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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. This article was produced in partnership with Spotlight PA and The Philadelphia Inquirer, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom based in Harrisburg.

HERSHEY, Pa. — When Dayshawn Carroll graduated from the Milton Hershey School in 2011, his goal of college seemed firmly within his grasp. He had lived for six years at the nation’s wealthiest private school, his days tightly scheduled around studying, sports, and chores. The school’s manicured campus, about 15 miles from the impoverished Harrisburg neighborhood where he had grown up, was a world apart — “like Hogwarts,” he said, referring to the boarding school in the Harry Potter novels.

The school, in Derry Township, requires students to live on campus, and Carroll wondered at first if his mom was punishing him by sending him away. But she told her 11-year-old son that the school, which only admits children from low-income families, was not only free but would pay for his college education too.

The tens of thousands of dollars in college funds, though an unusually generous scholarship, would turn out to bring new problems.

With more than $17 billion in assets, the Milton Hershey School is richer than Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh combined. The boarding school educates and houses about 2,100 low-income and at-risk children, pre-K through high school. In recent years, half have come from families with histories of substance abuse, around 40% had a family history of mental health problems, and about a third had a family member who was incarcerated. According to its tax records, MHS spent $91,095 per child on academics, sports, trips, mental and physical health care, scholarships, and living expenses in the 2018-19 academic year — intended as a glide path to the middle class.

The school is unlike almost any other in the United States. It accepts no government aid and charges no tuition or fees. Nearly $180 million in stock dividends flows, tax-free, into the school’s coffers each year, derived from the high-margin profits from chocolate, candies, and snacks made by the huge for-profit Hershey Co.

But the institution has struggled for decades to reconcile its runaway financial growth with its founding mission to “break the cycle of poverty.” While school officials point out that enrollment has almost doubled over the last 20 years, the institution has faced criticisms that it is not spending enough of its vast wealth on helping poor children. As a private school, it is not subject to oversight from the state Education Department. Besides its board, the only body empowered to ensure that the school fulfills its mission is the state Attorney General’s Office.

The Inquirer, Spotlight PA, and ProPublica set out to understand how well MHS is fulfilling its mission, laid out by chocolate company entrepreneur Milton S. Hershey and his wife, Catherine, when they founded the school 111 years ago. Reporters analyzed Hershey financial records; reviewed court documents; talked to state officials, education experts, and child care providers; and interviewed more than 50 former students who graduated between 1940 and 2020 about the school’s impact on their lives.

Many of the alumni interviewed told us they valued their time at the school; as a student body, they score highly on standardized tests, and many said the school set them up to succeed. But 20 graduates also described the difficulty of the transition to life after high school, away from the school’s regimented environment, with some comparing life on campus to a “snow globe” or a “bubble.” Ten former students said they accepted the school’s exacting discipline and the anguish of being away from their families as the price of having college paid for.

Four out of five MHS graduates start postsecondary education immediately after high school, enrolling in a certificate program, trade school, or two- or four-year college. While there is no perfect yardstick for assessing how they fared once they got there, we found decidedly mixed results.

Between 2006 and 2015, about half of those who enrolled in college or another educational program graduated within six years, slightly below the national average; administrators say reaching the national average is their goal.

MHS graduates who don’t make it through college, though, are left with an additional burden: debt. That’s because the school offers high-stakes scholarships, earned with good behavior and grades during students’ time at MHS, that can backfire for those who start college but don’t finish. Each year they use the scholarship money, MHS alums must first take out $2,500 in subsidized federal loans, personal debt that the school promises to pay off only if they graduate.

This system, which was introduced starting with the Class of 2011, means that students who start college but don’t finish must pay back the loans on their own, leaving them weighed down with debt as they start their adult lives.

