Higher education

University of Iowa reinstates cut scholarships

'The University of Iowa takes its relationship with students and alumni very seriously'

Jenna Pokorny, University of Iowa sophomore from Des Moines, in downtown Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 1, 2017. Pokorny had received the Iowa Heritage Award and President’s Heritage Award scholarships. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Jenna Pokorny, University of Iowa sophomore from Des Moines, in downtown Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 1, 2017. Pokorny had received the Iowa Heritage Award and President’s Heritage Award scholarships. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — In the face of widespread blowback over its decision to cut millions worth of scholarships from thousands of students, the University of Iowa backtracked Wednesday.

The scholarships for students already expecting them will be reinstated, UI President Bruce Harreld said in a statement. But the five programs in question will end after that.

The announcement comes after a barrage of criticism from lawmakers and after two students filed lawsuits in hopes of getting a judge to force the university to uphold awards it made to more than 3,000 students.

“I’m super happy,” said one of the students who sued, sophomore Jenna Pokorny, 19, after leaning her scholarship was reinstated. “It’s the best outcome that could have happened.”

She said she chose the UI over Drake University because it offered her two packages worth $12,000 over four years. But she said she likely would have remained at the UI regardless.

“I have had the greatest experience of my life at Iowa,” she said. “I love the university and that’s why I was upset this happened. I wouldn’t expect this from the university that I love so much.”

Last week, Harreld told lawmakers and students the UI was terminating the annually renewable, non-merit and non-need-based scholarships starting next fall in response to deep cuts to its state funding base.

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Those cuts were part of a $117.8 million statewide de-appropriation from the Legislature in response to a projected revenue shortfall.

At the time, Harreld said students previously had been advised the aid could be impacted if state funding was reduced.

But the families pushed back, checking their award letters and the UI’s online “terms and conditions” disclaimer for such language.

They discovered the university only this year updated its terms to include the warning. Before January, recipients of those scholarships — who expected the aid to come over the course of four years — would not have seen the warning.

UI officials confirmed the website was updated with the message Jan. 18.

UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said Harreld’s comments about the warning were based on his understanding of information he received from the admissions office at the time.

“Clearly that was not fully the case,” she said. “That was part of the decision process, as he heard from parents that didn’t fully understand these were annual, renewable scholarships that were reliant on state funding. Once he learned more, he decided it was important to honor that commitment.”

Higher tuition?

Cutting the scholarships would have saved the university $4.3 million. Administrators didn’t share details of how restoring the student aid will affect the campus’ continued need to absorb cuts.

Looking ahead, Harreld hinted higher tuition might be one solution.

“Over the past few days I have had productive conversations with members of the Board of Regents, the governor, and the Iowa General Assembly,” he said. “I appreciate their willingness to establish predictable tuition revenue increases and state support moving forward.”

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The Board of Regents portion of this year’s state de-appropriations is nearly $21 million, the largest dollar amount of any state agency. Of that, the UI must absorb about $9.2 million in cuts.

After the UI’s change of course, regents President Bruce Rastetter — who had defended the scholarship elimination — said in a statement he’s pleased but acknowledged the challenge of absorbing cuts.

He also raised the specter of more tuition increases at the UI.

“If the state chooses not to adequately fund the UI’s five-year strategic plan, the board is committed to work with the UI to bring its tuition in line with its national peer group,” Rastetter said in his statement.

Program outdated?

The scholarships in question — primarily legacy awards offering aid to students who have a parent, grandparent, or guardian as an UI alumni — became available years ago when the university was under pressure to increase its enrollment, especially among in-state students.

That pressure came from a funding model proposed by the regents that would have tied allocations to performance metrics. Former UI President Sally Mason debuted the scholarships in 2014 as the UI pushed to attract more Iowans.

Lawmakers never approved that funding model, but the legacy scholarships remained.

After Harreld announced last week they would be rescinded, Speaker of the House Rep. Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, slammed the institution for playing “politics at its worst.”

While students already in the pipeline are now getting the aid, those five programs will close to new applicants.

Jon Muller — the father of scholarship recipient Ben Muller, who also filed a lawsuit — said he was upset both that the institution tried to bail on its commitment and that it misinformed families.

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“I sure see why it make sense for them to restore these scholarships than continue to investigate what happened with that,” he said, adding he was “absolutely delighted” with the outcome. “We didn’t want to go through the courts.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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