September 26, 2018; Chronicle of Higher Education
One of the laws of systems theory is that foresight is morality, meaning that one can do much harm through not anticipating the consequences of steps taken or not taken. This applies to nonprofits who overpromise and disappoint or who do not take accountability for harm done by their work.
A recent college scholarship error at The University of Texas at Tyler (UT Tyler) is one of these cases. UT Tyler had granted 103 international students full-ride scholarships to the university, only to realize after the fact that it did not have the funds to support the awards. While 41 students were actually granted the full ride, 62 students (all but two from Nepal) received a message that essentially just said, “whoops.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education lays out the months-long ordeal to seek other scholarship opportunities for the 62 students, many of whom are low-income and could not afford to go to college without a full scholarship. Counselors worked together across countries, donors generously offered to support the students, and universities covered in red tape made exceptions. All but a handful received scholarships to attend other universities in the United States, Canada, Qatar, Nepal, and South Korea. Five of the 62 students with rescinded scholarships never reached out for assistance, so their fate is unknown.
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Through it all, UT Tyler seemed unapologetic. In fact, no one at the university was fired or formally disciplined for their role in the debacle. No one seemed to publicly acknowledge that the very program that was created to “promote college access” eventually “became a symbol of access denied.” Adding salt to the wound, the National Association for College Admission Counseling made little comment aside from agreeing that the “students were not treated fairly” and that a code of ethics is needed.
We call it unfair when someone cuts in line at the store. What these teenagers went through is not just unfair—it’s downright irresponsible. UT Tyler literally gave these students hope that they could be the first in their families to go to college, that they could lift themselves and their loved ones out of poverty, that they could have the futures they always dreamed of. The “golden ticket” a scholarship represents cannot be downplayed. The Chronicle indicates that upon hearing that their scholarship was rescinded, one student “ran away from home for two days.” Another “considered taking his own life.” These are not the emotional reactions of teenage angst. These are the reactions of students who know that the very livelihood of them and their families hinges on their ability to get into college with a scholarship.
Thanks to the incredible persistence of a few counselors and the students, and the universities and donors that opened their hearts to their plight, many of these students ended up in better universities than UT Tyler. Still, this case is a reminder to all nonprofits that there needs to be a proper system for granting access to services. This goes beyond a code of ethics to include a rigid formula for determining program eligibility, and accountability when the formula is not adhered to. There must be checks in place to ensure that the necessary resources are guaranteed before services are offered. To someone out there, the services of your organization are their “golden ticket” and that charge cannot be taken lightly.—Sheela Nimishakavi