» READ MORE: Hershey School proposes a Pa. network of six free early childhood centers with $350 million

The news organizations were in contact with the school throughout the investigation, via email exchanges, phone calls, and a five-hour visit to the campus in April. Before publication, we presented MHS with detailed accounts from the students whose stories are told in this article. MHS spokesperson Lisa Scullin initially said the school could not comment on specific students, past or present, due to privacy laws. We asked five students featured in this article if they would sign broad waivers provided by the news organizations that would allow the school to comment on their accounts. They did, but the school again declined to comment, claiming that the waivers insufficiently protected students. However, when the news organizations provided updated waivers, signed by the students, that addressed the specific concerns expressed by the school, Scullin said: “MHS would never comment publicly on issues that could make it difficult for specific students to succeed either personally or professionally.” She went on to say that the reporting was being done in a way “that failed to protect privacy. The result is an incomplete and misleading story that does not match the truth.”

More broadly, the school said that such individual stories were not representative of students’ experiences and the school’s larger pattern of success. And administrators said they had not heard complaints from alumni about the debt requirement.

But the news organizations’ interviews with former students found that the policy caused serious problems for some. In interviews, Carroll said he considered skipping college altogether. But, not wanting to give up the scholarship money, he enrolled at the Harrisburg Area Community College in 2011 and took out the subsidized federal loan newly required by Hershey for his graduating class.

“If you have too much money, why are kids taking out loans? Why would you leave them in debt because they’re failing out?”

Dayshawn Carroll, Milton Hershey School graduate

Away from the structure and support of his elite high school, Carroll felt adrift. When he didn’t have money for the bus, he’d spend almost an hour walking to campus, writing rap music in his head, and often arriving late. Crushed to discover he was failing several classes, he dropped out within five months.

“I just said, ‘Screw it,’” he recalled. At age 19 and still adjusting to life beyond the confines of the MHS campus, he said he didn’t make payments on the loan or realize that failing to pay it off would haunt him for the next decade.

But it did: He worked at a series of convenience stores and then for a debt collection agency — switching jobs to dodge the debt collectors threatening to garnish his wages. By the time he knew what a credit score was, his had dropped to “very poor.” Three years ago, he said, an income tax refund he’d been counting on for rent money was seized to pay back part of the debt.

Carroll remembers his years at MHS, playing football and wrestling, as some of the best of his life. But when it came to the scholarship program, he said the school didn’t take into account how hard the transition to college could be. Now 28, he lives in the neighborhood where he grew up and works at a McDonald’s, making $11.25 an hour. Ten years after taking out the loan, he still owes just over $950.

In a court hearing last year, administrators testified that the school had more money than it could spend, having amassed a $1.2 billion surplus. “If you have too much money, why are kids taking out loans?” Carroll asked when told about the surplus funds. “Why would you leave them in debt because they’re failing out?”

Milton and Catherine

Milton Hershey had a clear idea of what he wanted when, on Nov. 15, 1909, he and his wife, Catherine, signed the 26-page legal document that would be the basis of their charity. The deed reflected the idiosyncratic wishes of its founders: to create the Hershey Industrial School, controlled by Milton Hershey’s bank and located on Hershey-owned farms in Derry Township, south of Harrisburg, where orphans would milk cows and cut hay. Only “poor, healthy white male orphans, of … ages between four and eight years” would be admitted.

Hershey, who himself had dropped out of school to apprentice, wanted the boys to be able to earn a decent living right away.

“[T]he main object in view,” the Hersheys wrote in the deed, “is to train young men to useful trades and occupations” so that once a student left the school, “he may be able to support himself.”

The deed added other restrictions: The school would be “permanently” located in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Milton’s company town, and its leaders could spend only the income from the endowment on the school’s students and operations. And the deed spelled out what was expected of students. “If any orphan admitted to the school should be incompetent to learn, or master a trade … or become insubordinate, or guilty of vice or crime … or become an unfit companion for the others … he may be removed or expelled.”

