, also signed a letter of support for Upward Bound.

According to Tester’s office, the government funding bill approved last week includes a provision that requires the department to reconsider applications. Tester is co-chair of the TRiO caucus, which advocates for higher education programs serving disadvantaged students.

“I am pleased this bill holds Secretary (Betsy) DeVos accountable and ensures students in Montana get a shot at success,” Tester said in a statement. “I wish it didn’t take a bill to bring some Montana common sense to Washington. It should only take a pair of $5 reading glasses from Costco.”

This week, a press officer for the U.S. Department of Education did not respond to an email asking if the agency would in fact reconsider applications.

Language in the bill calls for increasing grant awards, and it also identifies the formatting debacle. 

“There is concern that the Department has rejected and made ineligible for review several fiscal year 2017 grant applications based on minor formatting issues,” said the bill. “The Department is strongly encouraged to provide flexibility to such applicants by permitting submission of a corrected application.”

The introduction to the portion of the bill about the Department of Education notes each “agency funded in this Act shall follow the directions set forth.”

Montana press secretary Luke Jackson said Tester hopes DeVos will listen to the 79 senators, both Republicans and Democrats, who agree the applications should be reconsidered.

UM’s Upward Bound program is currently funded to help 75 students, although the summer program is canceled due to the federal agency’s initial rejection of the grant request. In an earlier email, the U.S. Department of Education noted it had rejected only 5 percent of applications due to formatting guidelines.