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$2 mistake costs WVU thousands of federal dollars


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia State University was not the only college in West Virginia to recently lose federal funding for a program that benefits low-income first-generation college students.

A $2 mistake on an application from West Virginia University means the school will lose more than $200,000 to fund its McNair Scholars program, which could mean the end of the 18-year program.

“We have had really good success through the program, and it would really be a shame for it not to be renewed,” said John Bolt, a WVU spokesman.

In years past, the school’s McNair program paired 25 students a year with professors in their respective fields with the goal of encouraging disadvantaged students to pursue graduate school and earn a doctoral degree. Students spent an intensive six weeks during the summer working on a research project and participated in seminars throughout the year.

In 2012, WVU received $219,998 to fund the program for five years. When it came time to reapply, Bolt said schools were instructed by the federal government to request the same amount they had previously received.

WVU rounded up by $2.

The U.S. Department of Education, which awards the money, sent a letter to WVU saying it would not read the application. More than 200 students have gone through the McNair program at WVU since its inception, according to Bolt.

Similarly, a $104 mistake on WVSU’s application for funding of another program lost the school about half a million dollars, ending the 50-year Upward Bound program. Like McNair Scholars, Upward Bound encourages low-income students to go to college. Most of Upward Bound’s participants go on to become the first in their family to earn a college degree.

‘A travesty and it’s an injustice’

Barbara Cary was in the first class of Upward Bound students when the program launched nationwide in the 1960s. President Lyndon B. Johnson heralded the program’s creation during his War on Poverty. Cary was accepted to the newly minted program at Concord College, known now as Concord University.

“I was raised by a single mother with 10 children,” Cary said. “Because of Upward Bound, I went to college education levels the playing field. If we can get poor kids, first-generation kids, to get a quality education, they can change and break the cycle of poverty. It was the folks at Upward Bound that told me it didn’t matter where I was from, it mattered where I wanted to go.”

As a way of paying back the help Cary received, she went on to become a teacher and a tutor for the Upward Bound program. Now she heads WVSU’s Upward Bound program.

Cary said what drives her work is hearing the stories of students like Makayla Swayne.

At 18 years old and a recent graduate of South Charleston High School, Swayne is getting ready to head off to college in the fall. When she starts her first semester at Marshall University, she’ll walk in with 28 hours of credit — equivalent to about a full year of classes — which she earned for free through Upward Bound.

That will make becoming a pharmacist, as she plans to do, a quicker journey. A quicker journey through college likely means graduating with less student debt.

“Upward Bound has exposed me to so many things that I never thought I could do myself,” Swayne said.

Upward Bound is one of a handful of federal grant programs that aim to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds go to college and succeed. Collectively, they are known as TRIO programs. Angie Holley, president of West Virginia’s TRIO association, said the group of programs are vital to educating the state’s youth.

In West Virginia, a little more than half of all low-income students go to college, but about 82 percent of low-income students involved in TRIO programs do, according to a recent report by Holley’s association. Of those who do go to college, low-income students involved with TRIO have a 20 percent greater chance of earning a degree than their low-income peers who weren’t involved.

Students involved with WVSU’s Upward Bound program received year-round support. During the school year, students got extra tutoring twice a month. When summer came around, students spent six weeks on the Institute campus taking college courses for free. That gave students a head start on completing a degree and helped them acclimate to what college would be like.

WVSU has two Upward Bound programs — the classic program, which served 110 students and has since been defunded, and a much smaller program that focuses on math and science. Funding for the smaller math and science program was not defunded, according to Cary.

“Not only is this decision affecting the students, it’s affecting their children, because we’re talking about a generation,” Cary said. “If we have students who go to college, their kids are going to go to college. Our kids are not able to thrive merely because they don’t have support.

“It’s a travesty, and it’s an injustice.”

DeVos won’t reconsider

WVU is trying to appeal the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to not read its application for funding, Bolt said. The school has also reached out to the state’s congressional delegation to see if they can pressure the department and its secretary, Betsy DeVos, to reconsider.

Officials at WVSU are holding on to hope that DeVos will change her mind.

Last week, DeVos appeared before an appropriations committee where Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., questioned her about the department’s budget. Capito specifically asked DeVos if her department could reconsider WVSU’s application, considering it was denied funds because of a small $104 clerical mistake.

DeVos said she would not reconsider WVSU’s application. WVU’s application was not discussed.

“I don’t accept that you can’t re-look at something,” Capito said during the committee meeting. “I’ve got letters here from students that are in that program. Many of them, the students that have no options. They have parents that haven’t gone to college.”

In April, 44 Upward Bound programs across the country were denied funding, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, many for problems with the formatting of their applications — like double spacing certain sections of the 65-page application when it should have been single-spaced or for using the incorrect font.

WVSU was one of four colleges in that group that were denied funding because the amount the school requested on the application form was slightly different than the amount mentioned on a supporting written document that went along with the application.

DeVos told Capito during the hearing that, after Congress recently passed an omnibus bill, she had the authority to reconsider applications that were denied because of formatting errors, but not for clerical mistakes like WVSU had.

President Donald Trump’s budget proposal would cut funding for several federal programs, including TRIO, that help low-income students pay for college. Higher education leaders in West Virginia previously said these programs are crucial to students’ ability to pay for school.

Trump’s budget would cut the Education Department’s budget by about 13.5 percent overall and would cut about 10 percent of the funding for TRIO.

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