When officials from Sewanee: the University of the South announced a 10 percent tuition cut in February, it was hailed as a groundbreaking move in higher education after years of tuition increases nationwide.
What officials didn't say then was that the cut would be accompanied by a reduction in some tuition assistance. Some students say the result is that tuition is only about $500 less than the previous year -- far short of the $4,600 savings they and their parents anticipated.
"When Sewanee sent out this email saying they were reducing tuition for everyone, I called my parents and they told everyone about how amazing Sewanee is," said a junior at the school who asked to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation.
"Then we got letters in our post office boxes announcing that merit students were having their scholarships cut by roughly the same amount that tuition was being cut, therefore making the tuition cut basically ineffective for all of the students," the student said.
Last year, 248 undergraduate students received non-need-based scholarships, out of 1,429 students in the school, and some say they feel misled.
But school officials said the university focused on reducing the total cost of attending Sewanee when it decided to reduce tuition, which had increased almost 30 percent in the last five years.
"Individual family circumstances and need may vary, but no returning Sewanee student will pay more next year due to a tuition increase than he or she is paying now, and most will pay less," according to the announcement Feb. 16.
The email also said specific information about financial aid for 2011-12 would be available in the coming weeks. Sewanee spokeswoman Laurie Saxton said the school was letting parents and students know that changes were coming even if everything wasn't yet settled.
"I think some people overlooked that or didn't realize how exactly it was going to affect them until that decision was made on an individual basis," she said.
Notification about the reduced student assistance came in a March 2 letter to parents of merit scholarship recipients. The letter doesn't specifically say that scholarship amounts will be reduced, though a box at the bottom lists different values for the President's Award -- $10,000 in the 2010-11 year and $6,000 for the 2011-12 year.
Chancellor's Award scholarships were similarly reduced. One letter shows a change from $32,000 to $28,000.
This year, 330 students -- sophomores through seniors (it was not awarded to incoming freshmen) -- received a President's Award and 17 students, spread across all four class years, are receiving a Chancellor's Award.
Lee Ann Afton, dean of admission for The University of the South, said the school decided to lower merit scholarships to put more money toward need-based financial aid.
"We wanted to pull away from a lot of the merit negotiating and try to provide more aid for students who wouldn't afford it otherwise," she said.
It's not uncommon for institutions that cut their price to also scale back on the institutional aid provided, said Tony Pals, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
"First of all, it's part of the way that institutions that cut their tuition are able to afford it," he said. "Secondly, other institutions have taken a similar approach by wanting to increase their need-based institutional aid," which helps them attract more low- to middle-income students, he said.
Peter Kennedy, a music major and pre-med junior, said he was upset at first because his merit scholarship was reduced, but after learning all the facts he understands he is paying less than if tuition had continued to climb even if his scholarship had been left intact.
"The key is that scholarships aren't real money; they are discounts," he said.
He agreed that the way the tuition cut was handled was confusing and the school could have done better in communicating this to students.
A group of merit-based scholarship recipients and a parent who also asked to remain anonymous because of their long histories with the school, say they were promised a certain amount of money when they got their letters of acceptance to be renewed every year for four years providing the students met certain requirements.
Now, they say, the university has changed the rules.
In previous years as tuition rose, the scholarships did not go up, one student wrote in an email. But now that tuition is lower, those scholarships have been reduced.
Another student wrote, "For many of us, that money is the only way that we can afford to attend Sewanee. When the tuition cut was announced, we were thrilled for both Sewanee and ourselves, but imagine our surprise when we learned that almost the entire amount of the individual cut was coming out of our individual scholarships?"
A group of student representatives met with Vice Chancellor and President John McCardell and Afton about the issue in March. Students provided a copy of the minutes to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, but Saxton said she wasn't aware that the minutes existed and had not reviewed them.
According to the minutes, students expressed their concerns that the original letter came across as dishonest and did not portray accurately the effects of the tuition cut or how it would affect scholarships over time.
Although they appreciate the reduction, students said, they feel cheated.
"I wish they had cut the amount paid by everyone currently here by the same amount and not retroactively reduced scholarships that were promised," a student said.
The parent of one of the merit-based recipients affected said her family had to pay more because her need-based assistance decreased as a result of the tuition reduction.
But she still thinks The University of the South is a great school and other family members will continue to apply, despite their disappointment at the scholarship reduction.
"I'm still extraordinarily hopeful this is a big mistake and ultimately you can't tell another son, daughter, niece, nephew that they shouldn't apply to a fabulous university like Sewanee," she said.
Afton said the school was not trying to penalize anyone.
"We felt terrible because they felt penalized," she said.