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Maine Delegation Challenges Department of Education Decision to Deny Funding to UMaine Farmington College Prep Program

In rejecting GEAR UP Maine’s application for the first time in 22 years, Education Department may have violated the law ? GEAR UP Maine has served more than 29,000 low-income Maine students but now lacks funding to continue

WASHINGTON — Maine’s congressional delegation today challenged the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to reject the University of Maine Farmington’s application for a renewed Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant. GEAR UP Maine, run by UMaine Farmington and Syntiro, has helped prepare Maine students for college since 1999, including 29,000 students served since 2007. This decision leaves GEAR UP Maine with no further funding to continue its program.

As part of their letter, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Senator Angus King (I-ME), Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (ME-01), and Congressman Jared Golden (ME-02) highlighted a legal requirement to prioritize GEAR UP Maine as an established state program. The Department of Education appears to have violated statutory requirements in awarding funding to a non-established state program. 

“We are writing to express our concern about the Department of Education’s rejection of the University of Maine at Farmington’s (UMF) fiscal year 2021 application for funding for its Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) state program, leaving Maine as one of seven states with no further GEAR UP funding moving forward,” wrote the members of Congress. “Specifically, we are troubled by indications that, in its award decisions, the Department appeared to depart from its statutory requirements. While it is the Department’s job to decide which program applications to fund, the Department must do so in the manner required by law.”

The Department of Education has not provided a justification for why it didn’t prioritize GEAR UP Maine over a non-established state program, or why the Department awarded less than 40 percent of the state awards and award funding it had estimated for this year. Next year would be the first year since the program’s founding in 1999 that it could not serve more Maine students.

GEAR UP Maine has prepared economically disadvantaged students in Maine for college by providing tutoring, mentoring, academic and career counseling, and exposure to college campuses. Many of the participants of the program go on to earn college scholarships. The program’s seven-year grants allowed it to follow cohorts of seventh graders through the first year of their post-secondary experience.

“As part of our commitment to supporting the success of all students —especially those who are from rural communities, the first in their families to pursue postsecondary education or otherwise historically underserved—the University of Maine at Farmington has been proud to partner in the delivery of the GEAR UP program since 1999. In that time, GEAR UP has transformed the futures of thousands of Maine students by raising their aspirations and preparing them to affordably attend and complete college,” said UMaine Farmington President Edward Serna. “On behalf of the 6,500 students GEAR UP planned to serve over the next seven years in some of the state’s most economically disadvantaged districts, we thank Senators Collins and King and Representatives Pingree and Golden for their leadership in inquiring about the apparent inconsistencies in the U.S. Department of Education's process and ensuring we have a fair shot at helping more of Maine’s young people reach their full potential through this proven program.”

“When I think of the many benefits that Woodland Junior and Senior High School students have received because of GEAR UP, I tear up because as the guidance counselor for grades preK-12 (over 350 students), I cannot do it all and GEAR UP helped to fill those holes,” said Baileyville Schools Guidance Counselor Janice E. Rice. “The thought of not having GEAR UP saddens me as we are one school that embraced all that GEAR UP had to offer our students and our students benefited greatly.”

“GEAR UP has helped me so much this past year and I will forever be thankful for them. I had so many fears and questions about college that I didn't know who to ask. Then, GEAR UP showed up at my school and answered all of them and more,” said Nicholas DiBuono, a GEAR UP Scholar from Woodland High School and a Loring Job Corps Student. “They believed in us when we didn't believe in ourselves. GEAR UP is there when you need them the most, they are just a text, call or email away and they are willing to help you in any way they can. We need GEAR UP to continue to be a thing for as long as it can so it can continue helping generations to come. Please keep GEAR UP running for us, students, we need it more than you’ll ever know.”

“I’ve been part of GEAR UP for many years, and the people I’ve been able to meet because of this program are invaluable,” said Antonio Gomez, a GEAR UP Scholar from Caribou High School and a first year student at University of Southern Maine. “I hope they can continue to give mentorship and financial aid to those who need the extra help.”

Read a copy of the letter here.

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