Bursaries and student awards remove barriers for those who have often been excluded from higher education. But it is important to examine the impact of these efforts, both positive and negative, write Nicole McVan and Tanya Rumble, and continuously work to improve the approach.
Few would dispute that providing greater access to education is a noble and important endeavour. Bursaries and student awards are an established part of the educational landscape that provide additional funding and access to those who have been historically excluded from higher education. However, as with all good intentions, it is important to examine the impact of these efforts, both positive and negative, and continuously evolve to improve the approach. In this article, we will explore three key questions and provide some thoughts on how to build on this important work.
- What are the challenges associated with student awards in support of learners with intersecting equity-seeking identities?
- Are there any specific challenges when the award is named in honour of someone or is donated by an individual or organization?
- What are the best ways for funders (individuals, foundations, and corporations) to support equity-seeking students through bursaries and awards?
By framing the first question in terms of intersectionality, we recognize that students with structurally disadvantaged identities often face compounded challenges that require intersectional approaches to address. To effectively support these students, it is important to take into account the multiple and overlapping forms of discrimination they may face, and tailor the support accordingly. For example, a student who identifies as Black and who has a disability may require different support than a student who identifies solely as Black or solely as someone with a disability.
Regarding the second question, it is important to consider the potential impact of naming an award after someone or having it donated by an individual or organization. While such awards can provide recognition and funding for the recipient, they can also perpetuate biases or stereotypes, particularly if the honoree or donor has a problematic history. It is crucial to critically examine the values and beliefs of those being honoured or donating, and to ensure that their legacy aligns with the goals of the award and the broader efforts to promote equity and inclusion in education. As Allan Northcott of Max Bell Foundation points out, “There is or could be a ‘brand’ identity associated with any name, regardless of who it is, and that brand may or may not align with the purpose of the award.”
Finally, when considering the best ways for funders to support marginalized students, it is important to recognize the diverse needs of these students and the limitations of a one-size-fits-all approach. Effective support may include financial assistance, mentorship, academic and career guidance, and mental health resources, among others. Funders should work in partnership with educators, community leaders, and student advocates to develop tailored programs that are responsive to the needs of equity-seeking students and that prioritize their voices and experiences. The recently released Untapped Potential report funded by RBC Future Launch shares research that explores the landscape of scholarships in Canada and opportunities for scholarship providers, post-secondary institutions, government, youth-serving organizations, and individuals to better serve students as they transition out of high school and eventually into the job market. The report’s authors outline a number of recommendations for institutions engaged in providing awards, notably to acknowledge and better recognize student perspectives and barriers when designing and delivering scholarships.
What are the challenges associated with student awards in support of learners with equity-seeking identities?
Providing financial support to students with intersecting marginalized identities through student awards, bursaries, and loans is a crucial step toward ensuring equitable access to education. However, this endeavour is not without its challenges.
The narrow eligibility criteria present a significant obstacle for some students, potentially creating unintended barriers. For example, as highlighted by Bill Mintram, director of Indigenous and Northern relations at the Rideau Hall Foundation, requiring a First Nations student to take on a student loan may have adverse effects on their financial situation, particularly if they are already receiving funding from their community. While the intention behind specific award restrictions may be noble, they can inadvertently perpetuate historical exclusion, by limiting the pool of eligible recipients and fostering competition among various marginalized groups.
Narrow eligibility criteria present a significant obstacle for some students, potentially creating unintended barriers.
To enhance the effectiveness of financial support programs, it is essential to reassess eligibility criteria and ensure they are inclusive. This involves considering the diverse circumstances and financial backgrounds of students from intersecting marginalized identities, thereby mitigating unintended consequences and fostering a more equitable educational environment.
Nicole Dawe, executive director of the Community Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, points out another challenge: perpetual restricted charitable gifts often referred to as endowments can hinder the allocation of funds to students, as they may not align with the current needs and priorities of the community. For trust law purposes, each restricted charitable purpose trust is a separate trust, and a charity can use the gift only to accomplish the specific charitable purpose established by the donor – otherwise there would be a breach of trust. For example, in a bygone era, there were awards set up for students not well represented in higher education; this may have included men from rural communities, white women, and so forth. In the contemporary context, folks with these identities do not meet the thresholds for protected groups as per the provincial or federal human rights legislation, and thus these scholarships can no longer be awarded – unless the terms are varied. How do you vary the terms of a restricted endowed charitable gift? The answer to this is a legal one, but at the most basic level, unless a mechanism was built into the gift agreement to allow for variance – for example, approval from the donor or a representative of the donor (family member, lawyer, etc), or an explicit clause in the original gift agreement permitting the institution administering the award to vary the terms of the fund should it be needed in the future – there may be no remedy.
Therefore, exploring spend-down funds for awards and scholarships can be a more effective way to ensure that funding goes to those who need it the most. However, there is a need to ensure flexibility in donor agreements to allow funds to evolve as the needs of the community change.
Overall, it is crucial to consider the wider landscape and intersecting opportunities and limitations when developing funding opportunities to ensure that they are accessible to all students who need them.
Are there any specific challenges when the award is named in honour of someone or is donated by an individual or organization?
Naming awards and funds after donors, their families, and companies can pose specific challenges, and some institutions are re-examining this practice.
First, there is a risk in allowing a fund to be named and publicly recognized, as the donors, and their names, may be associated with something oppressive or scandalous in the future, which could negatively affect the institution and the award recipients. If an award were named after someone with a complicated or oppressive legacy, it could unintentionally perpetuate harm or trigger trauma.
