Universities divided over equity vs merit scholarships

An article published by the Age education today refers to some of the research I did whilst interning at Grattan Institute over the summer. I thought I’d take this opportunity to reveal a bit more background info about how the data was collected.

The broad research question we were trying to answer was whether or not scholarships affect a student’s choice to go university. Equity, as opposed to academic merit scholarships are much more interesting in this regard since people who are high achievers will probably go to university regardless (so a scholarship does not affect their decision to attend university). Equity scholarships on the other hand are much more likely to capture those students who at the margin. The question remains, are they? As the Age article suggests, the money doesn’t always go to those in the greatest need. Equity scholarships still require some standard of academic achievement, which already rules out those students who require financial aid the most. Of course this probably means that if universities and university donors are concerned about improving access to education, they are better off channeling some of that money into universal welfare schemes such as Youth Allowance. As Andrew Norton says, someone who wants to go to university but can’t afford it will be reasonably certain of their chances of receiving welfare, as opposed to their chances of receiving a scholarship – which are often lengthy and complex processes, and which many students often don’t know about.

The research referred to in the report was scholarship data that I collected from 6 Australian universities. I specifically looked at institution-funded scholarships (rather than scholarships funded by donors and private trusts) available to commencing undergraduate students. It should be noted that a large amount of university scholarships are funded by donations – many of which have some sort of equity criteria. Those scholarships weren’t included in my research, because I was interested in scholarships that are administered, and therefore controlled by, the university.

From the 6 universities, I found 91 scholarships for commencing undergraduate students (this does not represent the number of places available for each scholarship). Of those, 46 had no equity requirement at all and only relied on academic or other merit (such as sport), 45 of them had one or more equity criteria.

The break-down in targeted equity areas are as follows:

Number of Scholarships by Equity Criteria

Note: some scholarships are available to students who are financially disadvantaged OR from rural/regional areas, these types of scholarships have been double-counted so that the number in the graph represents the number of scholarships that a student in a certain target group can apply to.

Financial disadvantage and rural/regional is the most targeted category. Financial disadvantage makes sense but whether or not rural/regional really captures those students in need is questionable. Since many of these scholarships also have a baseline academic requirement, rural/regional scholarships could be capturing those students who are the most well-off in rural/regional areas. It’s interesting that mature age students don’t get much attention at all since many of them have to support families and forego some or all of  their income to attend university. Having a scholarship would probably have a significant effect on whether these people decide to go to university.