By the early 1920s, 120 boys were enrolled; by the late 1930s, that number had grown to around 1,000. But by then, the nation’s orphanage era was already passing. Child care reformers called for orphans to live with foster parents or advocated for cash payments so disadvantaged children could live at home instead of in institutions.

Catherine passed away in 1915, Milton in 1945. Under the deed, control of both the chocolate company and the orphanage passed to individuals who sat on the board of Milton Hershey’s bank. They elected themselves each year to those positions, which automatically also made them members of the school’s board — a complex governance structure still in place.

Over time, board members modernized the institution, breaking with some restrictions in the original deed. Nonwhite orphans were admitted starting in the late 1960s, girls and at-risk children who were not orphans in the next decade. In the 1990s, the school moved away from the farm programs and trade-school shops that Milton Hershey had envisioned as the pathway out of poverty and upgraded its academics.

And that academic emphasis shows: In 2019, 93.4% of students tested proficient or advanced in literature on the state’s standardized tests, compared with the state average of 56.7%. The same year, MHS students scored an average of 1091 on the SATs, above the national average of 1059. In recent years, most MHS graduates have started postsecondary education the fall after high school, enrolling at higher rates than the national average and on par with students from wealthier backgrounds.

Not everything has changed with the times. Although its assets have ballooned, the school has not changed its financial structure and still spends only the income from the Hershey estate to run the school, limiting its annual spending to an average of 2.2% of its assets over the last 20 years.

The board has also kept the school’s residential structure. And its early-20th-century orphanage origins are still reflected in its culture. Many families who begin the application process drop out after realizing they don’t want to be separated from their children, the school told us. School officials maintain, though, that requiring students to live on campus offers them a stable home life; one requirement for admission, written into the deed, is that a child “is not receiving adequate care from one of his or her natural parents.”

The MHS system can be life-changing. Many graduates are fiercely loyal to the school and say it not only gave them an excellent education but also cared for them when their families could not. They remain lifelong friends with their fellow “Milts,” as alums and students call themselves, and look back fondly on weekend trips to amusement parks or the Baltimore waterfront. Some said their time at MHS molded them into responsible adults; others still make their beds each morning, scrub their floors, or line up their toiletries the way they were taught in their student homes.

Anna Marhefka recalled waiting to collect her diploma, debt-free, during her college graduation ceremony from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 2018. She thought back on the day when, at the age of 13, she had left her family in Massachusetts to enroll at the Milton Hershey School.

Marhefka was the first in her family to graduate from college. Her eyes welled up. She saw that her mother, up in the stands, was crying too. “It was like a profound movie moment,” she said. “Out of all the kids MHS could have selected, I was given that shot, and here I am walking across the stage.”

Asked about the school’s success in preparing kids for college, MHS officials pointed to cases like Marhefka’s. They said students now receive extensive support after they graduate from high school and noted that MHS alums earn bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than low-income students nationwide, based on a recent three-year average. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the school’s unparalleled resources and the fact that it screens all children who apply and accepts only those whose health and intelligence (as measured through IQ tests) meet its standards. School officials also consider applicants’ character and leadership ability.

Administrators reiterated that the school’s own surveys of its alumni found that they have household incomes slightly higher than the national average and are less likely to be unemployed.

Interviews with other students present a different picture. They made clear that the bargain they had made to attain their education had backfired.

Scholarships with Strings

Ask MHS graduates what drew them to the school and the overwhelming answer is “college.”

The school is, in fact, unique in this regard: The current $95,000 scholarship could cover most of the various costs of obtaining a bachelor’s degree at a Pennsylvania state-run college. Nationally, only 3% of all undergraduate scholarship recipients receive more than $2,500 in scholarship funds per year.

Scullin, the school’s spokesperson, said families rarely identify the chance to earn a college scholarship as a top reason for sending their children to MHS. But 16 former students said in interviews that the promise of money for college was one of the main reasons they enrolled, or stayed, at the school.

