School-leaver scholarship season is almost over, with most applications closing this Wednesday. For many high-school students this means a last minute push to find references, wind up extra-curricular activities, and fill out forms. But it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the university’s scholarship policies – specifically, whether they unfairly disadvantage the very people they are supposed to help.
Analysis of the University of Auckland’s scholarship programmes reveals students living in the top 10% of wealthy neighbourhoods received around $1,250,000 in university-based funding in 2018. In the same year, those living in the poorest 10% received around $250,000. The analysis – based on information Craccum obtained under the Official Information Act – highlights an often overlooked issue: scholarships disproportionately benefit the rich.
The disparity between awards given to students from low-income and high-income backgrounds is startling: last year, students in the tenth decile (the wealthiest possible decile) received more scholarships than the students in the first, second, and third combined. Not only did they receive more scholarships than the lowest three deciles, but they received more money from them too. And, even in scholarship categories designed to help poor students attend university, students from the richest 10% of communities cleaned up, netting the lion’s share of accommodation grants.
Last year, Rangitoto College – a decile ten college situated near Takapuna, one of Auckland’s wealthiest suburbs – was awarded $315,000 in scholarships, spread across nineteen students. $300,000 of this money was granted with the aim of helping Rangitoto College students pay for rent and accommodation in Auckland.
At the same time, Porirua College – a decile one college, situated in a town where the unemployment rate is 1.7% higher than the national average – was granted only one scholarship. Worth $20,000, it was also intended to cover the cost of accommodation in Auckland.
This makes no sense. Rangitoto College students who live right in the heart of one of Auckland’s most accessible and affluent neighbourhoods, only a twenty minute car-ride away from the university’s city campus, received $280,000 more in accommodation grants than Porirua College students, who live in one of New Zealand’s poorest neighbourhoods, 630 kilometres from Auckland’s city centre. Equated for the number of students enrolled in each college, that means Rangitoto received just over $93 in accommodation grants for each of its pupils, while Porirua College received just $36.
It seems clear scholarships favour the rich. But why?
Research conducted in America (where students living in high-income households are 1.85 times more likely to receive a scholarship than students living in low-income households who receive the same grades) suggests there are two main reasons for the disparity.
The first is the ‘extra-curricular culture’ surrounding a student.
It is far more difficult for poor students living in impoverished communities to engage in extra-curricular activities than it is for rich students. For one thing, poorer students often have to work while studying, which severely limits their capacity to engage in activities outside of work and school. For another, most students growing up in poorer families have limited access to transport, and the kinds of communities in which these students are growing up often don’t have the structures in place to facilitate extra-curricular work. Finally – and most importantly – students are less likely to be pushed by family and friends to work towards obtaining a scholarship.
Compare this to students living in richer, more urban communities: often, their family’s financial status means students can afford not to work, or to work as little as 5-10 hours a week; the students and their families generally have access to cars and public transport; and these students are often placed in communities which have existing volunteer and support structures in place, where parents, teachers and community members can guide students on how to boost their extra-curricular CV and obtain scholarships.
The second factor is arguably even more important.
This, put simply, is the access a student has to information about scholarships. Although information on scholarships is often posted online, many children living in low-income households – whose parents might not have gone to college, and who may be attending a school where university is not prioritised – might not even think to check for this information.
A study conducted in America asked parents to name potential scholarships their children could apply for. Two-thirds of parents with a salary of $75,000 a year could do this; only one-quarter of parents earning less than $25,000 could.
Students growing up in high-income houses have an inherent advantage, in that they are more likely to be pushed by parents, relatives, and teachers to apply for scholarships that they otherwise might not have been aware of.
But I’m not convinced these are the only reasons students from wealthier backgrounds receive more university funding to help cover the costs of tuition than poor students from poor backgrounds. It is likely another, larger reason for this disparity is our understanding of the purpose of a scholarship.
Traditionally, we see scholarships as a reward for academic excellence. They’re supposed to be compensation for being the best at something. But should that always be the case?
In my mind, university scholarships should be a way of helping those who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend college afford tuition and accommodation fees. It shouldn’t just be a reward for doing well in high school – for that, we already have NCEA and IB scholarships. Instead, the much larger university scholarships should focus on creating equitable outcomes for those with less resources.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear that my view is shared by the university. In an interview given to Newshub, Aorere College Head of Careers Mary Kerrigan says when she asked Stuart McCutcheon why the university shunned students from lower deciles, she was told scholarships were about helping the university boost its international profile. While equity factored into the university’s decision-making process, the core aim of scholarships was ultimately to attract students which would make the university appear better to outsiders.
In my view, this is the wrong approach. As long as we continue to believe scholarships are solely a payment for academic results – rather than a tool to help gifted but impoverished students get a step up in life – then they will continue to serve no purpose other than to help students living in the wealthiest 10% of households avoid paying tuition costs.
Some might argue that scholarships should straddle the line between awarding academic excellence, and helping those in need. I agree. Scholarships should be awarded to those bright students who are smart enough to get good grades, but who don’t have the finances to move into a city like Auckland. Unfortunately, that just isn’t happening. Take the university’s Top Achiever award, for example. In theory, the award is set-up to strike the balance between helping the impoverished, and rewarding the academically excellent.
According to the university’s website, the University of Auckland Top Achiever Scholarship is an award given to exceptional students who demonstrate academic excellence and leadership skills. Candidates are selected according to their NCEA or IB scores, their work within the community, the work they have done to mentor other students, and ‘personal factors’. These personal factors are supposed to take into account a person’s socio-economic background – whether they are disabled, come from poor families, or are the first to attend university.
On paper then, it seems this award is dictated as much by financial need as academic excellence. It should – in theory – reward students based on academic merit and whether or not they have the financial means to attend university. But the statistics show this isn’t how the award is applied. In 2018, the richest 10% of students received 55 Top Achiever awards, while the poorest 10% received none.
This meant that schools situated in the richest 50% of communities in New Zealand received $3,260,000 of the $4,240,000 worth of scholarships handed out in 2018. Schools situated in the poorest 50% received just $980,000.
It seems clear the university needs to do more to target under-developed and poorly funded neighbourhoods. Scholarships need to take into account a person’s financial background – or, at least, truly take it into account. Theoretically, scholarships like the Top Achiever award (with its emphasis on a student’s ‘personal factors’) are supposed to help financially-hindered students enter the academic sphere – but analysis shows these scholarships aren’t working.
Reform needs to be made to the way in which the university approaches these scholarships. It doesn’t make sense to award students living in wealthy Auckland suburbs thousands of dollars to cover the cost of rent; it doesn’t make sense to grant scholarships to students who were already living in Auckland, and therefore likely to attend university; it doesn’t make sense to be putting $1,250,000 in poverty-based funding towards private and semi-private schools, while poorer, lower decile schools receive only one fifth of that.
Perhaps the university could introduce scholarships which are truly aimed at helping students from low-income families attend university. This could be funded by reducing the amount given in accommodation grants to students already attending schools in central Auckland. Alternatively, the university could revamp the existing Top Achiever scholarship to place more of an emphasis on a student’s financial situation.
Whatever the decision, something needs to be done to fix this broken system. Until that happens, the rich will continue to get richer, and the poor, poorer.