Reps. Davidson, Davis, Poliquin and Espaillat Lead Coalition Letter to Reverse Education Grant Rejections Due to Minor Errors

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WASHINGTON Ep. Warren Davidson (OH-8), Danny K. Davis (IL-7), Bruce Poliquin (ME-2), and Adriano Espaillat (NY-13) led a coalition of 32 members of the U.S. House of Representatives in a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking to reverse grant rejections based upon minor errors such as double spacing.

Over the past several months, the Department of Education rejected hundreds of Upward Bound grant applications because they did not conform to minor, inconsequential guidelines. The Upward Bound Program assists students from low-income families with SAT/ACT preparation, college applications, securing financial aid for college, tutoring, and more.

The bipartisan coalition of 15 Republicans and 17 Democrats represents the districts of many of the affected universities and colleges.

“By refusing to consider these applications for non-substantive reasons, the Department jeopardizes higher educational attainment for thousands of low-income, at-risk youth and weakens the institutions affected, institutions that play vital roles in the communities we serve,” Davidson, Davis, Poliquin, and Espaillat wrote. “We ask that you allow the institutions excluded for minor errors the opportunity to compete based on the merit of their applications….”

“Excluding students from these critical opportunities solely due to the minutia of the application process rather than to substance is inconsistent with the spirit of the TRIO statute and the mission of the Department,” the Members added. Given the substantial impact that such grants have on their communities and constituents, the Members maintained that minor errors merit an opportunity for remedy or minor penalty for non-substantive mistakes, not complete exclusion from the competition.

The letter was also signed by the following Representatives: Robin Kelly (IL-2), Bill Foster (IL-11), Donald Payne (NJ-10), David Rouzer (NC-7), Jennifer González-Colón (PR-AL), Mike Rogers (AL-3), Bobby L. Rush (IL-1), Cheri Bustos (IL-17), Raja Krishnamoorthi (IL-8), Louie Gohmert (TX-1), Jim Jordan (OH-4), Rodney Davis (IL-13), French Hill (AR-2), José Serrano (NY-15), Daniel W. Lipinski (IL-3), David Kilmer (WA-6), Bradley S. Schneider (IL-10), Cedric Richmond (LA-2), Janice Schakowsky (IL-9), Steve Womack (AR-3), Steve Chabot (OH-1), Mike Quigley (IL-5), Julia Brownley (CA-26), Tom Rice (SC-7), Don Young (AK-AL), Mike Bishop (MI-8), Mike Bost (IL-12), and Chellie Pingree (ME-1)
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The signed letter full text is below:

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

Dear Secretary DeVos:

We write to ask you to help tens of thousands of low-income, first-generation students who will lose access to critical college preparation services without your immediate intervention. Per our conversations with critical stakeholders, the Department of Education (Department) has denied five percent of Upward Bound applications due to minor formatting concerns – such as spacing, font, and format of the file uploaded – and hundreds of other applicants for minor errors that have no bearing on the substance found in the 65 pages submitted by each applicant. As Secretary, you have the authority to reconsider the applications wholly excluded from the Upward Bound award competition (Federal Register, 81 FR 71492). Thus, we ask that you allow the institutions excluded for minor errors the opportunity to compete based on the merit of their applications with the second slate of appealing applicants and that you withhold sufficient funds for this second slate to cover the increased applications. Past Secretaries have exercised similar discretion when problems with grant competitions arose, including with the 2012 Upward Bound competition. Further, we ask that you revise the Department’s grant parameters to ensure that the federal grant-making process has the appropriate flexibility and focus on the substance of an application. Finally, we ask that you review the TRIO grant competitions in the past five years and reinstate the experience points in future grant competitions to institutions denied these benefits by exclusion from consideration due to minor application errors.

Many of the cases brought to us highlight just how small the formatting errors were in the applications. For example, one applicant was denied solely because the title of a chart was 1.5 spaced rather than double spaced. In some cases, the errors were so minor that the applicants could not even identify the problem. Other applications included minor errors (e.g., inconsistent budget numbers) or narrowly exceeded the time deadline due to institutional technical problems. By refusing to consider these applications for non-substantive reasons, the Department jeopardizes higher educational attainment for thousands of low-income, at-risk youth and weakens the institutions affected, institutions that play vital roles in the communities we serve. Many of these institutions have demonstrated histories of excellence with Upward Bound, helping tens of thousands of students with SAT/ACT preparation, college applications, securing financial aid for college, tutoring, and more.

Abject refusal to consider applications with minor errors rather than providing an opportunity for remedy or subtracting a small number of points for such non-substantive mistakes suggests that the Department’s priorities are misaligned with its mission. By equating the quality of an application with non-substantive factors, the Department’s policy inflicts long-term and profound damage on our institutions and communities currently operating Upward Bound programs. In addition to denying important federal resources that support low-income students in college preparation, re-applicants will be seriously disadvantaged in future competitions given that they lose substantial prior experience points.

We understand that numerous colleges and agencies currently operate programs under grants that expire on May 31, 2017. We urge the Department to publish a first slate of successful Upward Bound grantees by May 15, 2017. However, 34 C.F.R. Sec. 645.35(c)(1) requires the Secretary to limit the funds awarded in this slate in order to have funds available for institutions and agencies that are successful in the appeals process outlined in the aforementioned regulation. Therefore, in addition to the funds normally held back, we urge you to use your authority as Secretary to hold back an additional $20,000,000 to fund applications initially-rejected for minor errors as well as appellants.

The competitiveness of our nation is directly tied to the quality of our children’s education. Excluding students from these critical opportunities solely due to the minutia of the application process rather than to substance is inconsistent with the spirit of the TRIO statute and the mission of the Department. Given the timeliness of this matter and the tremendous negative impact that the loss of a federal grant has on students and institutions, we urge you to exercise your statutory authority to reconsider these harmful rejections immediately. A quality education is a fundamental key to success in life, and we hope the Department recognizes its important role in ensuring our children have the best educational opportunities available to them. We appreciate your promptness in addressing this matter and respectfully request a response prior to the Department’s release of the first round of awards.

Respectfully,