HELENA, Mont. — Dozens of universities and organizations that applied for federal grants to help young people from poor families prepare for college were turned down by the U.S. Education Department because of mistakes that consisted mostly of incorrect margins, the wrong font or lack of double-spacing.
The rejections have triggered an outcry from members of both parties on Capitol Hill and thrown into jeopardy programs that help thousands of high school students a year.
Amid the uproar, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a memo late last month saying requests for grants from the federally funded Upward Bound program will no longer be rejected over “formatting” errors in the 65-page application. But congressional aides told The Associated Press that DeVos’ staff informed them last week that the applications turned down in March will not be revisited.
The department did not respond to a request from the AP for confirmation.
“This is the kind of bureaucracy that President Trump ran against,” said Ron Hammond, an aide to Republican Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio, whose district includes Wittenberg University, one of the schools affected.
The next round of applications won’t be held for another five years, and some of the affected schools and groups say their Upward Bound programs may have to shut down.
More than 62,000 high school students around the country receive services from Upward Bound, which seeks to inspire low-income, first-generation and rural students to attend college.
The program puts students on an academic track for college, includes summer programs that give them a taste of campus life, and arranges visits to schools. Students can receive tutoring along with career advice and help in applying to colleges and obtaining scholarships and other financial aid.
The Education Department says 86 percent of Upward Bound students who graduated from high school in the spring of 2014 enrolled in college that fall.
The department issued $263 million in Upward Bound grants in fiscal year 2015. Many of the schools whose applications were rejected were seeking a few hundred thousand dollars per year.
The department this time received 1,592 grant applications for the five-year grants and accepted 1,222 for review. Seventy-seven of those were rejected for violating what the agency said were formatting guidelines established under the Obama administration.
The denials caught college administrators off guard.
“Most of them involved people who had put 1½ spaces instead of double-spacing between the lines,” said Kimberly Jones, a spokeswoman for the Council for Opportunity in Education, which provides guidance in administering the grants. “It was such a high volume of folks who contacted us, we realized something a little out of the ordinary was going on.”
Jones said the number rejected this time for formatting errors was many times higher than in previous years.
The spending bill that Congress passed and the president signed last week included language encouraging the department to reconsider. A quarter of all senators signed a letter to DeVos calling on her to reverse the rejections, as did about 30 members of the House.
The grant denials are “a clear example of the harm that results from inflexible, bureaucratic procedures,” and allowing applicants to submit corrected applications “could prevent this absurd result,” the senators wrote.
The University of Montana said it has canceled its six-week campus summer program for 55 students this year. The program has been in existence for 50 years, and among the students it serves are those from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Other applicants that were rejected included Michigan State University, the University of Maine at Presque Isle, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the University of Chicago, Davidson’s office said.
In Montana, Uriah Birchmier is finishing up his last weeks of high school and preparing to enroll at Montana State University to study chemical engineering. Raised by a single mother who didn’t go to college, he said he doubts he or his two older siblings, who attend the University of Montana, would have considered college without the federal program.
“I don’t think it was ever really something that we thought about,” said Birchmier, a senior at Helena High School. “And then with Upward Bound coming and talking to my brother initially, that’s what really opened our eyes to ‘This is something we can do and this is something that we should strive for.'”