Government

After Outcry Over Rejected Grants, DeVos Forbids Formatting Rules

May 08, 2017

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her department faced public criticism following news reports that the department had flat-out rejected dozens of colleges’ Upward Bound grant applications based on minor line-spacing and font-size errors. Now, Ms. DeVos has issued an order forbidding department officials from mandating any page or formatting rules in grant applications.

The new policy is outlined in a memo, obtained by The Chronicle, that Ms. DeVos sent to top department officials on April 27.

"Effective immediately, program offices may only establish voluntary page limit and formatting requirements for grant applications and may not reject grant applications that do not meet those voluntary requirements," the memo says. "Program offices may suggest page limits and formatting standards (such as font size, line spacing, and the like) but may not use ignoring these suggestions as a basis to reject grant applications."

The memo notes that under department policy prior to April 27, offices had the option of mandating formatting rules. The memo does not specifically address the public outcry over the rejected applications for the Upward Bound grants, but does note that some offices that have chosen to use mandatory formatting and page-limit requirements "have rejected applications that do not meet" those requirements.

Responses to the department’s actions on the Upward Bound grants have not been unanimously negative; some observers have noted that the formatting rules help provide for a more level playing field in considering grant applications.

Meanwhile, members of Congress and advocacy groups for Upward Bound, which provides tutoring and college-preparatory programs for tens of thousands of low-income high-school students, remain unhappy that Ms. DeVos has not taken action on the rejected grants. Last week, 32 House of Representative members added their voices to the chorus with a letter that said the department’s refusal to reconsider applications with minor errors suggests its "priorities are misaligned with its mission."

The letter notes that the secretary of education has authority to reconsider applications. With the next round of Upward Bound grant awards expected within days, the letter also urges the department to hold back an additional $20-million, in addition to funds it typically reserves for applicants that successfully appeal, to also fund some of the applications rejected for formatting reasons.

Ron Hammond, an aide to U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, Republican of Ohio, helped coordinate the letter from the House members. One of the colleges whose grant was rejected, Wittenberg University, is in the congressman’s district.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Hammond noted that the recently adopted budget resolution also included language that directed the department to allow rejected Upward Bound grantees to correct their applications. "President Trump campaigned on ‘Drain the Swamp,’ " said Mr. Hammond. The department’s unwillingness to reconsider the grants "is a great example."

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.