(Madeline Aruffo/The Lens)

“I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected by the Office of Recruitment and Admissions to receive a University Fellow Scholarship Award for the Fall 2020 Semester,” read the June 17 letter from Southern University at New Orleans. “The award is for 4 years and is valued at an estimated $64,000 … which includes tuition, Honor’s Dorm housing, and meal plan.”

Trish and George didn’t want their daughter saddled with student loan debt to afford college. She was a good student, so they were looking for scholarships. The letter from SUNO — the public, historically Black university in New Orleans, a bit more than an hour’s drive from their home in Tangipahoa Parish — was exactly what they’d hoped for.

Their daughter, a 16-year-old graduate of Loranger High School, accepted the same day. (At the request of the family, the parents are being identified by their middle names. They asked that their daughter’s name not be published at all.)

“We were excited to report to her former high school and little town of Loranger that she was proudly accepting her admissions and scholarship to Southern University at New Orleans,” the parents wrote in an email to SUNO. Their daughter was thrilled to begin her degree in social work, and she believed SUNO had a great program for that subject.

But months after she moved on to campus, her student account showed a balance of more than $5,000 — for tuition, housing, fees and a meal plan — almost all of which should have been covered by the University Fellow Scholarship.

Trish and George began a long, frustrating correspondence with a rotating cast of university officials, who offered varying explanations for the charges, sometimes assuring the family that the problem would be solved. But even after months of emailing and calling the school about the mistake, the charges remained at the end of the fall semester.

Finally, on Dec. 8, they got an explanation, though not a solution. A university official told the family that the teenager — who accepted SUNO’s offer nearly six months earlier and who began attending the school and living on campus four months earlier — had not qualified for the scholarship she was offered. Her ACT score of 19 was too low. 

Soon after, the university informed them that their debt had grown to more than $9,000, including charges for the upcoming spring semester.

“I have no idea” why it took so long for the university to explain what happened, said Melva Williams, SUNO’s interim vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management, in a Jan. 13 interview. “I don’t know why it’s taken so long, but I do hate — I am devastated that she didn’t earn that full ride. … She’s an outstanding student, but it wasn’t the requirements that would allow for her to earn that University Fellow.”

What happened to Trish and George’s daughter was not an isolated incident at SUNO. The Lens spoke to several other students, or their family members, who said they accepted similar offers from SUNO — offers that seemed to vanish once they started classes. The students and their families all requested anonymity.

Four of those students started at the school in the fall 2020 semester. University officials, including Williams and recruitment staff, confirmed the offers for four of them, including Trish and George’s daughter. Another, who provided a nearly identical story, started the previous school year. Recruitment staff said they could neither confirm nor dispute that student’s offer, saying the records were unavailable because she was admitted during a former admissions director’s tenure.

Each of the students described repeated calls and emails over weeks or months, trying to remedy the problem, but either they didn’t hear back, or they were given unfulfilled assurances that the issues with their scholarships would be fixed. The university only began to look into the scholarship problem in December, when The Lens began inquiring about it. 

Williams acknowledged the errors. However, even though each student or their families told The Lens they had repeatedly contacted university officials since the beginning of the fall semester, Williams said that she was only aware of one such issue until The Lens brought the others to her attention. She noted that the school only knows of four of these cases, saying many other scholarships “have gone perfectly fine.”

But one current and one former recruiter in SUNO’s Office of Recruitment and Admissions who spoke to The Lens for this story said that what happened with these scholarships was a symptom of deeper dysfunction and mismanagement at the university, which has faced financial struggles for years, recently making deep staff and faculty cuts after facing the potential loss of a key accreditation. The recruiters provided internal emails between administrators and personnel that documented the problems many students had had with their scholarships, including unexpected balances and qualification requirements they hadn’t previously known about. 

They also said they believed SUNO offered more scholarships than it could afford this year. Financial records provided by SUNO in response to a public records request were unclear. A SUNO spokesperson said the school believed that all money earmarked for scholarships was properly allocated. 

For now, it’s not clear what caused them or how widespread similar issues with the scholarships are. University officials said SUNO started an internal audit regarding scholarship problems on Dec. 7 — immediately after an inquiry from The Lens and one day before informing Trish and George’s daughter that her University Fellow Scholarship offer would be rescinded. But a spokesperson did not provide further details as to what the audit would entail or when it is expected to be completed.

‘I am beyond livid with them’

Trish described her daughter as a high-achieving young woman. She graduated early from high school after completing all her credits in just three years. She had straight As during her senior year, even in difficult classes like Algebra III. 

During her final year of high school, she began considering SUNO. She and her family met with one of the school’s recruiters in the fall of 2019, as well as SUNO’s then-Director of Admissions Shapiro Meadows, who, the parents said, left a great impression.

“My wife and I were blown away by the hospitality and the level of concern for my daughter’s safety and well being that the administration [had] shown,” George said in a November email to the Chancellor’s office.

