TURLOCK -- California State University, Stanislaus, officials acknowledged making a $48,000 mistake that gave a dozen MBA students windfalls of $4,000 each, but say they won't award diplomas or release transcripts until they get the money back.
That leaves 32-year-old Sami Younan of Riverbank in a fix. He lost his job in the pharmaceutical industry shortly before completing the 15-month executive master's of business administration program at CSU, Stanislaus, in November.
Younan said he called the university after he received his $4,000 check in the mail and said he was told it was a "financial aid overpayment." He used it to pay his bills.
"Not only did they make the mistake, but they're punishing us for making that mistake," Younan said. "It's really sad the university has treated us this way."
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Robyn Criswell-Bloom, director of extended education, said it is university policy to withhold diplomas and transcripts if a student has an outstanding balance.
But one of the students' professors, Steven Filling, said this is a "unique" situation that differs from the typical student who owes the university money.
"If what's going on is outside the normal parameters, it seems we might come up with an outside- parameters solution," Filling said. "Let's try to make life as easy as possible for (the students)."
Some observers said CSU, Stanislaus, should not withhold the diplomas and transcripts before it resolves the issue with the students.
"There seems to be coercion involved, coercion to get these students to pay money back that they didn't ask for but was given to them in error," said Jessica Levinson, with the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "It seems highly inappropriate to tie the students' arms."
The course work for the 12 MBA students ended in November, the same month they received the refund checks. The university said it discovered the error in January. One student said the university contacted him in March, saying his diploma would be withheld until he repaid the refund.
Checks sent automatically
Criswell-Bloom said a glitch happened while the university was changing the database system that tracks student accounts, mistakenly showing $4,000 credits to the 12 students. The students automatically were sent $4,000 refund checks.
University spokeswoman Kristin Olsen said CSU, Stanislaus, has been "very flexible," allowing students to make interest-free payments on a schedule that meets their financial needs.
But university officials, citing privacy laws, would not say whether any students had repaid the refunds or entered into repayment schedules.
Criswell-Bloom said she has helped produce verification letters for the students to prove to employers and admissions officers that they've completed the academic course work.
"The last thing we want to do is preclude them from getting jobs," she said.
But that's what happened to Steve Larson, who said he lost his teaching jobs at the University of Phoenix in Modesto, Lathrop and Sacramento because CSU, Stani-slaus, refused to release his official transcript.
'We didn't cause problem'
Larson, 49, of Stockton, said he's more than willing to sign a promissory note to repay the $4,000. He wonders why the university won't release his degree and transcripts while he makes the payments. He said the university's financial aid office called to tell him he had a credit, but it didn't inform him until March of the problem with his account.
"We didn't cause this problem," Larson said. "We had nothing to do with this."
Filling said many of his students are more than willing to repay what was mistakenly sent to them.
Close to 100 students have completed the executive MBA program at CSU, Stani-slaus. The university has offered programs in Tracy, Modesto, Turlock and Stockton.
The financial aid checks were sent to students in the inaugural program in Tracy, whose students hail from around the region, Olsen said.
The program is designed for executives and business leaders who work full time and want an accelerated program to earn their graduate business degrees.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.