Upward Bound means more narrative confusion

The Upward Bound deadline passed, but the RFP lingers on in my mind like a foul meal.

The RFP was an extraordinary work of indirection, with 130-something pages of instructions supporting a 72-page narrative (counting “Competitive Priorities”). Upward Bound is one of the Department of Education’s “TRIO” programs—there used to be three: Upward Bound, Educational Opportunity Centers, and Student Supportive Services, but now there are five or six. Another TRIO program, Educational Opportunity Centers (“EOC”), was released last May, and that RFP is particularly close to my heart because I used its “Plan of operation” section to teach my University of Arizona students technical writing. The EOC RFP was also overly long and overly verbose, but its similarity to Upward Bound meant that looking at that proposal would help me with the new one.

It also included a trap, because the Department of Education made subtle but real changes between the way they phrased requirements from one program to the other. For example, under “Project Need” in EOC, the first two major headers said something like, “Low-incomes in the target area” and “High percentage of target area residents with education completion levels below the baccalaureate level.” The UB RFP says, “The income level of families in the target area is low” and “The education attainment level of adults in the target area is low.” So an applicant who applies for both EOC and UB can reuse data—but a straight copy-paste will result in the Department of Education knowing that you’ve done so. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Department of Education does this intentionally, like Van Halen and their legendary M&M Rider:

The rider’s “Munchies” section was where the group made its candy-with-a-caveat request: “M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES).” While the underlined rider entry has often been described as an example of rock excess, the outlandish demand of multimillionaires, the group has said the M&M provision was included to make sure that promoters had actually read its lengthy rider. If brown M&M’s were in the backstage candy bowl, Van Halen surmised that more important aspects of a performance–lighting, staging, security, ticketing–may have been botched by an inattentive promoter.

Van Halen uses brow M&M’s as a signal, and the Department of Education is using section headers the same way. If your section headers are identical to the EOC section heads, your proposal will be thrown out altogether, or at least have its points lowered.

There are other perils stashed in this RFP, too: its writers practically hide the location of the material you’re supposed to respond to. The RFP directs you to page 102, but the actual narrative requirement in the form of the “selection criteria” to which you’re supposed to respond starts on page 70 (of a 132-page RFP). And the narrative section lists “Objectives” on page 71, but you have to be cognizant enough to know that you have to copy the objectives listed on page 93.

Read and tread carefully when preparing to write a grant proposal.

EDIT: A former Department of Education reviewer wrote us to say:

I read with interest your article on Upward Bound grants in which you spoke of “traps” by the Department of Education. You clearly are experienced and are doing a great service for fledgling grants writers. However, I have served as a reader for several TRIO programs, and my experience is that the Department of Education NEVER puts traps in their RFPs. They work very hard to see that readers are fair and generally positive about the grant process. Of course, they also want consistency to keep down on appeals. The reason that I am writing is that you are doing your readers a disservice by making them think that there is a “magic phrase” that might result in acceptance for funding or rejection of a grant. The Department of Education wants writers to address the problems in a straightforward manner and teachers readers to reward clear writing.

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