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Some College-Access Programs Lose Funding

The Department of Education inspector general is reviewing recent grant awards under two of the federal government’s TRIO college-support programs, upon the request of 15 U.S. senators who claim that departmental errors in the evaluations of existing grantees’ applications caused some college-access programs to lose continued funding.

Some applicants for new Talent Search and Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) grants did not receive enough credit for “prior experience” in the program, the senators said in an Oct. 2 letter to John Higgins Jr., education inspector general. As applicants with prior grants, they may not have received appropriate credit for serving students as well as for the high school graduation and college enrollment of past participants.

“We are deeply concerned about the effect of these apparent mistakes on low-income youth who are in the greatest need of assistance,” the senators wrote. Those signing the letter include a cross-section of Republicans and Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who is leading most Democratic polls for the 2008 presidential election, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; John Cornyn, R-Texas; and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

In a letter to the senators, John P. Higgins Jr. said the Office of Inspector General will “conduct a review of the Department’s process for awarding grants under these programs.”

Under the prior experience rules, an applicant can receive up to 15 points based on their performance under a previous grant, says Susan Trebach, spokeswoman for the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), a Washington, D.C. group that represents many Talent Search and other TRIO programs.

After reviewing grant information provided by the department under the Freedom of Information Act, the COE found errors in the scoring of some proposals. “We felt there were some questionable calculations,” Trebach says.

The scoring may have had a significant impact on 12 to 15 applications. “Their scores were so close that if points were awarded properly, they would have received the grant,” she says.

Among those denied grant renewal was Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., which had an EOC grant serving 1,000 non-traditional students over the age of 19. Some of these students had been in prison and others had been laid off from their jobs, says Lewis Shepherd, assistant to the president for special programs.

In its previous EOC grant, the college pledged to enroll at least 75 percent of college-ready students in post-secondary education. “We had a very ambitious post-secondary goal when the proposal was written, and we achieved it,” Shepherd says. But the college was denied prior experience points because some students who enrolled in college were not new to post-secondary education, having entered and dropped out previously.

“We lost a program because of this,” he says. “We were shocked when we learned we were not funded.”

In their letter, the senators said the department “did not follow its own regulations” on the 2006 competition. “In assessing prior experience for the 2006 grant round, it appears that the department used a higher, and seemingly erroneous, baseline number for the calculation of prior experience points,” the lawmakers said.

Others signing on to the document included Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and John Sununu, R-N.H.

Talent Search provides counseling, scholarships and college information for students in sixth through 12th grades who come from low-income families where neither parent has graduated from college. EOCs mainly serve displaced and underemployed low-income workers to steer them toward higher education.

The competition is the latest flashpoint among members of Congress, COE and the department on TRIO issues. Advocates for students have urged Congress to invalidate new rules on program operation and student enrollment within Upward Bound, another TRIO college awareness and support program.

In the recent College Cost Reduction Act, Congress approved Upward Bound grant funding for 187 additional colleges and universities, including many historically Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions. COE and university officials had complained that the schools were unfairly denied funding under flawed grant criteria. President Bush ultimately signed the bill, which included an additional $57 million to cover these new awards.

–Charles Dervarics

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