A University in Texas Promised Full Scholarships to Dozens of Nepalese Students. Months Later, It Revoked the Offer.
By Eric Hoover APRIL 29, 2018
At first, Roshan Poudel thought maybe a friend was pranking him. The email he received in mid-April seemed too awful to be true. But, no, it was real: The University of Texas at Tyler had revoked the full scholarship it promised him in January.
The message, sent from the other side of the world, left Poudel confused — and furious. “Due to extraordinary demand,” the email said, “our scholarship requests exceeded the amount budgeted for this year. … We will not be able to offer you the Presidential Fellows scholarship.” Just like that, his ticket to college was gone.
Poudel, who lives in Pokhara, Nepal, soon learned that he wasn’t alone. Tyler had delivered the very same news to 50 Nepalese applicants, all of whom were offered the same full-ride scholarship months earlier. Nearly all of them had declared their intention to enroll at the university this fall by paying a deposit.
None, it seemed, could afford to attend without the generous aid package they had been counting on. Many had already taken a gap year since graduating from high school to apply to American colleges. Some had turned down other offers or withdrawn applications from other institutions.
As April slipped away, students in Kathmandu and Chitwan, Gulmi and Nawalparasi, were scrambling to find other options. Poudel spent the past week in front of his laptop, looking for colleges, flooding social media with pleas for help. In an interview with The Chroniclelate Saturday night, he said he was exhausted: “I have lost my appetite, am half asleep, and nothing feels good.”
The bizarre incident has floored admissions officers and college counselors around the globe, many of whom describe the situation as shocking and unprecedented. Besides withdrawing a scholarship offer to a bevy of students late in the admissions cycle, Tyler also appears to have violated ethical standards meant to protect college applicants. The debacle affirms the precariousness of the financial-aid process, in which institutional resources, administrative whims, and even inexplicable errors can leave students with much less money than they had reason to expect.
A spokesman for Tyler told The Chronicle that an “oversight” caused the university to promise more scholarships than it could deliver. He expressed sympathy for the students involved. The university has offered each of them partial scholarships and a discounted tuition rate. “We apologize for any inconvenience,” Tyler’s email to students said, “and wish you the best in your higher education endeavors.”
It was far more than an inconvenience, though. The students affected live in a timezone 10 hours and 45 minutes ahead of Texas. They don’t have wealthy parents or well-connected college counselors. And they don’t have much time. The May 1 application-deposit deadline more or less marks the end of the admissions cycle at many colleges. Though plenty of institutions around the world continue to admit students past that date, there’s no guarantee that they will have much money, if any, to offer late-arriving applicants.
Still, for all the Nepalese students might lack, they have a deep well of determination. Determination, yes, and social-media accounts. Since receiving the disappointing news from Tyler, they have connected online, started a Facebook page, and blasted messages across the planet, seeking the help of strangers. So far, many people — college counselors in Singapore and Rhode Island, admissions officials in South Korea and Ohio — have offered guidance and support. At least one American college found money to finance one student’s education.
Still, as word of the situation spreads from country to country, everyone keeps asking the same question students in Nepal keep asking. The same question Poudel, an eloquent young man who hopes to study computer science, keeps asking, too. How could this have happened?
Good intentions lie at the heart of many fiascos. Like this one.
Previously, the University of Texas at Tyler didn’t offer a full-ride scholarship, says Lucas Roebuck, the institution’s vice president for marketing and chief spokesman. That made it hard to enroll top students from East Texas, Tyler’s backyard. “Many of them were going to other places,” he says, “to get that full ride.”
So, for the 2018-19 academic year, Tyler introduced the Presidential Fellows scholarship program, which would cover tuition, housing, meal plan, fees, and books. Though Tyler devised the award to appeal to Texas applicants, those from other countries would be eligible, too. (About 350 of the university’s 10,000 students come from other countries.) “We want to compete for top-performing students, and that means recruiting international students,” Roebuck says. “We want to be part of the international community.”
“We initially thought we could include you as a Fellow this year, but the popularity of the program was far greater than expected.”
Tyler’s merit scholarships had previously attracted little interest abroad, according to the university. In 2017-18, just one international student received the Patriot Scholarship, previously the top merit award. The previous year, not one received it. Back in 2014-15, Tyler gave the scholarship to three international students — the most ever.
