NWOSU asks federal education officials if names of discretionary scholarship recipients are public information

Northwestern Oklahoma State University will ask federal education officials if the names of students receiving scholarships funded by Alva sales taxes may be disclosed to the public, NWOSU President Janet Cunningham said in a recent newspaper column.

But the answer might already be "no."

In May 2009, the Education Department advised the University of Central Arkansas at Conway "not to release the names of who got millions of dollars in publicly funded, no-criteria, discretionary scholarships under the UCA president’s auspices," the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

After the federal official who wrote the letter was fired in February, the newspaper appealed his decision regarding UCA's now-discontinued Presidential Discretionary Scholarship Program.

But in a recent letter, the Education Department's compliance office "stood by its old decision," reporter Debra Hale-Shelton told the FOI Oklahoma Blog.

However, she said, the office "also suggested that certain scholarships not related to financial aid needs were exempt."

"Still, UCA refused to release the information," Hale-Shelton said.

She had asked UCA for the names after learning that "some of the people on that list got these scholarships because they were friends or children of friends of the former president, Lu Hardin," Hale-Shelton told the Student Press Law Center in 2009.

"[The scholarships] were political favors," she said.

In an article this past February, Hale-Shelton noted that "the very thing that made the presidential discretionary scholarships an issue was one reason" the federal official said UCA should not disclose the names.

The then-director of the Family Policy Compliance Office had cited the lack of published criteria as a reason for not disclosing which students received the scholarships.

Some universities include scholarships in the definition of honors and awards received by students, which the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act lets schools disclose unless the student has objected in writing.

But the exception would not apply “in situations where the basis for the scholarship is undefined or could be need-based or related to a student’s financial need,” wrote then-Director Paul Gammill.

“Because the release of this type of scholarship information in personally identifiable form could be potentially harmful or an invasion of privacy, FERPA would preclude the university from disclosing this information without the prior written consent of the recipient,” Gammill wrote.

UCA's scholarships seem similar to those awarded by NWOSU.

NWOSU officials in June refused to disclose who got scholarships funded by the Alva Economic Development Incentive Sales Tax Grant this past spring. The school had made the information public for 10 years under an agreement with the city.

But the general counsel for the Regional University System of Oklahoma told the school that disclosing the names violates FERPA, said NWOSU's president in a column published June 27 in the Alva Review-Courier.

NWOSU distributed $214,000 from the scholarship fund for the spring semester. The money comes from a 1999 city sales tax approved by Alva voters for economic development.

"Half was dedicated to Northwestern to create an incentive for students to attend Northwestern and establish a permanent or part-time residence in Alva," Cunningham wrote in her column. "The charge to Northwestern was simple – use the money in the best way possible to attract the largest number of students."

In January,
The Alva Review-Courier raised questions about the distribution of the fall semester scholarships.

Of the $220,222, NWOSU awarded $57,000 to 57 athletes, the newspaper reported. Each received $1,000, which was the largest amount given to students. In contrast, 18 students received valedictorian scholarships of $750 each.

Cunningham said the university "continues to make available to all members of the city council a list of students who receive funds, the amounts they receive, and the purpose of the award – such as participation in an extra-curricular program."

"The people elected to represent us on the city council have access to all information regarding the program," Cunningham said. "However, in Mr. (Charlie) Babb's opinion, FERPA precludes the public disclosure of this information without the student's permission."

Wouldn't disclosing the names to council members be a FERPA violation? If not, why can't the information be released to the public?

Aren't Alva's residents entitled to know if their tax money is being doled out as it was intended?

City leaders thought so in 1999 when NWOSU agreed to disclose the names of recipients, how much each received and why each was chosen to get the scholarship. Didn't university officials determine then if disclosing the names would violate FERPA?

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media and Strategic Communications
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.