It was a typo that prevented Fordham University from getting federal funding for a program in existence for over 50 years. At Columbia, it was a spacing error.
For the Upward Bound programs at both universities, 2017 turned out to be a tumultuous year.
The programs, which help low-income high school students navigate the college process and become academically ready, have been caught up in the wheels of Washington politics, which threatens its funding and ability to sustain services for 283 students.
In March, the institutions were two of 77 nationwide that were told their applications for funding were rejected for similar formatting errors, like not double spacing or using the wrong font. Because of clerical errors, the two New York City programs alone lost more than $1.2 million in federal aid. The next round of applications is five years away, and some programs around the nation have said they are at risk of shutting down.
Then the wheels turned again, and $50 million for programs like Upward Bound were included in a recent congressional spending bill. On May 24, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told a congressional subcommittee that in light of the additional funding, she will reconsider the grant applications after all.
But students, parents and program officials said that even if Ms. DeVos comes through with the grant money, they fear the tumult is not over. President Trump’s proposed budget calls for cuts in programs like Upward Bound.
Three New York Congress members who represent districts in Manhattan and the Bronx have teamed up to block any cuts, which they said could harm first-generation students preparing for college.
“Upward Bound is an essential educational resource for some of our most vulnerable students,” said Representative Adriano Espaillat in a news release. He, along with representatives Jerrold Nadler and José E. Serrano, held a news conference May 22 to urge the Education Department to review the denied applications.
Because of “a minor spacing and typographical error,” Mr. Espaillat said at the news conference, students “will be shut out of these invaluable educational services for decades.”
Upward Bound includes free SAT prep; counseling to help with college essays, applications, internship and networking opportunities; and access to courses on a college campus. The program served close to 60,000 students last year nationwide, and had an overall budget of more than $266 million.
For first-generation college students like Shaun Abreu, 26, Upward Bound helped him to get on the track that brought him to law school at Tulane University.
Mr. Abreu, a Washington Heights native, graduated from Columbia’s program. He was born to parents from the Dominican Republic, and when he was in fourth grade, they temporarily split. They were evicted. He was held back.
“That was the worst feeling to this day,” Mr. Abreu said. “I made it my mission to come back and get my mind back on track.”
Through Upward Bound, he said, he was able to build on what he learned in school with the skills needed to succeed in college.
“Programs like Upward Bound fill this void, at the very end, right when we need it most,” Mr. Abreu said.
Joseph Ayala, executive director of the Double Discovery Center at Columbia, which provides services to students in the community, said, “We know this works.” But in early March, Mr. Ayala said, the Education Department sent an email saying Columbia’s funding was rejected because tables and data charts in the application were not double spaced.
Columbia is paying for this year’s summer program while the review of its rejected application is still pending, Mr. Ayala said. Staff members are planning for the arrival of 70 students in the first week of July.
The experience, Mr. Ayala said, gives the students an opportunity to “reinvent their relationship to their own schooling.”
But after the summer, Mr. Ayala said, “Everything is up in the air.”
This is true at Fordham University as well. On a recent Thursday, 47 students and their parents filed into a first-floor auditorium for Upward Bound’s summer orientation.
Donna Piluso, whose 14-year-old daughter, Luna, was just admitted to Upward Bound, said she would hate to see the program disappear.
“All we can do is hope on a community level we can keep the program running,” Ms. Piluso said.
Fordham’s grant ends Aug. 31. It was disqualified because of a typo in the narrative of its funding application, which mistakenly overstated the budget by $72.
Maria Rijos, an associate director of the Upward Bound program for over a decade, said this was the first time since 1983 that the program would be without funding.
“When you’re in a funded program, you’re always prepared for that day, she said. “But for me to walk away, I need a good enough reason. Not $72 on a typo.”
“That’s a hard pill to swallow,” she said.
Ms. Rijos said the program grew to 93 students from its initial 50. Seventy-seven are first-generation students.
The group includes Jacob Morales, 16, who wants to major in graphic design. At orientation, he greeted Ms. Rijos with a kiss on the cheek. “When you cut the budget, you’re cutting someone’s future,” he said.
Jeremy Rosario, 17, is a first-generation student who said he was pushed to his limits in the program.
“I’m the first in my family, all eyes are on me,” he said. Now, he said, “I’ve stepped up.”
Ms. Rijos said the fight for the program is not over. Dabbing her eye with a tissue, she thought about the day she learned the grant was denied. But she is trying to be optimistic.
“Those were the first tears,” Ms. Rijos said. “The next ones will be happy ones.”