» READ MORE: America’s richest school serves low-income kids. But much of its Hershey-funded fortune isn’t being spent.

As seniors, MHS students live in dorm-style apartments to prepare them for the freedoms of college and adult life. One long-standing ritual for MHS seniors is a school-financed shopping spree to get ready for life outside the Hershey campus, which has strict rules about students’ clothes, including what they wear outside of the classroom.

But the scholarship money comes with strings, part of a culture of strict discipline and penalties for misbehavior. While in high school, students earn the funds each year through good grades and behavior: 5% as a freshman, 10% as a sophomore, 30% as a junior, then 50% senior year. If a student’s grades slip or they misbehave, they can lose tens of thousands of dollars of their scholarship.

Taylor Bost, a 2011 MHS graduate, grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in public housing in Wilmington and attended public schools. But his mother — who was suffering from kidney disease and was on dialysis — wanted something better for him. A nurse told her about MHS and Bost enrolled in 2004 as a sixth grader, he said. He remembers seeing the student home where he would live for the first time, “Just like, ‘Wow,’ just like a little kid.” Then came the student handbook, laying out the rules and expectations for a Milton Hershey student — “Bigger than a hoagie,” he joked.

Students live in group homes of eight to 12, cared for by MHS staff known as “houseparents,” who, under school rules, must be married couples. Among their responsibilities: to monitor and rate student behavior as the frontline enforcers of the school’s disciplinary program, a tiered system of merits and demerits.

In their MHS homes, alums said, they were ranked by how well they did their chores and followed rules. Among the behaviors that graduates told us affected their ranking: gossiping, being late, not eating all their dinner, having a bad attitude, and failing to vacuum and dust properly. A higher ranking would lead to more privileges, like being able to watch TV or having a later bedtime. The system meant that students could share a house but effectively live in separate worlds, Bost said.

Alums also described tiers of infractions that led to demerits: Accumulating enough demerits can cost a student thousands of dollars of their scholarship. According to the 2019-20 student handbook, for instance, a student who accrues more than 50 demerit points in a year risks earning less than the full scholarship amount for that year. More serious misbehavior could lead to students losing the entire scholarship they would have earned that year.

And a dozen former students said the disciplinary system is not applied evenly. An offense that one set of houseparents might shrug off could result in demerits in another student home.

This system of earning scholarship money based on “good behavior, character, and proficiency” is written into the deed. School officials said they believe it teaches accountability. So long as a student has decent grades and is “trending in the right direction,” they will earn the money each year, said Tanya Baynham, vice president of Graduate Programs for Success, the division of the school that supports students after they finish high school. Since 2010, the majority of students have graduated with the full scholarship amount, she said, but she declined to specify how many students lose some of the money. Although the penalties for specific infractions have shifted over time, Scullin, the school’s spokesperson, said “minor behavioral infractions never put scholarships at risk.”

When it comes to discipline, MHS has its own distinct systems. But perhaps the closest parallels are “no excuses” charter schools, which in the last two decades have cropped up across the country and have argued that their exacting rules are critical to helping low-income students succeed academically and prepare for college.

More recently, however, some schools that once touted this approach have promised a softer touch. Last year, the president and the CEO of Uncommon Schools, which runs 55 charter schools across the Northeast, publicly apologized for the group’s disciplinary policies after students posted criticisms on social media. The largest network of charter schools in Chicago ended a demerit system that cracked down on small infractions and, in a letter to alumni, apologized for its harsh discipline policies. “We were disguising punishment as accountability and high expectations,” officials wrote earlier this year, according to WBEZ.

And in 2013, a Brooklyn network of charter schools loosened its rigid discipline and scrapped its color-coded rankings of students’ behavior. The “ceaseless structure,” the network’s founder wrote several years later, “was doing little to prepare our students to function autonomously in college and beyond.”

“They don’t give you a chance to live a regular life and make mistakes without taking away your future.”

