Effective scholarships for equity students
Research funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) into the relationships between equity scholarships and the retention and success of recipients supports previous findings that equity scholarships are an effective tool in retaining disadvantaged university students.
The research project, involving staff from three universities, found that equity scholarship recipients used the funds they received to buy time to study, taking time off work to focus on their academic goals.
“Equity scholarships make a difference where it matters most for students who are trying to balance study with the rest of life,” said project lead and Deakin University-based NCSEHE Equity Fellow, Dr Nadine Zacharias.
“They are enough help to students in financial need to keep them at university and yet can only do so much in overcoming complex personal lives. As helpful as it may be, money can’t overcome all challenges. For optimal effectiveness, equity scholarships should be embedded within comprehensive university support programs.”
Analysing 2013 academic year data obtained from Deakin University, Queensland University of Technology and The University of Sydney, the project team found that in addition to buying time, the receipt of scholarship funds reportedly reduced students’ stress levels and boosted their morale. Despite these improvements, however, the effect the scholarships had on success in terms of unit completion appeared to be mixed, an outcome attributed to the varied nature of the scholarships themselves and differences in institutional characteristics.
“Our research found that the most important aspect of a scholarship program’s design isn’t its value, duration or the even the timing of its award, rather its the eligibility criteria and the use of ATAR or prior academic achievement as a secondary selection criterion that really matters,” said Dr Zacharias.
“The differences between equity-only and equity-merit scholarships are important to understand because the respective selection criteria prioritise different sub-groups within equity groups. Equity-only scholarships target those students who are most disadvantaged and, therefore, those who are the most at risk of leaving university prematurely.”
The project report, released today, states that in allocating equity scholarships, common university practice involves the weighing up of effort and risk in targeting and prioritising recipients. The more complex the institutional scholarship program, the less efficient the administration and selection process and the more difficult it is for the university to evaluate student outcomes.
“Reviewing the data, we found that students with scholarships largely performed above average in their studies and that the scholarships were a factor in supporting their successful participation and retention,” said Dr Zacharias
“It is therefore important that universities design simple scholarship programs that are efficient to administer and that also provide disadvantaged students with the additional, non-monetary support they may need to get through their studies.”
Professor Sue Trinidad, NCSEHE Director, emphasised the contribution the researcher’s findings made to the ongoing discourse on institutional practice.
“There is little evidence of what constitutes good practice in equity scholarships in Australian higher education, as well as a lack of comparative data on the influence of such scholarships on success and retention, and this study provides valuable insights,” said Professor Trinidad.
“Money does not overcome all barriers to participation and scholarships reach only a tiny minority of students. What is needed is a comprehensive support system, including scholarships, to attract, retain and graduate students from financially and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Moving beyond “acts of faith”: effective scholarships for equity students was one of 12 projects funded via the NCSEHE’s 2015 Student Equity in Higher Education Research Grants Program. Dr Zacharias’ research team included Professor Brenda Cherednichenko, Dr Juliana Ryan, Dr Kelly George and Ms Linda Gasparini from Deakin University, Ms Mary Kelly and Ms Smitha Mandre-Jackson from QUT and Ms Annette Cairnduff and Mr Danny Sun from The University of Sydney.