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The University of Texas System, UT-Tyler and a $1.7 million broken promise to admitted students

The University of Texas System says it is unable to fix a $1.7 million-a-year problem that arose last month when its Tyler campus abruptly withdrew full-ride scholarship offers to about five dozen international students.

By Nick Anderson, The Washington Post
The University of Texas System building in Austin on Feb. 7, 2018.

The University of Texas System is a leader in public higher education, known globally for its flagship in Austin, seven other academic campuses and six major health institutions.

But the system said Friday it was unable to fix a $1.7 million-a-year problem that arose last month when its campus in the East Texas city of Tyler abruptly withdrew full-ride scholarship offers to about five dozen international students. UT-Tyler said that it had mistakenly made too many offers and could not afford to deliver all of the scholarships it had promised. Most of the admitted students who lost out were from Nepal.

The full rides were worth about $27,000 a year for tuition, fees, room, board and books. For those whose offers were withdrawn, UT-Tyler made a substitute offer of $5,000 a year in merit scholarships, and it offered to give them the in-state discount on tuition. But that still left those students with an estimated bill of more than $10,000 a year.

The withdrawal of scholarships at this point in the year, when colleges are locking in classes and students are finalizing plans, shocked the Nepalis and independent admissions professionals. Some students took to Twitter to share their outrage under the hashtag #uttylervictims.

“I’ve been writing about the ethics of college admission for a long time,” Jim Jump, a veteran college counselor and former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, wrote in Inside Higher Ed. “There are a number of practices I find troubling, even sketchy, but I don’t ever remember an ethical imbroglio this big or this bad.”

Various colleges offered to help after the story broke. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Texas Christian University pledged two full scholarships to affected students, and the State University of New York offered another one a generous aid package for a slot in South Korea.

Which raised the question: Couldn’t the UT system, with all of its resources, come to the rescue of a school that carries the UT brand? The answer — a pained no — came Friday in an emailed statement through system spokeswoman Karen Adler:

“The UT System Administration has been continuously and fully briefed by UT-Tyler and is assured by [UT-Tyler] President Michael Tidwell that significant changes to admissions and operational processes have been remedied to ensure this situation never occurs again,” the statement said. “While that is not much consolation to the international students who put their full faith in us, UT-Tyler continues to do everything in its power to help as many of them as possible, including offering partial scholarships and discounted tuition rates. Because the UT System is an administrative organization we do not have instructional funds for scholarships. We are all deeply sorry for the anguish and hardship this situation has placed on students, and we are profoundly grateful to other universities that have stepped in to offer scholarship support to those who could not otherwise attend UT-Tyler without more financial support.”

The system is led by UT Chancellor William H. McRaven, a retired Navy admiral, who plans to step down at the end of the month. Its total annual operating budget, across all institutions, is $18.3 billion.

According to UT-Tyler, 63 of the full-ride “Presidential Fellows” scholarship offers were withdrawn. Each was worth about $27,000 a year. The total value of the withdrawn scholarships was $1.7 million a year. But given the substitute offer of reduced scholarships and in-state discounts, the amount of additional funding it would take to honor all of the original promises is somewhat less.

UT-Tyler has about 10,000 students, including 7,000 undergraduates. School officials say that UT-Tyler still ended up providing 35 full-ride scholarships this year to international students, including 30 from Nepal. But they acknowledged that is no comfort to those whose plans were undone.

“We are very sorry that this occurred,” Tidwell, the university president, said Friday afternoon in a telephone interview. He called the funding shortfall “a very unfortunate learning situation for us.” He said UT-Tyler believes in the “global impact of higher education” and expanded its merit scholarships initiative this year in an effort to be of service to the international community. He pledged that the school’s financial aid and budget process would be overhauled to guard against a repeat of the problem. “We want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Tidwell said. As president, he said, “I take full responsibility for budgetary oversight.”

Tidwell sought to dispel any impression that UT-Tyler was unconcerned about the plight of the affected students because they come from the other side of the world. “Of course we care about Nepalese students,” he said, noting that the university has attracted a large and growing community of them in recent years. “We love all of our students.”

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