Taylor Bost, Milton Hershey School graduate

At MHS, because discipline is tied to college funding, the stakes are even higher. Eight former students told the news organizations that they lost some of their scholarship money as a result of disciplinary infractions.

The school wouldn’t comment on the specific disciplinary actions or how they were applied in the student homes. Scullin said that, since 2014, the school has “evolved our approach to student behavioral response,” to focus on character development and empathy. But she said the tiered system where students earn an increasing percentage of their scholarship each year is still in place.

And that system can have real consequences for students who struggle. After Bost’s mother died of kidney failure his freshman year, he stopped caring about chores and kept to himself. “I was detached from everything,” he said.

His houseparents that year talked through his feelings and didn’t give him demerits, he said. But in his junior and senior years, he couldn’t shake his grief and apathy toward the rules governing school and home life, and he was tagged with infractions that ate away at his scholarship.

Bost said he wasn’t a troublemaker so much as hapless, failing to make his bed or do chores as thoroughly as his houseparents wanted. Of the four behavioral rankings at the time — “Novice,” “Brown,” “Gold,” and “Spartan,” the highest — he was repeatedly ranked as “Novice,” the lowest. Falling behind in school, he’d often stay up late to study, then oversleep the next day. He also remembers receiving demerit points for breaking a door and cursing at one of his houseparents. By graduation, Bost said he was eligible for only $15,000 of the $79,000 in total scholarship money that was available to each student in the Class of 2011. The school declined to comment on Bost’s account.

Now living in Hazleton, Bost works for DoorDash and wonders how things might have gone if he hadn’t lost so much of the scholarship — would he have landed a better job, perhaps, or be running his own business.

“They don’t give you a chance to live a regular life and make mistakes without taking away your future,” he said.

‘The real student debt crisis’

Despite their rigorous high school education and thousands of dollars in college scholarship money, MHS graduates still face major obstacles to earning a degree. Low-income students are less likely to graduate, may take longer to finish their degrees, and are more likely to stop and restart at multiple institutions, research shows.

MHS administrators say they understand these challenges. In 2016, the school created a new department to support students after they leave high school, with regular check-ins and campus visits. Administrators say that since the program’s launch, the number of students staying on for their second year of college has increased by 6 percentage points, from 73% to 79%, exceeding the national average.

Low-income students are also at risk of financial trouble when they take on debt to pay for their education. Nonetheless, starting with the Class of 2011, administrators made a change that would have serious repercussions for students who don’t make it through college. Under the policy, in order to access their scholarship funds, students are required to first take out $2,500 per year in subsidized federal loans, although the required loan can be for a smaller amount under certain circumstances. If they graduate within six years, they can use their scholarship money to pay off the debt. But if they do not, they have to pay the loans back on their own.

While the policy was intended to encourage graduates to stay in school, it has risks.

Borrowers with student loan debt but no degree are roughly five times more likely to default on their loans than those who graduate with a bachelor’s, federal data show, even though they tend to owe smaller amounts. Those who owe $5,000 or less have the highest default rates. And defaulting adds extra fees to the amount owed and can wreck someone’s credit score for years. Nationally, among borrowers who started college in 2011 — the first year MHS students were required to take out loans — 41% of those who left without a degree or certificate had defaulted within five years, according to a report from the Center for American Progress, a think tank. In a book on financial aid, Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab calls borrowers who drop out without a degree “the real student debt crisis.”

The school discourages graduates from borrowing more than the required $2,500 per year. Asked why, Baynham, who oversees the MHS scholarship program, acknowledged that additional student loans are a “bad idea” for MHS students. But school officials also said the required loans are “an intentionally low amount.” Baynham said the school believes students see them “as an investment in their future, and I would hope that would be motivating and inspiring to them.”

Taylor Robinson, who graduated from MHS in 2015 and later from Penn State, remembered learning about the loan requirement during a ninth-grade class. She recalls being told that school officials made the change because students in previous years hadn’t taken college seriously enough. “It was to hold us accountable.” Seven other former students recalled hearing similar explanations.

