RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A Richmond mother says Grambling State University in Louisiana promised free tuition if her son enrolled and then refused to honor it.
A Virginia financial aid expert looked at the letter the family received and says it is one of the worst constructed scholarship letters he's seen.
Lee Andes is the Assistant Director of Financial Aid with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. GSU says the parent misunderstood, but Andes says it's aggressive marketing and not in the student's best interest.
He talks about eye-catching optics and special wording that get the student's interest, protects the university and doesn't actually promise anything.
"Students who are scanning this, they see congratulations, big numbers," said Andes. "They think 'wow, I've got a significant award from that institution.'"
We blocked out Grambling State University's name and did not disclose which school, so Andes had no idea which university's letter he was analyzing until we had his candid critique. He only knew it was out of state.
"It's misleading. It starts off with the large font type. $9,400 per year for 4 years. Then it says 'congratulations,' which implies to the student - I have this award."
Andes says most misleading is how the type fades from bold print to almost unnoticeable.
"It has different font sizes that increasingly get smaller as you go down. At the very end, after the signature line, it talks about 'Please note: All scholarships are on a first come first serve basis.'"
He adds, the reader's eyes lock on an enticing message, which is what Jessie Bell says convinced her the scholarship letter was more than an offer. Bell says Grambling State also assured her in follow up calls that she would only have to pay room and board. She says she believed her son would get free tuition and out of state fees waived.
"He could have gone to one of these five Virginia schools, because most of the schools really hold Maggie Walker in high regard," said Bell. "But we thought it was a good chance for him to get away and experience the HBCU experience."
Andes says the letter has all the key phrases, including "offer," "conditional," and "first come first serve" to protect the university, but he says it's understandable how a lay person could misinterpret its intent.
"It's unfortunate what she experienced. I believe she honestly believed she was going to receive a scholarship," said Andes.
The federal government has a put out a template of what should be in a financial aid award letter. It's called Federal Shopping Sheet, and Andes says that should be a guide. He doesn't believe Bell has a recourse, unless the university is willing to work with her.
"The letter is very clear that it is not guaranteed. It's just in smaller print."
NBC12 reached out to GSU. It gave the family a $2,000 a semester discount and says it was a partial scholarship with an out-of-state fee waiver. The school says the student got a good deal for attending a 4-year university.
Andes reminds parents to rely on a financial aid award letter for confirmation of a scholarship. That letter should state your costs, all of your awards, and the net balance.
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