As their daughter’s senior year was coming to close, Trish and George felt confident that SUNO would be a good option for her. And it seemed like the school was excited to have her too.

In June, the family got the formal acceptance letter from SUNO, informing them that the girl’s full tuition, housing and meals would be covered by the University Fellow Scholarship.  

She accepted, following the school’s instructions to reply by email: “I [name] accept my Fall 2020 admissions and scholarship offer to Southern University at New Orleans !” (She added the exclamation point.)

“We began the enrollment process immediately and turned in all necessary information that was asked of us,” George told The Lens.

But by then, Meadows, the impressive admissions director, had died from complications related to COVID-19. Meadows, who died in April, was 43.

“Everything changed,” George wrote in a late November email to the Chancellor’s Office. “We were informed … that Mr. Tubbs were in his position and taking things from that point.” 

Jacoby Tubbs, the new director of admissions, was the first SUNO official to tell the family, in a July phone call about on-campus housing, that the promised scholarship might not materialize. 

“Mr. Tubbs’ conversation was riddled with back pedaling, finger pointing, and crossed words. At one point he told me that there was no scholarship offered,” Trish wrote in a late July email to SUNO’s Interim Chancellor James Ammons. 

But after a subsequent phone call with Ammon’s assistant, Harry Doughty, she believed the error had been fixed. Apparently Doughty thought so, too.

In a November email to colleagues, obtained by The Lens, he wrote, “I have been in touch with the … family during the semester and was under the impression that [her] scholarship issues were resolved.”

Tubbs, Ammons and Doughty did not respond to The Lens’ requests for interviews. 

In August, Trish and George’s daughter moved to SUNO’s campus and began her first semester of college. Around the same time, her parents discovered that her student account showed over $5,000 in charges. Trish and George said they contacted university officials, who blamed disruption caused by COVID-19 and a mix-up with their daughter’s name. They said they were told repeatedly that the error would be fixed. 

As the fall semester came to a close, however, the charges were still there. Trish and George continued calling and emailing SUNO without a resolution. 

“My family have been lied to over and over again. We have tried to be patient, but my daughter’s future is at stake,” George wrote in a late November email to Doughty and Ammons. “Right now I wouldn’t recommend SUNO to anyone.”

“I am beyond livid with them,” Trish told The Lens in early December. 

The situation was hard on their daughter too.

“She’s depressed. She sleeps now, that’s all she’ll do is lay around and sleep,” Trish said. “I think we are going to have to end up putting her in counseling, for real, because she’s not functioning like she was before. She’s not her same self.

The family didn’t hear anything back from the school until Dec. 8, when they received the letter from Ammons about their daughter’s ACT score.

Trish said that this letter was the first time they heard anything about the ACT requirement for the University Fellow scholarship.

In fact, the SUNO scholarship was the reason her daughter didn’t retake the ACT to begin with. She would have needed to raise her ACT score by one point to qualify for a widely used state-funded scholarship: the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS. But the offer from SUNO made that unnecessary. 

“Out of good faith,” the letter continued, “the University will honor the University Fellow Scholarship Award for one academic year to begin retroactively Fall 2020 and will end May 2021.”

SUNO offered a partial scholarship for her second through fourth years: $1,600 per semester. The family was given 10 days to decide.

They accepted because they believed it would be the quickest way to get their daughter’s balance to zero. By that time, they were looking for a new college for her.

SUNO still showed a balance on her account up until earlier this month. By Jan. 11, it had grown to $9,400. 

On January 12, Trish wrote a final email. 

“Please release us of this horrific nightmare that we‘re living.” she wrote to Doughty and Ammons. “I can’t believe that we as a people would go through this type of experience to educate our children with our own kind. . . . We have asked you all over and over again to assist us.”

On Jan. 14, one day after The Lens interviewed Melva Williams, SUNO finally cancelled the debt.

Trish told The Lens that they had arranged for their daughter to transfer to Southeastern Louisiana University — where she can commute from home. She’s starting classes there this month. 

Other students describe similar problems

Trish and George’s daughter wasn’t the only student who had issues with her scholarship.

The Lens found that several other students were offered a University Fellow Scholarship — covering at least part of their costs for all four years of college — that never came through. In three of those cases, recruitment staff confirmed the scholarship offers and in one additional case, confirmation was not immediately available. 

“My daughter … was offered an academic scholarship where she had to submit her acceptance via email,” the mother of one student told The Lens in early December. Recruitment staff confirmed the offer was made and accepted. 

“She had been dual enrolled since the beginning of her senior year at Kennedy High School. She received no info regarding the scholarship once the semester [began]. She was told that it would be applied and that things were backed up due to Covid-19. As of now nothing still [has] been done.”

Another student had chosen SUNO over Xavier University because of the University Fellow Scholarship that she was offered. 