The three news organizations spoke with 11 higher-education experts, who said the design of the scholarship program was highly unusual and had not seen research to suggest that the prospect of debt would give students an incentive to complete college. They said the overall benefits of such a policy were murky, while the risks of requiring low-income students to take out loans were clear.

Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and former publisher of a website about college financial aid, said that some low-income students would inevitably drop out of college because of factors beyond their control, and that taking on debt would put some of them at a permanent financial disadvantage. “I don’t think of that kind of policy as being morally defensible,” he said.

In fact, recent trends have gone in the opposite direction. In the last 20 years, roughly 75 colleges, most highly selective and wealthy, have adopted “no-loan” policies, offering students financial aid via grants or work-study positions rather than loans.

The Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which offers scholarships to low-income students of color who excelled academically in high school, also advises students not to take out loans, said Larry Griffith, senior vice president for programs and student services at the United Negro College Fund, which runs the program.

“We did not want our students to worry where dollars were coming from,” Griffith said. “Just like a student from a well-to-do household, by not having them work or worry about loans, the weights were off and they could perform to the best of their abilities,” he said.

“The idea that borrowing student loans provides skin in the game is common, but there is no evidence to support it,” said Jackie Bright, executive director of the National Scholarship Providers Association.

“I find it very strange for an organization that’s got money to burn to be encouraging students to take on debt,” said Eddy Conroy, a researcher at Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.

MHS officials said the loan policy is part of a longer history of requiring graduates to contribute to the cost of college. To support the loan requirement, which started with the graduating class of 2011, Scullin, the school’s spokesperson, pointed to a 2013 academic paper that found that college students who received any financial support from their parents had slightly lower GPAs than those who didn’t. Those findings, she said, “suggest that the students least likely to excel are those who receive essentially blank checks for college expenses.”

Laura Hamilton, the paper’s author and chair of the sociology department at University of California, Merced, called this a “pretty severe misreading” of her work. “The paper says nothing about debt motivating low-income students,” she said, echoing other experts’ concerns about the loan requirement. “I can’t see any scholarly basis for this policy.”

» READ MORE: Hershey School board member sues the wealthy school over access to its financial records

In interviews with 19 MHS alumni who started college after the school began requiring students to take out loans, nine said they had to pay off the loans themselves after dropping out for a variety of reasons: academic struggles, unexpected pregnancy, difficulty in adjusting to life on their own. Some were steadily paying the loans off, or had already finished. Others had stopped making payments altogether and were facing a cascade of financial consequences.

None said the debt had been an incentive to stay in school.

And although MHS officials said the school provides extensive training in financial literacy, many of the former students said they didn’t fully understand the consequences of failing to keep up with payments. Several were confused about how much in loans they had taken out or still owed. Only a few said they knew about repayment options for borrowers experiencing financial hardship; federal studies have repeatedly found that many eligible borrowers miss out on these protections.

John Muerdler, who graduated from Hershey in 2011, dropped out of community college after only a few weeks. “It was like the biggest failure ever for me,” he said. He borrowed the $2,500 required to tap into his scholarship money — plus, he estimates, an additional $1,200 to pay for expenses the scholarship did not cover.

Muerdler now lives in South Carolina, caring for his grandfather, working at Target, and still dealing with the fallout from his student debt, which grew when he tried to go back to school several years later. His grandfather wants to add him to the mortgage for the house they live in so Muerdler can own it one day. But after defaulting on his student loans, his credit score is too low. He’s trying to improve it, but when letters from debt collectors arrive, he only glances at them before throwing them away. “The numbers are just too big,” he said. “My anxiety is literally like: ‘Don’t look at it.’”

Other students were confused by the details of the scholarship’s rules.