But after the Presidential Fellowship was created, something dramatic happened. First, more — a lot more — international students applied for admission than the university had anticipated. Many were highly qualified for the scholarship. And, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, most of them lived in Nepal.
Two Nepalese applicants told The Chronicle that they were attracted by the University of Texas system’s high visibility as well as the Presidential Fellowship, which, for international students, would be worth about $27,000 a year, the university says. Some applicants already knew Nepalese students at Tyler who spoke highly of the campus. And social media apparently helped make the home of the Patriots a hot commodity way over in the Himalayas.
Prashiksha Simkhada, a senior from Nepal, shared some insights on the application surge from Nepal with The Chronicle. Simkhada works part-time in Tyler’s graduate admissions office, where she has helped market the university around the globe, posting information on Facebook and answering prospective students’ questions about the campus she describes as her home away from home. That outreach helped create “a noise” about the university, she wrote in an email, and the scholarship “added a cherry on the cake.”
Tyler delivered lots of good news to Nepal throughout the late fall and winter. Dozens of Nepalese students received a congratulatory email informing them of their acceptances. “Welcome to the Patriot family,” it said. “You have also been awarded our Presidential Fellowship scholarship.” The email told students something else: To lock in their scholarship, they had to pay a “$100 confirmation fee” before March 1.
At least some of the students also got an email from Michael Tidwell, Tyler’s president, who explained the benefits of the scholarship. “This means our university and hopefully your new home for the next four years is taking care of your tuition, fees, housing, meal plan, and books!” the message said. “Yes, I’m serious!”
Tidwell’s email noted that funds were limited. “Scholarships are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis,” it said. “If you haven’t done so already, be sure to confirm your attendance today.”
Roman Shrestha, in Bharatpur, Nepal, was thrilled when he received word of the scholarship. “Shocked, excited, and happy at the same time,” he wrote in a message to The Chronicle. He had long dreamed of studying the United States, where he planned to study chemical engineering. After paying the confirmation fee, he called off his college search. There was no reason to continue it.
Then, on April 13, New Year’s Eve in Nepal, Shrestha received the shocking email from Tyler. “We initially thought we could include you as a Fellow this year,” it said, “but the popularity of the program was far greater than expected.”
That night, he cried. “I was almost dead,” he said, “learning that news.”
Shrestha has told his older sister, Rojina, but not his parents. He recalled how happy his mother was when he got the scholarship notification. Now, he wrote in a message, he lacked the courage to tell her: “I can’t see that happiness getting faded away. I believe there will be some opportunity for me, then only I shall proudly inform her regarding what we did to earn justice.”
Recently, Shrestha emailed several people at Tyler, including the president, he said, but got a message back from only one. Like the other Nepalese students, he has contacted many other colleges to see which ones might have a spot for him, plus financial aid. But so far, he doesn’t think his family can afford any of those options, because the scholarships available are too small.
“Still I’m looking if some college would help me with the adequate funding,” he wrote on Sunday. “But you know, at this time it’s really hard.”
Though college admissions has been described as the Wild West, there are laws that govern the land. The National Association for College Admission Counseling, known as NACAC, has an ethics code full of rules meant to protect the interests of students. Tyler broke two of those rules, several admissions officials familiar with the incident told The Chronicle.
First, colleges must give regular-decision applicants until May 1 to consider admission and scholarship offers. Under the association’s ethics code, the officials said, institutions aren’t supposed to use any incentive or stipulation, such as a “confirmation fee,” to influence commitments before May 1. (One longtime enrollment official described the fee as “unheard of” and “unfathomable.”)
Also, colleges cannot withdraw or rescind their offers before May 1, the admissions officials said. It’s certainly OK to tell prospective applicants ahead of time that scholarships are filled on a a first-come, first-served basis (as many scholarships are). But once a college makes an admission or scholarship offer, experts said, it’s a college’s responsibility to honor that offer through May 1. Period.
Roebuck acknowledged that the university’s messages to students were problematic. “We could have been more clear,” he said, “in communicating how we were going to distribute these awards.”
“It was a perfect storm of multiple variables that caused this.”
The biggest problem, of course, was that there wasn’t enough money to go around. For months Tyler officials apparently didn’t realize how many Presidential Fellows offers the university had sent abroad — nearly 100. That is: They apparently didn’t realize it even after prompting applicants to pay a fee to secure those scholarships well before winter ended.
