‘A Sour Life Lesson’: Pell Recipients Disqualified From Receiving Summer Scholarships

They registered for summer classes, thinking they’d get scholarships. By the time they were told they didn’t qualify, classes had already started, and it was too late to get a full tuition refund.

“It felt like a sour life lesson,” said junior Michael Alvarez.

As part of its “make this summer count” initiative, Hunter sent out mass emails to students advertising a $450 discount on summer classes. One email showed only three qualifications: show progress toward your degree, enroll in a summer class at Hunter and submit the summer scholarship application. Days after it became impossible for students to get a full tuition refund on summer classes, Hunter seemed to introduce a new qualification. 

Pell grant recipients, or students the federal government believes “display exceptional financial need,” lost out. Those who received federal summer Pell grants in excess of $450 were told they wouldn’t get the Hunter scholarship, even if Pell didn’t cover the full cost of tuition. In the 2017-2018 school year, the most recent year for which the data is available, 48% of all undergraduate Hunter students received Pell grants.

Year-round Pell grants allow full-time students enrolled in summer classes to get additional funding that they wouldn’t have gotten if they only took classes in fall and spring. 

But by the time they found out they didn’t qualify for Hunter’s summer scholarship, it was too late for summer Pell recipients to drop classes and receive full tuition refunds. Some couldn’t even get a 50% tuition refund. Meanwhile, Hunter boasted increased summer enrollment.

For in-state students, one 3-credit summer class costs $915. For out-of-state students, that figure is $1,860. Consolidated service fees, technology fees, student activity fees and student senate fees also apply. Alvarez, an in-state student who receives the Pell grant, said he has to pay about $600 out-of-pocket.

Alvarez says he wouldn’t have taken summer classes if he’d known he wouldn’t get the scholarship. By the time he was notified, the most he could have hoped to get was a 25% tuition refund. “I felt like I was scammed,” he said.

“When students applied for the Summer Scholarship, they were informed they could receive ‘up to $450,’” Hunter dean Eija Ayravainen pointed out in a statement to The Envoy. “Every student who applied was awarded at least $450 in either a PELL grant, a Summer Scholarship, or a combination of both.”

Ayravainen also pointed out that Hunter has removed late fees for students who can’t pay tuition on time because of the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Introduced in spring 2019, this late fee is usually $15 per month after tuition is due. While the late fees are removed, students withdrawing from classes still won’t be able to receive full tuition refunds.

Ayravainen didn’t answer the question of why Hunter didn’t notify Pell recipients earlier that they didn’t qualify for the scholarship so that they could withdraw if necessary and still get a full refund.

In the email students received, the administration did indicate that they would send out decisions about the summer scholarship beginning May 25, the last day to drop a Session 1 summer class for a full refund. The email also said that awards were limited, but it did not say anything to suggest that some Pell recipients wouldn’t qualify.

“I’m honestly not sure if they thought we considered Pell a ‘scholarship’ or if they were just trying to increase the enrollment rate for summer,” said junior Kayla Benjamin, who was also disqualified from receiving Hunter’s scholarship because of summer Pell.

Hunter’s summer scholarship is awarded every year, but this year it received more funding than usual as Hunter administrators encouraged students to take summer classes in light of the pandemic.

Hunter College President Jennifer Raab published an opinion piece in the New York Daily News in April under the headline “More than ever, summer is for school.” In it, she promoted Hunter’s summer classes and argued that all colleges should expand summer offerings in response to the pandemic.

Raab also described the thinking behind the “make this summer count” initiative in an appearance in late June on Fox 5 New York. “About in April we realized… the jobs were not going to be there. The internships our students relied on… were not going to be available,” Raab said. “So we got ahead of them, and we said to them, ‘students, go to school this summer.’” 

In the interview, Raab said that the school raised $1 million to give scholarships to thousands of students and that enrollment for the summer was up significantly. In addition to the Summer Scholarship for Continuing Students, Hunter also offered a buy-one-get-one-free offer, or BOGO, to selected students. It also offered a summer scholarship to members of the class of 2020 to encourage them to attend graduate school at Hunter. 

“For the BOGO program, we identified 190 students who, but for two summer courses, are scheduled to graduate in the Summer or Fall,” Ayravainen wrote. “In an effort to encourage their immediate graduation, we were able to provide them with up to $900 in a combination of a PELL grant or Summer Scholarship.” The BOGO offer was also made to student-athletes, including ones who were not close to graduating. 

Though BOGO was advertised as a buy-one-get-one-free offer, $900 does not cover the cost of a summer class. It covers less than half of the cost of a summer class for out-of-state students.

Ayravainen said there was a 35% increase in enrollment this summer over previous years. “To help as many students as possible, we added additional funding to the Summer Scholarship program. There were 2005 scholarships awarded compared to just over 400 students in the Summer of 2019.” The 2005 figure Ayravainen uses includes students whose scholarships came entirely from the Pell grant, who may comprise many of the students awarded scholarships, given the percentage of students who receive Pell.

Senior Becky Talal applied for both the summer scholarship and BOGO. The out-of-state student was told she wouldn’t get the summer scholarship because of Pell, but she’s still hopeful that she might receive something from BOGO even though her summer Pell is more than $900.

“I sent an email saying it wasn’t fair because I’m still paying a lot more as an out-of-state student despite taking online courses,” Talal said. She sent that email in early June. She’s still waiting for a response.

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