Kearasten Jordan, another 2011 graduate, visited Wilkes University with a van of other MHS students and an MHS staffer in her senior year. She borrowed more than the required $2,500 per year to be able to afford the private college in northeastern Pennsylvania. Jordan said she didn’t worry about being in debt; she says she thought the school would pay off all her loans if she graduated on time. And, she figured, of course she would graduate: She thought that the school had prepared her for what was to come.

At Wilkes, however, Jordan soon began to feel that she didn’t fit in. Milton Hershey had been full of kids who looked like her; at Wilkes, she was one of only a handful of Black students. And while other students’ parents would do their laundry for them or whisk them away to vacation homes for the weekend, Jordan had to balance classes with working and paying for basic necessities. Jordan said her grades were good, but she became depressed. She withdrew after three semesters, intending to go back, and returned home with $17,500 in debt.

Almost nine years later, she has defaulted on the loans and her credit score is too low for her to rent her own apartment. She said she still doesn’t fully understand the details of the financial aid package she signed at age 18.

Jordan knows other Milts who dropped out of college. She said many are too ashamed to talk about it. At the school, she said, students are told over and over they have no reason to fail. Then “they are being shoved into a system that is not prepared for them and does not care for them.”

An MHS lifer’s journey

For former students like Stormy Eny-Edy, attending MHS was a trade-off: The generous college scholarship would make the sacrifice of living away from family worth it.

She was a “lifer” there, taken in by the school after her mom died when she was 3. She’s thankful for the good times, like the summer programs for gifted students she participated in at Johns Hopkins University in seventh and eighth grade. There were some awkward times as well: Over her 14 years there, Eny-Edy shuttled among seven student homes and 10 sets of houseparents.

At times, she longed to go live with family. Her father, aunt, and sister urged her not to pass up the chance to go to college. “I stayed for the scholarship,” she said.

By the time of her high school graduation, in the summer of 2011, the school had put hundreds of thousands of dollars into Eny-Edy’s education and upbringing. She had earned a $75,000 college scholarship — she said she lost several thousand dollars her freshman year for consistently failing to tuck in her shirt — to carry her forward to a degree from West Chester University.

At college, though, she felt lost. “It has its own dress code. It has its own culture,” Eny-Edy said of MHS. “You are assimilated into that culture and then you leave and that culture doesn’t mean anything.”

At MHS, she had never skipped classes. But now, there was no one to make sure she didn’t sleep through her 8 a.m. Spanish class. Nothing seemed to make sense in physics, so she stopped going altogether. And when her grades started slipping, she didn’t lose privileges or have to do extra chores until she got them back up. In her first semester, Eny-Edy earned a GPA below 1.0 and her MHS scholarship was suspended.

She emailed an MHS official to ask for another chance. “It was a tough transition from MHS to college and I feel strongly that I am comfortable enough now in the college environment to find success in the next semester,” she wrote. She told the news organizations she never heard back. MHS declined to comment.

Unsure where things stood, Eny-Edy returned to campus for her second semester, only to find out, on her first day of classes, that her balance hadn’t been paid. The college told her she needed to pay it herself or leave the next day, she said.

She remembers standing in front of a walk-up window in the registrar’s office, crying, pleading for more time. Then she went back to her dorm room and packed her things. The next day, her dad drove her home.

She spent a year waiting tables in Ohio, depressed and isolated, not wanting to tell anyone what had happened. “I had worked for 14 years to earn this scholarship, and I finally got to the mountaintop and I failed,” she said.

By early 2017, older and wiser and ready to give college another try, she sent a Facebook message to her seventh-grade English teacher at MHS, Tanya Baynham, asking if her scholarship could be reinstated. Baynham — who was by then overseeing the scholarship program — said there was nothing she could do, Eny-Edy recalled. According to another school rule, students in her class had five years to use the money. Eny-Edy was a year too late.

ProPublica engagement reporter Beena Raghavendran and former ProPublica research fellow Zipporah Osei contributed to this article.

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