- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - The University of Iowa is improperly revoking scholarships promised to 3,000 students in response to state budget cuts, according to a pair of lawsuits that seek to block the plan.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday claims the university “breached its contractual duties” to students who were recently informed that their four-year scholarships will be eliminated next fall. It seeks class-action status and an order blocking the cuts from going into effect.

“I was guaranteed this and now it has been taken away,” said Jenna Pokorny, a sophomore slated to lose $6,000 in scholarships during her final two years in school. She said the awards persuaded her to attend UI instead of Drake University, which had offered her a full-tuition scholarship.

A separate lawsuit filed Monday alleges that UI President Bruce Harreld’s decision to revoke the scholarships “without warning, without due process, and without just compensation” violated students’ constitutional rights.

Harreld announced the decision last week, blaming the Legislature’s “devastating” $8 million cut to help balance the state budget. Republicans who control the Legislature have accused the university of playing politics by targeting the scholarships, questioning whether the school could find $4.4 million in savings elsewhere.

Most of those affected are recipients of the Iowa Heritage Award, which automatically gave students whose parent or grandparent attended the university a $1,500 annual award for four years of undergraduate studies.

When notified of the awards, students were told that they had to enroll full-time and keep a 2.0 grade point average to receive the discount on tuition and mandatory fees, which total nearly $9,000 for in-state students. The university added language to its website last month warning that scholarships could be cut in response to reductions in state funding.

Former President Sally Mason implemented the program in 2014 during a push to recruit more in-state students. Her effort came in response to a since-abandoned plan by the Board of Regents to base funding on in-state enrollment, which would have transferred millions of dollars away from the campus.

Many students say the scholarship offers helped convince them to attend UI instead of other schools.

Pokorny, the plaintiff in the case filed Tuesday, is slated to lose two four-year scholarships: the Heritage Award and the President’s Heritage Award, an additional $1,500 annually for 20 high-achieving legacy students. “I’m writing you with more good news!” the university’s admissions director wrote her in 2014, promising the awards.

Pokorny said the loss would be a hardship for her family and many others. The lawsuit requests an immediate hearing to seek an order blocking the cuts, at a time when students are deciding what schools they’ll be attending next fall.

Pokorny’s attorney, James Larew, said he suspects the university made a political miscalculation by cutting the scholarships, and he hopes the school will reassess the decision without the need for court intervention.

University spokeswoman Jeneane Beck declined to comment. UI has defended the cuts by noting the awards were not based on financial need or merit.

Pokorny disputed that, noting that the presidential award was based partly on academics.

“Instead of just complaining about it, I’m making an effort to change the outcome of what’s happened,” she said.

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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley

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