Wednesday 10 October 2018

Scholarships for the wealthy

Kirsty Johnston reports that half of university scholarships go to students from higher decile schools.

This isn't particularly surprising - far more kids from richer neighbourhoods wind up going to university, so they'll be more likely to get scholarships. 

But there is more than just that:
Aorere College Head of Careers Mary Kerrigan said she had tried to raise the scholarship issue with Auckland University after extremely bright students at her school - including the Dux - failed to get scholarships two years in a row.

She said they were denied despite having significant financial issues, which was unfair.

She also complained about the criteria, which placed a large weighting on extra-curricular activities.

"For many students from low decile schools, being able to participate in multiple extra-curricular activities is challenging due to a lack of finances and time as many are working part time to help support their families or have additional home responsibilities," she said.

In an email, she was told by Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon the scholarships were not just about equity - they were also about attracting very able students to the university.

"I find that very disturbing, especially in light of the fact that there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor," Kerrigan said.
There are a lot of intertwined problems here. But one of them is that NCEA doesn't make it exactly easy to identify promising students at lower decile schools. If there were some way of identifying the students who were likely to do well at university and provide scholarships to kids from poorer families who were likely otherwise to miss out on university, that could do some good.

Susan Dynarski is an economist, Professor of Public Policy, Education and Economics at the University of Michigan, and co-director of the University's Education Policy Initiative. If you think she's part of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, check out her Twitter feed.

Here's her column in the New York Times last year on the importance of standardised testing to help bright kids from poor families get into university. America has two standardised tests for college admission: the SAT and the ACT. Michigan made the ACT mandatory in 2007. The proportion of poor kids taking the ACT was sharpest, since richer kids were taking it anyway. And their college entrance went up as well. Lots of poorer kids get missed by the system in the absence of standardised testing. And it's a fairly cost-effective way of getting those kids into university:
Universal exams cannot, by themselves, close gaps between poor and rich students in college attendance. But in Michigan, it has produced small increases, especially at four-year colleges and particularly among disadvantaged students. The story is similar in Maine, Illinois and Colorado.

Professor Hyman calculates that at a cost of less than $50 per student, a universal testing program is one of the least expensive ways to increase college attendance. Further, if the SAT or ACT replaces the standardized test that states require in public schools, it need not take up any additional instructional time, a key concern of testing opponents.
Universal testing has been shown to reduce racial, ethnic and income disparities. The Broward County school district in Florida started screening second graders for admission to a gifted program, instead of relying on teacher referrals. The universal program tripled the number of black and Hispanic children identified as gifted.

Evidence shows that if talented low-income students are mentored and coached, they are more likely to go to college, especially to a selective one. But we have to find them first. Universal free testing will help put more smart disadvantaged students on the radar of schools, mentors and advocacy groups that can help them.
Standardised testing, combined with means-tested scholarships for high-performers from poorer families, can be a great idea. Improving performance in lower decile schools will matter too though. Rather than passing out money to all university students through interest-free loans and zero-fee policies, redirect those resources to improving instruction and tertiary preparation at secondary school and to supporting promising lower income students

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