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Changes to an Ohio State University scholarship program for low-income students has meant cuts to regional offices, an enrollment freeze, and students left in the dark about their futures with the program.
Ohio State has reduced staff in Toledo and eight other regional offices of the Young Scholars Program, centralized some operations, and tightened criteria for acceptance into the financial and academic support program geared toward low-income students.
Young Scholars Interim Director James Moore III said the cuts to regional offices are part of a larger program overhaul meant to improve students’ success in college, as many Young Scholars don’t graduate from Ohio State despite the assistance.
But parents and former staff members say there’s been little to no communication from OSU about what’s happening to a program they consider a rare opportunity for a scholarship that offers a high-quality college education.
“They have a right to change [YSP],” said Althea Banner, a laid-off employee in the Columbus regional office. “But it's just how you do things; you don’t leave people in the dark.”
The program was started by OSU in 1998 with an original goal to improve black students’ enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. First-generation college students from low-income families attend Ohio State essentially for free under the program. Students must keep their grades up in secondary school, take a college-preparatory curriculum, and attend YSP programming, such as tutoring sessions.
The university has nine regional offices used to recruit students from Ohio’s largest cities. Students are nominated at the regional level as sixth graders to be “pre-Young Scholars.” If they maintained a 3.3 grade-point average and attend required programming, they are inducted into the program after their freshman year, signing a contract as sophomores to be Young Scholars.
But no sixth graders were nominated this past school year, and 10th graders weren’t given their contracts, nor were they told why, according to former YSP staff. A letter was supposed to come in December from Mr. Moore, but it never was sent.
“We were left hanging,” said Michele Robinson-Hill, a Toledo YSP staff member who was laid off.
Mr. Moore said that YSP is not undergoing cuts, but a transformation. More resources are going to be directed toward Young Scholars who are enrolled at the collegiate level, and to counseling high school students in the program.
Some services are being centralized, while a more uniform program will be developed for the regional offices, he said. Enrollment will become more standardized.
While those changes are under way, OSU put a freeze on recruitment.
“We wanted to ensure that it was developed into the most optimal way,” Mr. Moore said.
Program coordinators were informed that changes were coming, he said, and could refer questions to the Columbus office. Students who were supposed to get contracts this past year will get them in the fall. Toledo staff say the students haven’t been told that yet.
Communication gaps were likely worse in Toledo than other regions because that office, based at Rogers High School, lost both staff members this year.
The regional offices were staffed with two employees each: a regional coordinator and an office assistant. All regional office assistants were laid off in the spring, though Mr. Moore quibbled at the term layoff, saying “it was a work force reduction.” When asked if OSU was shifting resources to its YSP central office and toward its collegiate program, he demurred.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a shift. Shift sounds more negative,” he said. “We are moving staff within the office.”
Regional coordinators’ pay was cut when their employment contracts were reduced from 12 months to 10 months; soon after that cut, Toledo’s regional coordinator resigned.
Mr. Moore again quibbled about that decision, saying “I wouldn't define it as a salary cut,” because coordinators could work a different job during the summer.
The loss of local staff members exacerbated confusion among students and their parents.
Marqule Watkins-Ware said her daughter, an eighth grader, was dismissed from the program for nonattendance of program events, even though those absences were excused: two were because Ms. Ware had a pregnancy complication, while another was because her daughter had the flu, she said.
Ms. Ware said she believes those absences had been automatically sent to Columbus, and with Toledo staff no longer there to explain the situation, OSU officials automatically dismissed her daughter. She reached out to Ms. Robinson, who couldn’t help because she was laid off. Columbus staff told her they had no way to access her daughter’s records, she said.
“I didn’t like it at all,” Ms. Ware said. “Michele was on top of things.”
Ohio State has also raised standards to be in the program. Young Scholars will now be required to carry a 3.5 GPA, though Mr. Moore said sophomores who have not yet received their contracts with YSP will be grandfathered in under the old standards.
Mr. Moore said that while YSP has given students financial support, they haven’t gotten the academic support needed once at OSU. Of about 3,000 Young Scholars that have attended Ohio State, only about 800 have graduated.
“We don’t do anyone any good by bringing kids who are not equipped or not qualified,” Mr. Moore said.
But that approach could be seen as “creaming” — selection of the best of the best. If YSP retention and graduation rates improve under the new standards, it will be hard to gauge whether it is because OSU’s aid to students has improved or because the university accepted only better-prepared candidates.
Ultimately, the goal is to bring YSP to more areas than just Ohio’s urban areas, Mr. Moore said.