Lessons From the UT Tyler Scandal

The scandal concerning students from Nepal should prompt a long-overdue conversation about institutional priorities surrounding international students in higher education, write Laura A. Kaub and James Linville.

July 16, 2018

In a widely covered and surreal sequence of events this year, the University of Texas at Tyler offered scholarships to over 60 Nepalese students and then revoked them as the students were preparing to arrive on campus, having already committed to attend.

Students like these young men and women from Nepal are often referred to in the international admissions field as “HALI,” short for high achieving, low income. Thousands of HALI students from around the world apply each year to attend a college or university in the United States and compete for a small -- and shrinking -- pool of financial aid available to international students.

Some are fleeing war or disaster; others apply with refugee papers; many hope to become the first in their family to attend college. All offer unique and inspiring perspectives to any college they attend, often standing out academically simply because the education means more to them as the only path of opportunity they see to a brighter future.

For these HALI students, the gap between being offered a scholarship and not is enormous -- an American higher education has the potential to change the lives of their families and communities. Each acceptance is a victory, making UT Tyler’s decision to revoke the Nepalese full scholarships all the more discouraging.

Fortunately, a team of college counselors stepped up to help, led by Joan Liu, university adviser at the UWC Southeast Asia and former chair of the International ACAC’s Inclusion, Access and Success Committee, and Selena Malla, EducationUSA adviser in Kathmandu. As a result, many of the Nepalese students have been offered funded opportunities to begin their studies elsewhere later this year. And in only two months, more than 20 colleges and universities that typically do not offer full financial aid have offered it to these Nepalese students.

Even as this nightmare ends for some of the Nepalese students, the scandal has raised serious issues in admissions beyond the fact that UT Tyler acted improperly. If there is a silver lining to come from what has happened, it will be that the admissions field is forced into conversations that have typically been uncomfortable, and learns important lessons as a result.

First, let’s acknowledge that it isn’t just xenophobic rhetoric from Washington that has led international students to look outside the United States for higher education in recent years. Institutional policy also plays a part. Among the universities that have stepped up to accept the Nepalese students in limbo are colleges in Canada, Qatar and South Korea. Over the next few decades, the U.S. will face stiff competition from colleges and universities in other countries, and we need to send a better message than what happened here.

One way of doing so is by increasing the funding level for international student financial aid. If the scholarships that have been opened to support these Nepalese students continue to be available in future years, that would be the start of a meaningful change. But the fact that a group of universities has found money at short notice to offer scholarships suggests that other institutions could as well, especially with good planning. Doing so might require shifting money away from student amenities such as athletic complexes or fancy new dorms, but what has happened at UT Tyler needs to provoke a serious conversation about these spending priorities. It shouldn't require an emergency situation to accept students for whom receiving a scholarship is already a life-altering opportunity.

It might not even require large sums of money -- for many HALI students, the difference between being able to enroll and having to stay at home is a few thousand dollars. Some students don’t attend U.S. universities because, even though they receive generous financial aid, their family can’t afford the enrollment costs, including a plane ticket to campus. All institutions, whether they already offer full scholarships or not, should be examining their policies to determine how they can make themselves more accessible.

There are also many smaller ways for North American colleges and universities to reach out to HALI students, and even admissions representatives who have worked in the field for decades are often surprised by the small but meaningful adjustments that can make their universities accessible. During the application process, they can offer fee waivers to HALI students and accept unofficial standardized test scores directly from their advisers so that students do not have to pay for submission, with official results only being used after admission to verify. Or they can drop the standardized testing requirement as a whole, since this requirement disadvantages HALI students, who often lack access to prep materials and test centers, or don’t have access to a credit card to pay test-registration fees.

On campus, universities can offer loans small enough to be paid back during a student’s enrollment and give students information about the ways in which their scholarship will be taxed, since those taxes will add to their cost of attending.

Finally, we can strengthen advocacy on both sides of the desk. Large member-driven organizations in admissions and international education have the power -- and therefore the responsibility -- to speak up for policy reforms, and to hold their members accountable when they do something seriously wrong. They have an interest in doing so as well, as the shame of UT Tyler’s decision reflects poorly on American higher education as a whole.

On the other side, secondary schools and organizations should be raising awareness about what their students have to offer to universities willing to commit to funding them. Groups like the HALI Access Network, an association of nonprofit college access organizations across Africa, can serve as a resource for universities looking to bring more international students to their campuses.

There is work to be done, but the resources and the stakeholders are all there -- the only question is whether we also have the will to bring about change.

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Laura A. Kaub is chair of the HALI Access Network. James Linville is chair of the Advocacy Committee of the HALI Access Network.

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