That Tyler didn’t notify students until mid-April has troubled some observers just as much as the reversal itself. When officials finally realized that the university had promised much more than it could afford to give, Roebuck said, they considered their options, but those options were limited: “Our cabinet looked very hard, but our budget simply couldn’t support that.”
Roebuck declined to elaborate on what he described as an oversight that led to the rescinded scholarships. “It was a perfect storm of multiple variables that caused this,” he said. “It is absolutely unfortunate. It has real impact on real people’s lives, and we don’t minimize that.”
In a data-drenched admissions field, where many colleges closely monitor metrics on a daily basis, such a drastic over-promise might seem impossible. But strange things do happen. Two years ago, for instance, Temple University revealed that it had exceeded its budget for merit scholarships by $22 million, a gaffe that led to the firing of the provost and the departure of the president.
In the end, Tyler offered its top merit scholarship to 35 international students, down from the initial total of 98. The remaining 63 were offered the Patriot Scholarship, a $5,000 annual award, plus eligibility for the in-state tuition rate. That would still leave international students with at least $10,000 gap. Those who declined, the university told them, would receive a full refund of all deposits and fees.
Tyler did not revoke the Presidential Fellows scholarship for any domestic applicants. (The university awarded it to nearly 150 American students.) International students, Roebuck said, are “a completely separate budget priority.”
Tyler has not offered to help international students who lost the full-ride scholarship find spots and/or scholarships at other colleges. “If we felt like we had an insight or the resources to help with that, we would have,” Roebuck said. “I don’t think those are resources we have right now that they’re not getting from others.”
Joan Liu is trying to help. After 20 years in the admissions profession, she knows a lot of people. Over the last several days, she has contacted just about all of them, and plenty of strangers, too, hoping to scare up options for the Nepalese students. She stayed up well past 1 a.m. on Sunday, writing to admissions officials, chatting with college counselors on Facebook, and talking to a reporter by phone.
Liu, a university adviser at United World College of South East Asia, in Singapore, took an interest in the Nepalese students because she sees important issues at stake. College access, for sure. Global social mobility. Confidence in U.S. colleges abroad. And she knows that the Nepalese students who just lost their full-ride scholarships are, in the grand scheme of the admissions universe, vulnerable.
“These kids don’t have a lot of power,” Liu said. “If these were American kids, there would be public outrage and litigation.”
“These kids don't have a lot of power. If these were American kids, there would be public outrage and litigation.”
Over the last several days, Liu has been in constant contact with EducationUSA advisers who are counseling students in Nepal. She has heard from admissions officers at several institutions who hope to drum up funds to support them. Like many of her colleagues, she hoped that one of the worst things that could happen in her profession would somehow bring out the best in it.
Maybe so. On Friday, J.P. Yates, executive director of international recruitment at the University of Akron, read a message Liu had posted on Facebook. He then conferred with his president and vice president of development. Four hours later, the university had secured a commitment from a donor to finance a one-time scholarship of $10,000 annually for four years.
Those funds, plus an institutional scholarship for international students, allowed Akron to make a generous offer to one Nepalese student, Yates said. That student apparently planned to enroll at Akron, which has a large Nepalese population. As the sun began set on the East Coast Saturday evening, it was rising in Nepal. There, dozens of students who had been waging a relentless social-media campaign were seeing signs of progress. Newspapers and television stations were telling their story.
Over the weekend, Mickey Saloma, president of the Texas Association for College Admission Counseling, engaged several of the Nepali students on Twitter. “Please contact me directly,” he wrote. “I want to help.” (In a message to The Chronicle later, Saloma said that the association was aware of the situation at Tyler.)
In Pokhara, Roshan Poudel, the eloquent young man who hopes to study computer science, woke up early on Sunday after five hours of sleep and turned on his laptop. He had emails to answer, tweets to send. In the bedroom he shares with his little brother, Rohan, the walls are bare except for math formulas. All day it was quiet except for the clicking of keys.
Hours earlier, he had completed an application for the State University of New York’s campus in Korea, which, he said, had offered to help him if it can. Though he still had no idea where he would end up enrolling in the fall, or if he would go anywhere at all, he felt hopeful that something would work out.
As Poudel had learned, though, nothing is guaranteed. So he spent the day in front of a glowing screen, typing messages that might somehow deliver a scholarship from the void. “There’s no time for breaks,” he said. “There’s no break until I find a solid place to stand.”
Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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