The University of Akron is facing accusations it pulled a bait-and-switch on perhaps hundreds of its scholarship students.
Officials at Akron, a 27,000-student public institution in Ohio, wanted to free up financial aid money to go after students in the competitive northeastern Ohio market. To do so, they decided to stop converting university-backed scholarships into cash awards to students, starting this fall.
In the past, the university has given students cash refunds if they were able to cover tuition and other expenses, including on-campus housing and meals, without using all their university-backed award money. This affects top students who received significant scholarships from elsewhere, including organizations such as the Lions Club.
Last fall, about 923 students received an average of $1,900 in cash back from Akron because the students had university scholarship money left over after they covered their expenses. (The figure includes federal Pell Grant recipients and Pell money, but Akron officials were unable to say how much was Pell money versus Akron’s own. Refunds of Pell money will continue unchanged.)
Now, students argue in a petition  that Akron is “failing to follow through” on offers it made the students when they enrolled.
While the aid restriction itself is not unusual, there remains a question about how Akron handled its change – which obviously caught students by surprise.
Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said that when the association lobbies about changes to federal aid policy, it always seeks to make any changes affect only new borrowers. That’s so that existing students' expectations about existing policies can be met.
“The ideal," Draeger said, "is that schools would adhere to that same standard. The financial reality of what goes on on campuses may not make that feasible.”
The student petition, signed so far by about 580 people, says scholarship recipients worked hard in high school for the money and then chose to attend Akron because of the scholarship offers.
“They qualified, they were promised an amount, and they continue to work hard in order to maintain those scholarships,” the petition says. “Now that they may not receive that full amount, they will be asking themselves, ‘Was all my hard work in vain?’ ”
The university argues it has found a more equitable way to distribute money to students. University officials point out students can still use up all or at least most of the scholarship money, as long as it's done on campus, by living on campus or buying campus meal plans. Some students, however, had been counting on the refund to help pay for off-campus expenses, including housing, according to the petition.
Akron's lawyers looked over the changes. University officials said students are never guaranteed the same scholarship amounts from year to year, or assured a refund.
“To characterize it as a promise that is undelivered would be inaccurate and inappropriate,” said an Akron spokeswoman, Eileen Korey.
The university also said it gave students plenty of notice in late February. The student petition notes that this mention was brief .
Akron officials said a minority of the students -- about 15 percent – who received cash refunds are students who also received free tuition because their parents are university employees. The students also qualified for university-backed merit scholarships of up to $9,500.
These students could get a refund of more than $8,000 to spend on whatever they liked, including off-campus housing. Before students were first notified about the change by the university, Akron’s executive vice president for student success, Jim Tressel, told full-time employees about the change, because it would affect their children attending the university. Tressel is soon leaving to be president of Youngstown State University.
Korey said the decision to restrict the use of university-backed aid to campus expenses came amid a change in philosophy over financial aid.
“We feel that the scholarship program and scholarship policy was designed to give an increasing number of meritorious students the opportunity to attend University of Akron,” she said.
The changes are expected to save up to $1.7 million that had been refunded for use elsewhere. The university is also capping its top award at $9,500 for incoming students, down from $10,500 in years past.
So far, the strategy may be seeing some results: 2,063 scholarship students have paid their deposits to Akron so far this year, up from 1,760 at this time in 2013.
Despite drawing the ire of some students, the policy has found support among some in the community.
“Of course, these children earned their scholarship money,” one Ohioan wrote the Akron city newspaper . “But education is not a job that pays you an extra $10,000 a year.”