Are merit-based scholarships unfair to low-income students?

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It is not uncommon for educational institutions to offer financial aid to students, regardless of the fact that students might still not being able to afford them. The purpose of these scholarships is clear – to make quality education (or simply, education) accessible to the most talented people. While this paints a pretty promising picture of our society, are these scholarships really the necessary stepping stone for low-income households to afford a quality education?

Compare the requirements of two students to get into a renowned national college that offers financial aid. A low-income student will likely need better grades (read: more effort in school/college) to be able to pay the fees compared to a more privileged student. In a broader sense, this implies that the fewer economic or societal privileges one has, the more one must perform to access the same level of education. This is strikingly similar to the logic the wealthy have for paying parking fines – when the monetary value of the fine doesn’t affect them, it simply becomes the “cost” of parking. For a student, the prerequisites for admission are meeting basic academic qualifications and/or personality traits, and having access to (often generational) wealth. On the other hand, another student must not only have them, but also be exceptionally outstanding and overcome obstacles to qualify for aid, and perhaps even have an inspiring story about their journey to justify their desire to be educated.

Disadvantaged members of society already have to exert more effort in general to access educational institutions than their more privileged peers – whether it is time privilege, internet access, standard of living or even a better technology. This merit-based scholarship system reinforces class division by telling low-income students that they to have to to be “special” to deserve an education. It’s not just the lectures taken and the degrees that enrich a student’s life – it’s the exposure to different types of people, the experiences of life on campus, and much more.

Of course, there is the reservation system in India to combat the problem of class division in education. There are many valid arguments on both sides of the issue, but all can agree that awarding financial assistance on the basis of genuine and Financial background check is not unfair. This line of thinking is not far from the logic of need-based scholarships. If it is normal that a quality education is accessible to those who have money, it should be normal that those who do not have financial privilege also have access to it. For too long, the idea that disadvantaged people should always only get the most basic level of things when provided for free has prevailed. This contributes to the selfish and guardian mentality of the privileged. Why can wealthy people be comfortably treated in clean, private hospitals while a person who relies on fundraising for medical expenses is considered greedy for wanting such treatment?

There is of course the issue of providing cheaper amenities to many rather than providing better amenities to a few. The merit-versus-need scholarship debate does not target any institution or individual that benefits from such scholarships, but rather this discourse should delve into the reasoning behind it all and the broader sociological and psychological ideas it perpetuates.


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