Students left empty-handed as scholarship goes bust

By Joe Tash

Five college freshmen from San Diego County — including 2013 graduates of Canyon Crest Academy and Torrey Pines High School — have learned a difficult, real-life lesson of financial bottom lines and broken promises along with their studies this year.

All five participated in a rigorous scholarship competition put on last year by a San Diego-based nonprofit group, won the competition and were awarded four-year scholarships of varying amounts.  But midway through their first year of college, they were informed the group had no more money with which to continue the scholarship payments.

The bad news came in a Jan. 13 email from Jim Hester, organizer of the STOP 2011 scholarship program, which was put on in conjunction with the Heartland Coalition, a San Diego-based nonprofit.

“Because of donors who withdrew their pledges, there are no funds to pay out the scholarships.  I am sorry,” said Hester’s two-sentence email.

Organizers expressed regret, but said the money just isn’t available to make good on the promised scholarships.

“We wish with all our hearts we had the money to do this,” said Mark Hanson, president of the Heartland Coalition, a retired teacher who said he contributed his own money to make partial payments on the scholarships.

“This is the biggest disappointment, failure and embarrassment of my life and words cannot convey my feelings,” wrote Hester in another email to the scholarship winners.

The abrupt end of the program came as a shock and disappointment to the students, who competed for months through four different stages of the contest: an essay, a letter to the editor, a speech and a debate.  According to the STOP 2011 web site, which has since been taken down, some 150 high school seniors competed from throughout San Diego County, and the five students with the highest cumulative point totals from all four rounds were declared the winners.

Although scholarship organizers could be liable to make good on their promises based on emails they sent to winners, the question is whether a legal effort would be worth the cost, time and effort if the organizers don’t have the money to pay a judgment, said A. Thomas Golden, professor of contract law at Thomas Jefferson Law School in San Diego.

Legally, scholarship organizers could be “on the hook” because they promised the payments in exchange for actions by the students, such as participation in the competitive events, and the students fulfilled their end of the bargain, Golden said.  The students also relied on the promised scholarship money to help pay for college, which could also create legal liability, he said.

Miranda Ceja, a student from Mission Hills High School in San Marcos, who placed second in the competition, said she was devastated when she got Hester’s email.

“I broke down in tears when I read there was no money to award my scholarship,” said Miranda, who is majoring in journalism at Long Beach State University. “I was just extremely stressed out and I felt manipulated, taken advantage of.”

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