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The Rural Maine Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the Betterment Fund.

A college aspirations program for rural Maine students will likely end next year

A college aspiration program that has served thousands of rural Maine students has been denied federal funding and will likely end by next fall.

The GEAR UP Maine program has offered college counseling and career exploration to rural Maine students from middle school through their first year of college.

The program operates on an approximately $3 million budget through a series of federal grants, but the U.S. Department of Education rejected the latest grant application from the University of Maine at Farmington.

Mary Freeman, the program's scholar coach manager, said students could lose out on counseling, campus visits, and assistance paying for small expenses that can keep some college students from finishing their degrees.

"You know, there's a textbook that got put on a syllabus late, and I didn't budget for it, and I don't have the money. We've purchased a textbook," Freeman said. "We've purchased waders for a student in a biology program."

GEAR UP Maine Project Director Debbie Gilmer said the program will continue to operate through next fall for certain students, but has already been forced to lay off staff and wind down many of its services. She worries that the program's absence could further exacerbate resource gaps between urban and rural Maine schools and make it even harder for rural students to stay in school.

"But students not having the support, which we found so incredibly important, for that transition -- that period between high school and college -- is just so critical. That coaching service. We're worried about that," she said.

Maine's congressional delegation is challenging the decision. In a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, all four members of the delegations questioned why funding levels for state GEAR UP programs nationwide were much lower this year than the department initially estimated and whether the department followed proper federal statutes.

"Given the significant negative impact the Department’s decision not to fund GEAR UP Maine will have for students in our state, we are concerned about ways that the Department’s award announcements appear to depart from the program’s statute and request for proposals earlier this year," the letter reads.

The U.S. Department of Education didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.