“Oversight is what we do”: Further control on international student financial aid
Internal communication reveals changes, confusion and concern around financial assistance for international students.
June 26, 2023
Northern Kentucky University’s handling of financial aid for international students has been a subject of much change and confusion.
NKU stopped offering merit-based scholarships for incoming international freshmen last year, part of the university’s repositioning against a budget deficit of over $24 million. The EDGE Award, which is automatically disbursed for all students with a minimum GPA of 2.5 coming from outside of Kentucky, remains at a reduced rate comparable to that in 2019. The administration guaranteed that the changes would only apply to students from the spring of 2022 onward, not to any currently enrolled students.
In early May, The Northerner obtained internal communications among NKU staff and administrators from a staff member who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. The emails reveal tightened controls on international student financial aid.
On Jan. 11 this year, Jane Bratton, manager of transfer admissions at the International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS), alerted the team to the existence of a deadline for EDGE as told in an email from Associate Athletic Director Debbie Kirch.
In her email, Kirch had been told that EDGE was no longer guaranteed, and that students would have to apply to NKU by two deadlines usually reserved for scholarships—Dec. 1 for priority consideration and Jan. 13 for secondary consideration—to be eligible for the award. These deadlines are not listed as requirements on the NKU webpage for EDGE.
The announcement caused confusion and concern within the office, whose staff never knew about an EDGE deadline until then. Assistant Director of Admissions Trenee Johnson confirmed that under the new model, EDGE would only be given to international and domestic students admitted by Dec. 1, then a reassessment would take place to determine which additional awards can be given to Jan. 13 admissions.
“Scholarships and awards are always subject to the availability of funds. There are conversations happening as to if there will be a cap on the number of awards offered but I haven’t received the final determination. We are monitoring our spending as we go,” Johnson wrote in communication with ISSS. “The reassessment does not mean that we will not make any more offers, it just means that we are carefully monitoring our spending to ensure we don’t go over budget again this year.”
At the time of writing, these deadlines are no longer in effect. Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Matt Cecil said that he was not aware of any attempt at a concrete deadline, then later commented that there has always been a preferred deadline for EDGE, which acts as an incentive for early applications.
“The idea is that we’re trying to limit it so that it’s not all automatic right up until the day of classes, so that we have some predictability in our budget,” Cecil said. “If you have a deadline and you don’t adhere to it, it doesn’t work as a lever to get people to make a certain commitment.”
Former Director of Admissions Jake Panek told The Northerner he was unaware of any deadline related to EDGE.
On Jan. 13, ISSS learned through correspondence with Cecil that EDGE would continue to be offered after the preferred deadline but cannot be stacked on top of scholarships and other financial assistance. In an interview with The Northerner, he deferred questions regarding the January deadline to the Office of Student Financial Assistance.
Emergency need-based awards
In the same correspondence with ISSS, the provost revealed that NKU has been moving to consolidate discounting budgets—intended for scholarships, awards and financial aid—across campus into one central account.
He also commented on the case of a student in need of $1,500 in financial aid to cover her bills. The student had received nearly $9,000 in international awards and scholarships, he said, and did not have to pay for housing due to being a resident assistant.
“This kind of discounting is precisely the reason we are in trouble,” Cecil wrote in the email, which is included at the end of this article. “The student has a 100 percent discount on tuition. Can you imagine how a legislator (or parent of a Kentucky student) would respond to that?”
Speaking with The Northerner, Cecil and Jeremy Alltop, chief financial officer and vice president for Finance & Administration, echoed the idea that ISSS had greatly overspent on awards over the years, the result of decentralization that took place several years ago. They reaffirmed the need for manual and centralized control over these costs.
Cecil and Alltop also referred to a policy by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) as a basis for reduced international financial assistance. The policy requires institutions to set tuition, fee discounting and scholarships so that out-of-state students pay 130% more than resident students.
NKU had a waiver that allowed the university to narrow this payment gap between out-of-state and in-state students, the administrators said, but they were out of compliance with this waiver in setting rates for international students. Cecil calculated that with the EDGE Award, merit-based scholarships and other discounts, international students were paying almost 50% less than in-state students on average.
International students can also apply for emergency financial aid separate from the general Student Emergency Fund. These emergency need-based scholarships draw from a $100,000 pool, according to Assistant Vice President of Enrollment and Financial Assistance Leah Stewart via Director of Public Relations Corey Best. Provost Cecil said that the administration exerts no control over this funding pool and that ISSS can use it at their discretion.
However, ISSS said that they are no longer allowed to grant awards through their office. A committee of three ISSS staff members review applications for the awards, which have to be requested through the Office of Student Financial Assistance. Cecil confirmed that Dr. Eddie Howard, former vice president for Student Affairs, made the final call as to whether the requests are approved or denied.
“If you’re the vice president over financial aid, you want to know when those things are going on, when you’re expending those funds. So the idea that administrative oversight is something new—that’s what we do. That’s what administrators do,” Cecil said. “We monitor these programs and these funds and make sure that we have the right controls in place and that we’re applying them appropriately, so it’s not unusual.”
After Howard’s departure from NKU on May 31 this year, the offices of Enrollment Management, Admissions and Student Financial Assistance now report directly to Interim President Bonita Brown.
To be considered for approval, international students must have at least two years in attendance at NKU and a minimum GPA of 2.5, as well as demonstrate significant hardship due to unforeseen circumstances. They must also show that they are actively trying to pay their bills by working at least part-time on campus. It is unclear how the students should demonstrate their hardship.
155 students have received emergency need-based awards over the last five years, according to Howard and Stewart. Nonetheless, an ISSS staff member said that all requests submitted for international students from the beginning of 2023 up to May were denied due to “significant over-awarding of scholarship funds,” even when the students were not receiving any awards or scholarships.
In the case of the student mentioned in Cecil’s email, who was affected by war in her home country according to an ISSS staff member, ISSS requests for emergency grants on her behalf were also denied. Interim President Brown later stepped in to prevent the student from losing her F-1 visa status and immigration record.
Following the denials, an ISSS staff member removed the award application link from NKU’s International Students webpage.
“While we could and possibly should advocate on behalf of our students, it has become more and more apparent that our requests, reasoning, and pleas will be rejected,” the staff member wrote in an email announcement.
The staff member proposed that if Student Affairs and the provost need to be in control of scholarship funds, they should take responsibility for reviewing students’ application essays, faculty’s recommendation letters and applicants’ academic and financial history, as well as determine criteria and communicate directly with students.
Former ISSS director Rebecca Hansen, who previously spoke out against the university’s removal of merit-based international scholarships, departed from NKU after May 5. In her resignation letter she cited lack of consistent and accurate communication, lack of meaningful collaboration and lack of accountability from top administrators as reasons for the departure.
Cecil and Alltop said that some students were seeking emergency grants while receiving awards and assistance from multiple different offices, which may not be communicated among these offices and potentially lead to denial of their requests. Furthermore, students might not always be aware of support programs that they are eligible for, the administrators said.
“So if you were led to believe that the international students were getting some particularly extra scrutiny on this, this is what we do for all students,” Cecil added. “This kind of stuff happens for all students across campus all the time, and we’re putting in controls to make sure that we’re taking care of the students in an appropriate way, but also that we’re not overspending our budget.”