Upward Bound remains on the financial ropes and at risk of shuttering at the University of Montana and around the country despite calls this month from lawmakers to keep the college preparation program for disadvantaged students alive.
The U.S. Department of Education, which funds Upward Bound, ruled some programs ineligible for funding for the next five years, but it estimated the decision affects only 5 percent of the grant applications.
Elle Cook, an Upward Bound student at UM, is among those affected. Last week, Cook said she probably wouldn't be enrolled in college at all if it weren't for the program, and she definitely wouldn't be a pharmacy student.
Cook grew up with a single father in Missoula and without a lot of money. The summer before she started high school, she learned about Upward Bound, a college preparation program.
She applied and got accepted, and she credits the program with not only her ability to enroll in college, but her success. Cook, who will be a first-generation college graduate, earned a scholarship she wouldn't even have known to apply for were it not for Upward Bound, and she came out of her shell.
"I was really shy when I was growing up," said Cook, technically a senior and first-year pharmacy student at UM. "And before attending the program, I felt like I couldn't relate to anyone because I was low income, and I never would have been able to go to college without Upward Bound, without the knowledge they gave us."
But some Upward Bound programs are on the chopping block, in Montana and around the country.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education found dozens of grant applications from Upward Bound programs across the nation ineligible for funding because of formatting errors.
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 said the budget page was the only one out of 65 pages that wasn't double-spaced.
In an email, U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Elizabeth Hill said the agency received 1,592 grant applications. Of those, 1,222 were accepted for review, and 77, or 5 percent, were rejected "due to formatting guidelines issued by the previous administration," she said.
"This will not happen again," said Hill in a statement provided by a press officer. "The Secretary (Betsy DeVos) shares in the frustration of those rejected for not following formatting guidelines and has issued a new Department-wide policy that program offices may not reject grant applications based on simple formatting issues.
"Needless red-tape should never interfere with helping students.”
As of Friday afternoon, the department had not responded to a question as to whether it would reconsider applications that had been reformatted and resubmitted — or whether an appeals process was in place.
However, the decision from the department has Republican and Democratic congressional leaders alike, including U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines of Montana, urging Secretary of Education DeVos to reconsider — noting the long-term impacts on low-income families as well as the significant challenge created by the "arbitrary" criteria.
Tester said the worst part of the problem is that the decision runs contrary to the promise President Donald Trump made to clean up Washington, D.C.
The government is facing major challenges, such as its relationship with North Korea and providing services for military veterans, and Tester said the secretary of education is only adding to the trouble.
"They're not solving a problem," said Tester, a Montana Democrat. "They're creating another problem."
Earlier this month, elected leaders, including Tester and the bipartisan delegation from Maine, sent letters to Secretary DeVos arguing she should reconsider applications based on their substance rather than on "minor" formatting mistakes.
In their letter, the delegation from Maine identified 960 high school students at risk of being denied the opportunity to fulfill their academic potential because of formatting criteria "not mandated by Congress."
"They are arbitrarily drawn, entirely unrelated to the substance of the application, and do not provide any recourse for applicants to correct minor, unintentional, non-substantive mistakes," said the letter on behalf of the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI).
Signing the correspondence were Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican; Sen. Angus King Jr., an Independent; Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican; and Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat. Tester and Collins serve as co-chairs of the TRiO caucus, which advocates for higher education programs serving disadvantaged students.
The Maine delegation wrote that the department's "inflexible and bureaucratic decision could result in the elimination of a long-standing, successful and greatly needed program."
"We strongly urge the department to apply some common sense to the Upward Bound Program competition and read and score UMPI's applications," the letter said.
Friday, Tester, Collins, Montana Republican Daines and 22 other senators sent another letter to the secretary, arguing thousands of students could be denied a chance at higher education. The senators implored the department to evaluate the applications based on content.
The letter also noted the department employs different guidelines for various grants, and it described the inconsistency as "confusing and unhelpful."
"We look forward to working with you to break down the barriers facing our neediest students and to promote greater college accessibility and success," said the letter. "We would appreciate your prompt attention to this request."
Tester, who described the decision if it stands as "an example of bureaucracy at its very worst," said the department rejected applications "for all bogus reasons."
"There are few things that really get my blood boiling, but when somebody directly hurts Montanans intentionally, that gets my blood boiling," Tester said. "This is a direct assault on the next generation of leaders in this country."
Upward Bound helps people get out of poverty, and the department's final decision will affect the next generation, he said. At UM, the program is currently funded to serve 75 students, and the senator said that's 75 families who will be affected in 10 years.
Yet the programs have bipartisan support because results are clear, Tester said. For example, an estimated 75 percent of Upward Bound students enroll in college compared to only 27 percent of students from similar backgrounds nationwide.
"This is the country where dreams are made," Tester said. " ... If you're poor, this country will help get you out of poverty."
In his own letter to DeVos earlier this month, Tester called on the secretary to accept UM's application for funds, and he noted its successes, including a "near 100 percent" high school graduation rate.
On the other hand, he said the president’s budget cuts $92 million from TRiO, a 10 percent reduction. And he said the secretary's "unconscionable" rejection that harms students because of a minor spacing issue is exactly the reason people hate government.
"You get a bull-manure response — I'll be kind — to a bona fide application," Tester said.
The confirmation of DeVos split senators 50-50, and the vice president broke the tie, a first for a confirmation. Tester opposed DeVos, and he said the "travesty" with Upward Bound confirms his vote against her was correct.
"This lady does not support education. She doesn't support public education. She doesn't support programs that help kids go to school," he said.
Twila Old Coyote, Upward Bound's director at UM, said the double-space requirement was a new standard from the agency.
UM reformatted and resubmitted its application, and it is awaiting a response from the department, although this summer's program is already canceled.
Since the program started at UM 50 years ago, Old Coyote said it has been a feeder for the campus, responsible for some 200 students' enrollment since 1995, the year it started tracking that data.
Cook is among those students, and she said her brother benefited from Upward Bound too, as he's also considering college, something he wasn't interested in before. She said she loves advocating for the program, and she credited it with teaching her about scholarships, loans, budgeting and more.
"I knew that college would be possible through attending the program," Cook said.
As part of Upward Bound, high school students spend part of their summers living on campus and taking classes. The immersion introduces students who would otherwise be unfamiliar with a university to the college experience, Old Coyote said.
The program helps disadvantaged students, including Native American students, those with disabilities, and those whose parents did not go to college. An estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of incoming freshmen are first-generation college students, according to Old Coyote.
Old Coyote said Gov. Steve Bullock also has advocated for the Upward Bound grant to the U.S. Department of Education. Daines' office is helping UM work with the federal agency; Bullock's office did not respond to an email from the Missoulian about Upward Bound.
An Upward Bound program director from Ohio told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he visited with Linda Byrd-Johnson, acting deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs. Program director Eddie Chambers told the Chronicle the conversation was "gracious."
"But in the end, she told me, ‘A rule is a rule.’ She told me, ‘Eddie, I too have to abide by the rules.’"
Tester, who sent his initial letter to DeVos more than three weeks ago and followed up Friday, said he has received no official response from the agency.
"We've been told on the back channels that they weren't going to do anything," Tester said. "But we're going to continue to push them."