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The University needs to reconsider the meaning behind merit-based scholarships

Apr 04, 2018 Jill Macintyre

Scholarship allocation at Mount Allison and beyond is failing low-class students. While Mt. A boasts over $2 million awarded in financial aid annually, the lion’s share of this goes toward scholarships that are based on a false concept of “merit” rather than genuine need or desire for education. There are some bursaries available at Mt. A, but according to their website “Bursaries are awarded based on demonstrated financial need and are intended to supplement, not replace, a student’s own resources [and] the resources of the applicant’s immediate family.” This is based on the assumption that low-class students and their parents have significant educational savings, which is not always possible. While financial aid could serve as a necessary method of access to education for low-class students, instead it often acts as yet another rung on the socioeconomic ladder for privileged students to climb.

Coming from a working-class household, I was always aware that if I wanted to attend university it would be self-funded. I got my babysitter’s license at eleven, coached gymnastics by twelve and had a job at Wendy’s by thirteen (before recent child labour laws were introduced). I was privileged in that I never had to use my wages to pay for family expenses like rent or heating, as many low-class teenagers do. Many of my jobs were relatively flexible, which allowed me to pad scholarship applications with the extracurricular and volunteer opportunities desired by Mt. A. I worked incredibly hard during high school, to the point where I would break down if I got a grade below a 95 per cent because I could see my future disappearing.

The university’s emphasis on extracurricular involvement for merit-based scholarships fails to recognize the reality of low-income students who must often work throughout high school. Louis Sobol/Argosy

I desperately needed a scholarship to fund university, and the only reason I chose to attend Mt. A was because I was awarded the Bell Family Achievement Award. It has become startlingly evident during my four years at Mt. A that I am one of very few working-class students who received this scholarship, as most Bell Scholars could’ve easily had their university funded by their parents, at least in part. Instead of serving as lifelines for low-class people to break the cycle of household poverty, merit-based scholarships often serve as a resume padder for people who are already incredibly privileged. While I am not arguing that the recipients of merit-based scholarships at Mt. A are undeserving, I am arguing that educational institutions view the concept of merit in a fundamentally flawed way that fails low-class people. I see merit in the high school student who works multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet for their family. I see merit in the student from a rural community who didn’t have the opportunity to join many extracurriculars, but could be a great leader. I see merit in the teenager who comes from a food insecure household yet still manages to attend class. I see merit in all of the experiences of low-class people, but a formulaic scholarship application that rewards the experiences of urban, middle- to upper-class people is built to ignore this merit.

I am incredibly grateful for my scholarship, as I could not have attended university without it. However, I also know that there are many low-class people who are just as deserving of education as I am who will never receive that opportunity due to class-based oppression. Until the time when tuition is free for all, we need to prioritize the experiences of low-class students who face glaringly obvious barriers to accessing education. I am calling on the Mount Allison community to reconsider their financial aid program, whether by increasing bursaries, lowering GPA requirements for scholarship retention or introducing a needs-based component for all scholarship applications. Mount Allison is a deeply classist institution, and we need to help students who cannot otherwise afford university; if not, our degrees function as tools of oppression.

Disclaimer: Jill MacIntyre is the Argosy’s business manager.