This is the time of year when some colleges find that more admitted applicants than they expected have accepted admissions offers. Generally this is viewed as a good problem to have -- even if it means that some double rooms must be converted to triples. The norm is to find a way to deal with the accepted applicants. When the University of California, Irvine, last year found itself with about 800 unexpected freshmen and tried to revoke some admissions offers, an uproar prompted a reversal of that approach.
But in the last week, the way a university has dealt with its own mistake -- offering more scholarships than it budgeted for, and then withdrawing them -- has left admissions experts stunned and angry.
The University of Texas at Tyler found its calculations off for full-ride, four-year fellowships it offered. More fellowships were offered than were in the university's plan, and most of those offered the scholarships said that they planned to arrive at Tyler in the fall.
The university responded by revoking between 50 and 60 such scholarships, even though students are being informed long after many of them committed to Tyler and abandoned other college options. Adding to the turmoil for these students is that most of them are from Nepal, so they were obtaining their student visas on the basis of attending a college that many no longer consider to be within reach. The university declined to confirm that all of those who had scholarships revoked were international students, but said that no Texans had scholarships taken away.
As word about what has happened has spread in recent days, many admissions leaders say they view UT Tyler's actions as unethical. Further, they note that the students from Nepal are taking to social media to tell their stories, and that others may now view offers from American colleges and universities as something other than trustworthy. As that view spreads, many American colleges could feel an impact.
Admissions officials say they are simply stunned by UT Tyler's decision.
"What happened on one level is understandable, as almost every U.S. campus is coping with enrollment and budget headaches, including negative reactions from potential international students to recent U.S. rhetoric and policy shifts," said Jonathan Burdick, vice provost for enrollment initiatives and dean of college admission at the University of Rochester. But, he added, "In this climate, pulling the rug out from 45 students who have worked their butts off to be prepared for study in a U.S. college is criminal." (About 45 Nepalese students have identified themselves as among those whose scholarships were revoked.)
Burdick said, "The buck should stop with the officials who made the offers to figure out how to honor them. If not, there should be accountability at a higher, systemwide level."
Rochester enrolls some students from Nepal, he added, and many need aid. "They are costly on average but also excellent. Their peers benefit from knowing them."
Some admissions counselors who work with international students said Tyler's decision is already leading to questions that they can't answer from prospective students considering applying to American colleges.
Many colleges, of course, have different policies for international and domestic students, or for in-state and out-of-state students. But these policies are public and do not involve revoking a pledged offer of a scholarship.
The value of the revoked scholarships is just over $27,000 a year for a non-Texas student.
UT Tyler has offered the students whose scholarships have been revoked a $5,000-a-year scholarship and in-state tuition rates for which they would normally not be eligible. The university also has offered refunds on any fees already paid by the scholarship winners who now cannot afford to or do not want to enroll.
Lucas Roebuck, vice president for marketing and chief communications officer at UT Tyler, said that the university never expected to have as many applicants from Nepal as it attracted. Historically, he said, the university has had a handful of Nepalese students. When plans for the new full-ride scholarships were announced, the current students apparently reached out to friends and family members at home, encouraging them to apply.
Tyler didn't have to admit all of them, and the university reviewed applications individually. "We made a mistake," he said, blaming the admissions decisions on "an administrative oversight."
The university is honoring 184 full-scholarship offers, including 35 to students from outside the United States. This is the first year that the university has offered the full scholarship program.
"We regret this. It is unfortunate, and it has a real impact," Roebuck said.
He said, "We have budget realities," so the university was forced to reconsider the scholarship commitments when it realized the number that had been awarded. He said the awards being honored already exceed budget plans, but Tyler cannot afford to go beyond that.
Asked if the lesser scholarship and the refunds were enough to compensate students who were led to believe that they could count on UT Tyler, he said, "All I can say is that we are very regretful. We took a very hard look at our budget options."
And asked if it was legal to revoke a scholarship offer that students accepted in good faith, Roebuck said, "We would not do anything that was illegal."
Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said via email that he could not comment on the situation at UT Tyler.
In general, however, he said that his association has "several ethical principles detailing expectations that financial aid administrators manifest the highest levels of integrity and dealing with parents and students in a way that merits trust, which includes abiding by commitments made to students and parents."
Joan Liu, university adviser at United World College of South East Asia, in Singapore ("college" in the name refers to what in the U.S. would be a precollege school), said via email that the situation cannot be treated as just another budget glitch.
"UT Tyler's actions perpetuate the growing perception that U.S. universities do not welcome international students. UT Tyler's decision to cancel full scholarships may jeopardize the entire admissions profession," she said.
The students who saw scholarships disappear are being forced into "a new version of the admissions Hunger Games, where kids will be forced to compete against each other if any last-minute opportunities come up."
Added Liu, "The timing, scope and damage done to international students by a U.S. institution is unprecedented. It cannot be overstated how remarkable this is."