U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will reconsider the University of Montana’s application for its Upward Bound grant — after initially rejecting it and dozens of other colleges’ applications based on minor formatting errors.
UM corrected the error and resubmitted its application.
In testimony Wednesday to the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, the secretary said an additional $50 million appropriation “materially changed our available options.”
“We are going to use those funds, the $50 million, to reconsider those applications that were not considered viable because of the formatting errors. So that is going to be our remedy,” DeVos said in testimony available on C-SPAN.
The decision comes after mounting pressure from members of Congress, including U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines. Tester is co-chair of the TRiO caucus, which advocates for higher education programs serving disadvantaged students.
Over the last couple of months, Tester, D-Mont., repeatedly urged DeVos to consider applications based on the merits, and he said hurting Montana students and families because one page of a grant request wasn’t double-spaced would be “bureaucracy at its very worst.”
Wednesday, Tester said the following in a statement:
“Secretary DeVos’ decision to ignore Montanans has been troubling, but I am pleased that she will reconsider this important grant application.
“Now it is critical that she does not make this mess worse by rejecting the grant. The quicker UM’s grant is approved, the quicker students get the tools they need to succeed.”
Daines, R-Mont., also encouraged the secretary to fix the problem for UM. In a letter to her earlier this week, he said “resolving this issue in a timely fashion is important.”
In the letter, Daines said UM had not been given the chance to fix its error. He also said TRiO college affordability programs had received an additional $50 million, a “substantial increase,” which should give the secretary adequate funding to review affected proposals.
“Denying applications and endangering program funding for minor formatting errors without providing an opportunity for a correction is unacceptable,” Daines said in the letter; he also spoke with DeVos on Tuesday about the grant.
At UM, Upward Bound has been funded to help 75 students. Already, UM has had to shut down its summer program because of the delay.
UM had requested $1.7 million — $340,000 a year from 2017 to 2022 — but the budget page of its application wasn’t double-spaced as required, according to Upward Bound director Twila Old Coyote. She earlier said the budget page was the only one out of 65 pages that wasn’t double-spaced.
Old Coyote could not be reached for comment Wednesday via voicemails.
In her testimony before committee, DeVos said the department attempted to find viable legal remedies to the formatting issue after the grant competition had closed. She also said the process opened and closed before she came on board.
“Let me just say that this issue apparently has been going on through four different secretaries unaddressed,” DeVos said.
At least in recent years, UM has not encountered trouble when submitting its grant applications, according to the university.
Regardless, DeVos said in testimony the department will no longer reject any applications for competitive grants because of formatting: “This is a bureaucratic requirement that we should be rid of now, and we are.”
And, she said that “with regard to this issue — which if you had any idea how much time it has chewn (sic) up internally for us, you would be amazed — but … because of that material change, with the new appropriation, we have found a way to address that particular issue.”
In recent weeks, Tester repeatedly pushed DeVos to review applications based on substance, not spacing. He sent a personal letter to her, signed another letter with Daines and 24 total senators from both major parties urging reconsideration, and supported a federal budget provision that encouraged the secretary to change her stance.
“For over 50 consecutive years, Upward Bound at the University of Montana has helped first generation college students earn their degrees, and that shouldn’t end because of government red tape and an Education Secretary who has a lot to learn about public education,” Tester said in a statement.
A news release from Tester’s office said the secretary’s decision on awards will be made in the coming weeks. The press office from the Department of Education did not immediately know when the agency would make decisions on grant applications.