At 10:46 p.m. on the night of Friday, April 13, more than fifty students in Nepal—all of whom had been awarded a full-ride Presidential Fellow Scholarship from the University of Texas at Tyler—received an email from the university’s admissions department with the subject line “URGENT: Please Read…”
The email, according to the students who received it, felt like a bad joke. It explained that the university was having budgetary issues and, “as a result, funds for the Presidential Fellows program are no longer available, and we will not be able to offer you the Presidential Fellows scholarship. We initially thought we could include you as a Fellow this year, but the popularity of the program was far greater than expected.”
The scholarships had been awarded to the students between November and February, and they’d subsequently paid confirmation fees, fees for student visas, and housing deposits. Instead of receiving what they’d been promised, the students were offered the school’s “Tyler Patriot Scholarship,” good for $5,000 a year—less than a quarter of the award they’d originally been promised.
“We understand this is an increase in cost of attendance for you,” the letter went on to say. “Please know the option of a payment plan is available. If you decide not to accept the Patriot Scholarship, we will refund all deposits and fees. The Office of International Programs will contact you with your next steps and information regarding your I-20 (student visa). This offer supersedes and takes the place of all previous scholarship and financial-aid award notifications from UT Tyler.”
The news of UT Tyler’s broken promises to these students has drawn considerable backlash nationwide—one respected higher education publication raised ethical concerns over the school’s actions, and a former lawmaker is promising not to allow the issue to drop. But it has also brought about a wave of compassionate fundraising by several colleges and universities, many of whom are raising scholarship money to bring these international students to their schools and fulfill the commitment that UT Tyler could not.
Receiving this information in April left students with few options. Many universities close their admissions processes for the fall well before April 13 (UT closes its applications on December 1). Some students expressed distrust that, after having the initial offer rescinded for budgetary reasons, the university would actually deliver on the $5,000 it was now promising.
Deceived us at the start of journey,and asking to take the provided insufficient alternative. How to trust aternative now#presidential_fellows#justice#uttyler#uttylervictims@CNN @UTTyler @uttylerpatriots @ScottJaschik @erichoov @willdix55 @wpnick @NACAC @TACAC @JanetLorin pic.twitter.com/aTgvp6ER2Z
— Ankrit Gupta (@AKGupta_07) April 28, 2018
We cannot expect a successful career from that University which is not able to keep their promise at the beginning of our journey. #presidential_fellows#justice#uttyler #uttylervictims#iamagainstthedecisionofuttyler#wewantjustice
— Archana Adhikari (@Archana66617451) April 25, 2018
How can we stay quiet when your assured scholarships are now cancelled?
If the funds were limited, they could have made us wait-listed. A poor administration from @UTTyler @ScottJaschik @erichoov @willdix55 @wpnick @NACAC @TACAC @JanetLorin #iamagainstthedecisionofuttyler pic.twitter.com/xgwQbL1Vah
— Roman Shrestha (@RomanSh44) April 25, 2018
“It’s been much tougher due to the sudden and bizarre situation,” explains Anupa Poudyal, one of the students who’s been left scrambling. Like her fellow college hopefuls from Nepal, she’d paid a confirmation fee to the university that, she learned, didn’t actually confirm her scholarship. “I do not have much funding from my parents to attend a university without getting a genuine scholarship.”
On Monday, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a thorough accounting of what happened, answering a number of crucial questions: How did the university screw this up? Did they only revoke scholarship offers from international students, who have fewer resources and less ability to draw attention to their situation than American students? What does it mean for the University of Texas system if its scholarships can’t be trusted? And, crucially, is anyone going to help students like Poudyal and make it right?
A UT Tyler spokesperson who talked to the Chronicle said that an “oversight” led the school to over-promise scholarships it would be unable to deliver. “We apologize for any inconvenience,” the university said, and offered the students affected a tuition discount in addition to the $5,000 a year—which would still leave the students scrambling to find $10,000 or more each year to attend the university. The Chronicle also discussed the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s ethics code, which it appears UT Tyler didn’t follow at any step in the process—as it bans “confirmation fees” that pressure students to commit early (according to the report, such fees are “unheard of” and “unfathomable” to at least one admissions official). It’s also a violation of the code to withdraw offers made before May 1.
UT Tyler offered the Presidential Fellows Scholarship to a total of 98 international students, and honored only 35 of those offers. More than fifty of those whose awards—which came with an email from university president Michael Tidwell that included the line, “Yes, I’m serious!”—were rescinded were from Nepal, a country whose students had put UT Tyler on their radar after the university “gained a reputation” from positive talk among its current Nepalese students with friends back home, according to the Dallas Morning News.
More than 150 American applicants, meanwhile, will receive the scholarships they were promised. UT Tyler’s vice president for marketing, Lucas Roebuck, told the Chronicle that domestic students are “a completely separate budget priority.”
The fallout could threaten the reputation of the University of Texas system among international students. UT regent and former state senator Kevin Eltife expressed concern to one TV station about those larger implications: “It is a bad reflection of UT Tyler and the UT system and I will definitely be looking into the situation further to find out what happened.”
In the meantime, the Nepalese students are trying to find educational homes at a time when most universities have already committed their scholarships to students who accepted offers they received in the fall. They’ve had some success in that regard, especially as their story has gotten more attention: The University of Akron, in Ohio, put out a call to donors and received enough to offer one of the fifty students a full, four-year scholarship, and they’re not alone—so far, 24 universities in the U.S. and abroad have come up with full or partial scholarships for the stranded students.
It’s an impressive rally, but it still leaves more than half of the students who were offered scholarships looking for help—both for more schools to come forward with offers and for people who learn their story to help out. (They’re launching a GoFundMe campaign in the near future, to help fill the gaps in funding.) And according to Sriya Adhikari, one of the students whose scholarship to UT Tyler was rescinded, that’s the one silver lining in this entire experience: learning that your heart can be broken and filled because of the same experience. “I’ve wanted to study in the United States since I was in the seventh grade. When my scholarship was canceled, I had no hope. Everything was falling apart,” she says. She’s still waiting to find out if a scholarship elsewhere will come through, but she’s hopeful now. “When people started helping us, it was as if God sent an angel to help us out.”