Thinly-veiled Recruitment Tools: Entrance Scholarships and Access

When the provincial budget was released in Ontario last winter, post-secondary made headlines: free tuition for low-income students. Student groups everywhere celebrated increased accessibility and affordability to post-secondary education for marginalized groups in the province. But another concern remains: entrance scholarships. 

In our current system, students get a bottom line on post-secondary costs late in the game. So the offer of an entrance scholarship significantly influences students’ acceptance decisions. If I'm a student who sees an award of $1000 at University A, and $2000 at University B, isn't the choice fairly obvious? If I'm University B, aren't I be tempted to continue increasing my entrance scholarship amount in order to compete for enrolment?

Yet what a lot of students don’t realize is there’s the opportunity to receive additional institutional assistance later on. A sizeable portion of the funds for university-based awards, scholarships, and bursaries actually come from something called the tuition set aside (TSA), which is, in layman's terms, a pool of money from tuition fees, the amount of which is dependent on increases in tuition and enrollment. The TSA is used to fulfill responsibilities under the Student Access Guarantee (SAG), which provides funding to meet all of a student's unmet need as assessed by OSAP. In other words, if a student receives less OSAP than their assessed financial need, some of their tuition is used to ensure they receive extra aid via SAG.

This can take place in many forms: for example, bursaries, scholarships, or work-study. For first-entry programs (like most undergraduate programs), institutions are required to meet 100% of a student's unmet need through SAG. However, institutions cannot calculate their amount of TSA until they know a) enrollment, and b) the difference between students’ assessed financial need and what they’ll receive from OSAP (unmet need).

In short, determining the amount of funds available to meet financial need is complex. But the money is certainly available. So I have a question: what does this mean for the supposed importance of entrance scholarships?

Unlike the Student Access Guarantee, entrance scholarships are not distributed based on need, and rather based on "merit." I have to put "merit" in quotations because the real and only basis for these scholarships is simply the average of a high school student's top six, 4U-level (grade 12) marks, which are hardly the definition of merit. I'd argue that in fact, high grades in high school have little to do with academic prowess, and more to do with which high school one attended, whether one worked a part-time job while studying, or had access to additional supports such as personal tutoring. On average, 73% of funding for merit-based scholarships come from operating funding (a combination of provincial operating grants and tuition). In addition, 19% of TSA funds are classified as scholarships.

On top of this, merit-based entrance scholarships are simply thinly-veiled recruitment tools and do little to increase access. In Ontario, the "merit-awards arms race" has been written about by many authors, including the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, and Higher Education Strategy Associates. In a 2007 HEQCO report explains:

"The concept of a merit award arms race is simple: in order to gain a competitive recruitment advantage over other institutions, an institution may increase the size of its awards. However, if this strategy is successful, at some point other institutions might be expected to raise their award levels, restoring parity and creating an incentive for the first institution to raise its award size yet again to re-establish its competitive advantage. Given that the competitive advantage with respect to merit awards will eventually be lost, what is the point of continuing this arms race?"

So: if merit-based entrance scholarships do not recognize excellence in academic skills, reward exceptional qualities, or improve access, why do they exist? And why are funds ear-marked for needs-based financial assistance being used to provide them?

With anticipation of increased use of OSAP, some university administrations are worried they will not have enough funds to meet their SAG responsibilities. I think this concern might be misplaced.

I personally am at McMaster University, with an over-enrollment of about 1,000 students this year - this with almost the same entrance averages and recruitment efforts of years past. In conversations with my Student Financial Aid Office, staff wonder: How can we plan for how many students will accept their offers? How can we perfect an already imperfect model?

And I wonder: how can we allow institutions to continue to offer these merit-based entrance scholarships, when all they will do is undermine goals to meet unmet OSAP need and increase university access?

My ask is simple. To the Province of Ontario: eliminate the use of public funding and tuition dollars to pay for merit-based scholarships at all universities. If institutions were prohibited from using these sources of funding for their merit-based scholarships, they would essentially cease to exist, thus finally putting a stop to this so-called arms race while leaving room for endowments to cover awards for true merit. It's time now: let's prioritize public funds for students who need it the most, and end merit-based entrance scholarships in the province.