“At first, I didn’t even really consider SUNO, because I had other offers. I was set on going to Xavier because Xavier offered me a $7,000 scholarship.” 

But then, she said, SUNO came to her offering a full ride, and that changed her mind. However, when she began her freshman year, she discovered that SUNO wasn’t honoring the offer. She said an administrator found a workaround and offered a partial scholarship instead, to cover housing, for the 2019 school year.

“I contacted the new administration under Mr. Ammons. I’ve talked to Mr. Tubbs, I feel like a million times, and this man has been ignoring me, ignoring my messages, ignoring my calls. He told me . . . it would get it taken care of, and I still have a balance as of now of $2,000,” the student told The Lens.

“Mr. Tubbs said his ‘team’ was working on it in October then told me I would have money in the system by November and I still have a balance on my account as of today,” the student said on Jan. 15.

Recruitment staff who spoke to The Lens did not dispute that student’s story, but said that because she began classes last school year, under former Admissions Director Meadows’ watch, they could not find records of her scholarship offer. 

“We have lots of scholarships at SUNO that have gone perfectly fine, but we do have these … the ones that [The Lens] sent over — I think it was four — that had some issues, and that is unfortunate,” Williams said in the interview with The Lens. 

“We had an enrollment of over 2,300 to 2,400 students, and so many different scholarships that were offered. I’d say that three or four — and we hate for our top students to have those challenges, but when they do — if it weren’t for [The Lens], I’m not sure when we would have known that they had an issue. Therefore — The first time I heard about those names were literally yesterday.” 

Williams said that the scholarship issues had since been resolved for all of these students who came forward to The Lens. 

‘They took those scholarships away from them’

The Lens spoke with a current recruiter for SUNO, as well as a former recruiter who worked for the school until the end of November. Both requested that their names not be published to protect their privacy. 

They said that a number of problems behind the scenes at the state university led to the scholarship issues, including a lack of funding to back up the scholarship offers made to students, an unexpected change in administration, and a number of communication breakdowns regarding scholarship requirements during the past year.

The recruiters told The Lens that when Tubbs took over for Meadows, he insisted that the school had access to more funding for student scholarships than the recruiters believed was actually available, and gave recruiters the green light to send out offers. 

“After we sent these emails [offering scholarships to students], it comes back that we don’t have that money. … Well, we already told [Tubbs] that he didn’t have that money. … When it was time to come to school, none of those promises or obligations were met,” the former recruiter told The Lens in early December.

“They took those scholarships from them,” the recruiter who still works at SUNO said.

According to internal emails obtained by The Lens, the departments of admissions and recruitment had earmarked almost $200,000 over the summer to University Fellow scholarships, along with two other types of scholarships: the SUNO First scholarship, and transfer students scholarships.

The Lens sent a public records request in early December asking for the financial accounting records for University Fellow scholarships, and other types of scholarships. But SUNO’s response to the records request did not clarify whether that $200,000 was actually spent as it had been allocated. The records provided didn’t show the specific allocations requested. A request for clarification from The Lens was under review when this article was published, university officials said.

A spokesperson for the school did say that SUNO has no reason to believe that student scholarship funds were diverted or misappropriated.

The recruiters also described difficulty over the past year getting the higher-ups to identify what requirements they should use to select students for each type of scholarship. 

Before Meadows died, he and the office of recruitment had begun a project in Spring 2020 to revamp the school’s scholarship system. The previous requirements for students were “seriously outdated,” as they were established when SUNO was still open admissions, the still-employed recruiter said in a May email to administrators, including Williams. 

“Our office along with Mr. Meadows before his untimely death sent revised scholarship requirements to Dr. Williams in late January early February for approval,” the recruiter wrote, but the office never got an answer. The recruiter also sought a meeting with David Adegboye, the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs in early July, but they never heard back from him either.

“During this past Spring 2020 semester numerous attempts were made to try and move this scholarship project forward and it has been stuck in neutral,” the recruiter wrote.

Despite all of the inquiries about scholarships from recruiters, students and parents, it appears that the university system was not aware of the majority of these students’ scholarship problems until recently.

“There are a lot of processes that are being revamped as we find out things are happening across all of the campuses,” said Janene Tate, the communications director for the Southern University System, in an interview this month. “But that conversation [with the Southern Board of Supervisors] has not been had as of yet … because some of these items, some of these problems, are just coming to light, unfortunately.”

Tate said that the school launched an internal audit into the situation, but did not answer The Lens’ questions regarding what the audit would entail or when the school expected to have the audit results.

“[The audit] began as soon as this was brought to light,” she said, also saying it went as far back as when The Lens sent in the public records request on Dec. 7 for financial records and other information relating to student scholarships.

“Everybody’s doing everything they can to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” she continued. “As we continue to roll out those policies and things, we’ll keep everyone updated.”