It’s time we got rid of publicly funded merit scholarships

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This past November, I had the privilege of participating in a delegation representing the Federation of Students at the Fall General Assembly of the Ontario Undergraduate Students Alliance &shy;&mdash; the organization through which our student representatives lobby the provincial government on student issues. Over the course of a weekend, we debated and approved three policy papers, one of which was titled &ldquo;Reforming Ontario&rsquo;s Student Financial Assistance Program,&rdquo; and is now available <a href="http://ow.ly/WLZgu">here</a>.&nbsp;</p>

Among its 71 pages of recommendations for fixing Ontario’s troubled student loans and bursaries program, one proposal stands out to me more than any other: “The provincial government should eliminate the use of public funding to pay for merit-based scholarships at all universities.”

As the name suggests, a merit-based scholarship is a financial award provided solely on the basis of academic achievement. While many are privately funded, the most common form at Waterloo — entrance scholarships for new students — are not. The university uses public funding — tax dollars and a portion of everybody’s tuition funds — to award at least $1,000 to every new student with an admissions average greater than 85 per cent.

So why is this a problem? First, let us dispense with the notion that entrance scholarships are hard-earned rewards reserved for only the best incoming students. Almost all new students now arrive at Waterloo with admissions averages well above 85 per cent. At the most recent meeting of the university senate, the Registrar’s Office was reporting that they are already turning away applicants to the faculty of engineering this year who have averages as high as 93 per cent. The reward is getting admitted at all — the $1,000 prize is simply a recruitment tool. That isn’t a bad thing in itself, but remember whose pockets the money is being taken from. Public funding is meant to ensure access to education — the guarantee that every qualified student admitted to university should be able to attend, regardless of his or her ability to pay. The problem is that low-income students, the ones who actually need the money in order to afford university, are typically ineligible for merit-based assistance. Generally, this happens because low-income students have to work one or more part-time jobs during school terms in order to sustain themselves — a necessity that tends to have a detrimental effect on grades. As a result, merit-based scholarships are generally awarded to families with high incomes — the people who need the money the least. This may be fine for a private scholarship established by a university donor, but it is a wholly unfair way to distribute public dollars.

The obvious solution, to eliminate public funding for merit-based scholarships, and redirect that money towards further needs-based assistance, is not easy. It requires a province-wide attitude change — and fresh legislation — around how university education is funded, and that doesn’t happen overnight. However, that change has to start somewhere. I am proud to see our student representatives leading the charge on this issue, and hope they continue to advocate for a future where post-secondary education is more accessible for everyone.

Sacha Forstner

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