Named or donated awards can also perpetuate the myth of meritocracy.
Named or donated awards can also perpetuate the myth of meritocracy. The lack of diversity in past and present student bodies, faculties, and donors creates a false narrative that certain demographics – often white, cisgender, able-bodied, and neurotypical – are naturally more intelligent, successful, and philanthropic. This narrative fails to account for systemic discrimination that holds intersecting marginalized identities back, perpetuating stereotypes and myths about deservingness. Therefore, the naming of awards and funds must be examined and re-evaluated to ensure greater equity and inclusivity.
What are the best ways for funders (individuals, foundations, or corporations) to support learners of intersecting marginalized identities?
Funders can advocate for marginalized learners through various approaches, and a key strategy involves pooled funding, strategically designed to overcome constraints in individual funding streams. Managed by institutions, pooled funds represent expansive award programs supported by a collective of donors. These initiatives often have minimal criteria, such as entrance awards for students achieving specific grade averages upon high school graduation, fostering a more inclusive and accessible pathway for financial support. In contrast, individual funding streams tend to be more restrictive because of specific donor requirements, lacking the flexibility and adaptability needed for long-term impact. As explained by advancement leader Michelle Fuko, associate vice-principal of development at Queen’s University, pooled funding fosters a more diverse and inclusive funding landscape, ensuring that those students in greatest need receive maximum support.
By providing wrap-around supports, funders can help students succeed academically and personally.
Wrap-around supports are another important way in which funders can support learners. This can include things like mentorship, tutoring, career counseling, childcare, and mental health services. By providing these supports, funders can help students succeed academically and personally.
Funders can also be supportive by taking a wider view of success. This means moving away from traditional definitions of success that may be limited to academic achievement or other narrow metrics and instead focusing on holistic criteria. For example, success could be defined in terms of community engagement, leadership development, or the ability to navigate complex systems.
Funders can work to create more flexible funding opportunities that are responsive to the needs of students.
In addition, funders can work to create more flexible funding opportunities that are responsive to the needs of students. This might include exploring spend-down funds for awards and scholarships, which can help to ensure that funding is delivered in a timely and meaningful way.
“How can policies be changed in ways that will help create better outcomes for these learners?” Northcott asks. “Our bias is a ‘nothing about us without us’ frame of reference.”
It is important for funders to engage in ongoing dialogue and consultation with communities and stakeholders who are affected by their funding decisions.
Finally, it is important for funders to engage in ongoing dialogue and consultation with communities and stakeholders who are affected by their funding decisions. This can help to ensure that funders are aware of the challenges and opportunities that exist within different communities, and that funding is delivered in a way that is culturally appropriate and respectful.
How can educational institutions and administrators of student awards help to dismantle systemic oppression and support learners of intersecting marginalized identities?
We would also like to note a number of opportunities for educational institutions and those administering student awards to support the dismantling of structural inequities for learners.
First, ensure that your application processes are as simplified as possible, focusing on the most essential information needed to adjudicate the awards. Too often award application processes are cumbersome, clunky, and laborious. Awards intended to support learners with demonstrated financial need, in particular, often require information that is either superfluous to proving that need or, worse, require students to compete in the “poverty Olympics” and share overly personal information to validate their lived experiences. Ask for only what is necessary to confirm eligibility and avoid lengthy, exploitive, personal narratives.
Ensure that your application processes are as simplified as possible, focusing on the most essential information needed to adjudicate the awards.
To this end, please consider the ratios you employ to ascertain whether students are financially in need. Many of the ratios used by university financial-aid offices prejudice against students with too many sources of income, even when these include high-interest loans – not all access to capital is equal. They also, astonishingly, prejudice against students with too few resources, citing that those without adequate financial resources are in too precarious a situation to fund their education. Well, precisely: many learners have no access to generational wealth, familial support, or other forms of funding, or they have significant expenses and insufficient resources. These are precisely the learners we should be supporting with student awards.
In the United States, a mere 11% of students in the lowest income quartile currently graduate within six years of starting college. This is often due to financial insecurity – and even students who are recipients of student awards can’t always cover their costs as many scholarships are paid directly to the school, and thus cannot be used for food, rent, or other expenses that fall outside of the institution. So called last-mile awards have gained popularity in the US: funders including QuestBridge, the Posse Foundation, and the Last Mile Education Fund offer grants and scholarships to low-income students nearing completion of their degrees and needing a little help to get over the “finish line.” There are few examples of this funding model here in Canada.
If you employ ratios to determine financial-need eligibility, then articulate what they are and ensure that students have access to clear explanations and counselling support on what to include in their applications.
Further, we implore folks to be explicit and transparent about your adjudication processes and criteria. If you employ ratios to determine financial-need eligibility, then articulate what they are and ensure that students have access to clear explanations and counselling support on what to include in their applications – in particular, what to include in their budget forms.
In conclusion, as we strive for inclusive education, it is imperative to acknowledge the complexities and nuances within the realm of student awards and financial support. Our commitment to equity requires ongoing introspection, adaptability, and collaboration. By embracing an intersectional perspective, scrutinizing naming practices, and championing flexible funding models, we pave the way for a more just and accessible educational landscape. Let us persist in dismantling systemic barriers, engaging in open dialogue, and fostering holistic success for all learners. In doing so, we not only uplift equity-seeking students but also contribute to the broader transformation of education into a truly equitable and empowering force for every individual.
Tanya Rumble is the lead author of Follow the Money: A Study of Gift Acceptance Policies and Practices at Canadian Universities (email address required).