Ohio: Scholarship Change Draws Ire

"The University of Akron is facing accusations it pulled a bait-and-switch on perhaps hundreds of its scholarship students," Inside Higher Ed reports.

"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. …

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 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. ...

The university also said it gave students plenty of notice in late February. The student petition notes that this mention was brief."

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