Morgan recruits students in default

To save state, federal aid, university re-enrolls 350 who didn't pay tuition

October 23, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of Morgan State University students dropped from the rolls for nonpayment of tuition are being called back to the classroom - halfway through the semester - as school officials frantically try to boost enrollment to avoid cuts in government aid.

The push to re-enroll students, many of whom have been out of class for several weeks, has caused disarray at the Northeast Baltimore campus. Students who missed several weeks of class are trying to catch up, and some faculty object to accommodating the late-comers.

In the early weeks of the fall semester, which began Aug. 25, the university dropped 892 of its roughly 7,000 students because they couldn't assemble the tuition money or financial aid to pay their bills, officials said this week.

Student financial troubles are a perennial problem at the historically black university, where more than 90 percent of students rely on some form of aid. But rising tuition and state budget cuts exacerbated the problem this fall, officials said, reducing the school's ability to offer financial aid and leaving more students than usual unable to pay.

Faced with the loss of about 13 percent of the student body, university officials launched an all-out effort early this month to contact students who had been cut and help them return to class.

While there is generally not a fixed, per-student formula for most state and federal aid to universities, an enrollment drop of that magnitude could lead to the loss of several million dollars.

By yesterday, a deadline for reporting enrollment, the school had managed to retrieve about 350 of the 892 dropped students and was seeking more, said Morgan spokesman Clinton R. Coleman.

Coleman said the effort to re-enroll students was driven both by a desire to help students stay in school and to protect Morgan's government funding, which is based partly on its enrollment count.

"The word was to go out to talk to as many of these students as we can and see what their needs are and how we can help them," Coleman said.

The urgency of the push to retrieve students was reflected in an Oct. 6 memo from Tiffany B. McMillan, director of Morgan's Office of Retention. It was sent to the "retention coordinators" in departments across campus.

In the memo, McMillan called the enrollment drop a "crisis," told the coordinators that 580 students were still out of class due to unpaid bills, and thanked the coordinators for trying "to help save our students and our great institution."

The "bottom line," McMillan wrote, is that "we need to have at least 200 more of these [students] reinstated as soon as possible!" She said officials would "continue our process of tracking these students down."

All colleges must report their enrollment to the federal government in early October, but they are allowed to revise those totals up until Oct. 22.

Some faculty members say they were instructed to tell students that if they returned, the college would take care of their tuition bills. Coleman disputed this, saying school officials were merely reassessing students' needs to see if financial aid options had been overlooked.

"There may be ways we can help them that will be short of offering free tuition," Coleman said. "If the student is doing well, the university is willing to pull out all the stops to assist and look through all available pools of money."

Another faculty member, social work chairwoman Anna McPhatter, said her department received correspondence from the administration asking faculty simply to call students and learn more about why they had left Morgan. There were no instructions about what Morgan was willing to give students by way of financial help, she said.

An undated memo from P. Casenia Wells, the retention coordinator in the College of Liberal Arts, hinted at how much disruption the bid to retrieve students had caused. The memo, written some time after McMillan's Oct. 6 memo, refers to "criticism from faculty who, in some cases, are refusing to give make-up work, or let these students back in class. In addition, many faculty members are experiencing some frustration with the process and the returning students are pleading ... to be placed in classes."

Wells then added, in bold-face type, "Nevertheless ... we must keep our mandate to assist the university by helping to develop and retain our students."

An expert on higher education funding for the University System of Maryland, which includes 11 state schools but not Morgan, said a sharp drop in enrollment should not affect a college's state funding for the current school year. But it could bring cuts the following year.

"If the [state] says, `How are you doing on your fall enrollment,' and if you're missing your targets for this fall, someone looking to cut money could say, `You're not meeting the enrollment you say you have. You don't need this money,'" said Linda Vukovich, the system's director of budget analysis. "It could lead to problems in your discussions with the governor."

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