Do merit scholarships only benefit students from wealthier families?

Do merit scholarships only benefit students from wealthier families?
Should merit-based scholarships only be reserved for underprivileged students? Source: Shutterstock

A degree is often seen as a prerequisite to social advancement, making university not only a natural rite of passage for many, but a stepping stone to the better things in life.

Naturally, access to quality education can play a crucial role in determining whether those living a hand-to-mouth existence can lift themselves out of their situation and into a better place. But at a time of growing inequality, the disparity in quality between students from elite families and those from underprivileged backgrounds becomes painfully obvious.  

This makes scholarships a crucial stepping stone for students from the lower end of the economic scale to obtain a tertiary education and lift themselves out of their predicament. Oxford Dictionary describes “scholarship” as: “A grant or payment made to support a student’s education, awarded on the basis of academic or other achievement”.

While scholarships, both needs-based and merit-based, offer students a platform of opportunity, they aren’t always ideal for helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There have been studies that suggest children from privileged backgrounds have a headstart compared to their less wealthy peers. This is a handicap inherited from childhood that the latter have to grapple with from the beginning.   

For example, students at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder may not be able to afford tutors, after school activities that not only build their skills but also provide networking opportunities, and may have less travel opportunities that can help them develop a better understanding of cultures compared to their peers from higher income households, which can ultimately affect their chances of securing lucrative jobs where skills such as intercultural nous are an asset that “separate the wheat from chaff”.

Disturbingly, an American study has also found that the lack of access to after-school programmes can push disadvantaged kids further behind their privileged peers. This economic inequality spells colossal differences in their ability to secure employment opportunities where children from wealthier families dominate.

Australian journalist Jan Fran aptly explained the fallacy of meritocracy by using the Supreme Court of New South Wales as an example, which mostly comprises of white, affluent suburb-dwelling males who were privately educated.

“Currently, there are 58 judges in total. Forty five men and 13 women. Now, we’re assuming they got there on merit, yes? In which case, men appear significantly more meritorious than women,” she said.

However, three quarters of the 45 men come from a single university – the University of Sydney. Half of them went to private schools concentrated mainly in Sydney, one of Australia’s most expensive cities.

Eight of them come from one high school – 17 percent of the male judges on the highest court in the state come from just one school, she said.

While privileged folk work hard to get to where they are, their financial disposition puts them at an advantage over less privileged folk.

“If we really want to talk about merit, we have to talk about the ways certain people benefit not just from what’s put right in front of them, but rather, from what isn’t,” said Jan, adding that “Certain sections of the community face hurdles that others don’t”.

Similarly, so do children from poorer families who may have obligations that their better off counterparts don’t. Some may need to work after school, do chores, care for an ill family member, spend more time commuting via public transportation as they may stay in cheaper neighbourhoods located further from school, and the like.

Conversely, coming from a wealthier background may mean freeing privileged students from such obligations – they may be able to afford a maid who can cook and clean for the family, have a nurse to care for an ailing family member, be able to afford to live in a more expensive neighbourhood located close to school and is more accessible to a variety of after school activities, as well as afford a tutor to ensure their grades are up to scratch.

Clearly, it’s not just a lack of money that can hinder success but also the amount of time which, naturally, poorer children have less of. Less privileged students may not always have their basic needs met and may go hungry and have additional or a different set of worries over their wealthier counterparts, such as concerns about a lack of money, among other stressors.

What scholarship recipients think

So, are merit-based scholarships truly meritorious? In some instances, they can be.

As a scholarship recipient himself, Subbiah Thannirmalai opined that scholarships should be given to students on a merit basis, but that priority should be given to students from poorer backgrounds.

“Poor students should be provided with other forms of assistance to enable them to compete on equal terms with their wealthier counterparts,” explained the 31-year-old who graduated with a masters in electrical and electronic engineering.

Knowing that he would need a scholarship to further his studies, Subbiah completed his SPM (a national examination taken by Form 5 students in Malaysia, equivalent to O-Level) with good results, but was unable to secure a scholarship. This spurred him to work harder in STPM, a challenging pre-university programme that is also one of the cheapest ways to gain entry into a degree programme in Malaysia. He later obtained a merit scholarship from a conglomerate to study abroad.  

He said, “regardless of socioeconomic background, a student can only excel in education through [their] effort and dedication. A student who excels in education through hard work should never be discriminated from receiving [a] scholarship. It is worth noting that many students from wealthy backgrounds could be very poor performers academically.

“There are students from poor backgrounds who have achieved excellent academic performance. In fact, a financially strong background could provide alternate means for students to enter [a] higher educational institution without scholarship. These options could affect these students from working hard. Vice versa, a financially poor background could be a strong motivator for students to excel in [their] studies.”

Meanwhile, another merit scholarship recipient, Gwen, also opined that scholarships should be based on meritocracy, adding that an applicants’ family background can be factored in as an additional prerequisite for scholarship application later on.

Gwen grew up knowing that her parents could not afford to pay for her tertiary education and consistently worked hard at school to score a string of As in her exams, hoping to secure a scholarship for university.

“I’m thankful my sister is a wonderful role model who motivated me to work as hard as she did,” shared Gwen. The 27-year-old said it would be unfair to deny brilliant students a scholarship purely because they came from wealthier backgrounds.

“From a scholarship providers’ point of view, they would also want the cream of the crop to be their scholarship recipient in hope of retaining the talent to work with them upon graduation,” she said.

Does meritocracy work?

So, are merit-based scholarships fair?

The question will undoubtedly illicit a different response based on who you ask. Some believe meritocracy acts as an excellent measure of awarding a person for their effort and talent. Work hard and be rewarded for your efforts. May the best man (or woman) win, as they say.

But at times, there can be a serious problem with that notion. Why? Because meritocracy only works when everyone is on an equal playing field; the reality is, that’s not always the case.

To rephrase what Jan said, not everyone begins on the same starting line in life; ignoring that fact only exacerbates the odds stacked against the less privileged.

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