t’s the message she’s been hoping for. There’s a whoop of joy,
a happy dance and texts fired off to parents and friends announcing the good news.
A young person has been accepted into her university of
choice and offered a few thousand dollars in scholarship money
to sweeten the deal. For the student and her family, a scholarship
can be seen as formal acknowledgement that years of academic
striving have been worth it. Among some high achievers, it can be
For universities, though, entrance scholarships are less of a
pat on the back than a calculated tool to meet recruitment priorities. Those priorities may include ensuring enough “bums in
seats” in a competitive regional marketplace or snagging the best and
brightest before somebody else does in the global chase for the most
promising young minds.
It’s unclear how much Canadian universities spend on entrance scholarships – the amounts are not broken out from the global numbers reported by the Canadian Association of University Business Officers encompassing bursaries, other undergraduate scholarships and graduate student
awards. In 2014-15, the global amount was close to $1.9 billion, and funding for graduate students takes the lion’s share.
Still, it’s safe to say that entrance scholarships absorb tens of millions of dollars a year, and possibly more than $100 million, drawn from
operating and endowment funds. Yet, it’s an unanswered question as to
whether the money – especially funds guaranteed to students based solely
on their high school grades – is recruiting the type of students that the
universities would like.
Last fall, nearly 1,100 Canadian undergraduate students were surveyed jointly by Academica Group, a research and consulting company,
and ScholarshipsCanada.com, part of the SchoolFinder Group, to discover whether the offer of an entrance scholarship had any effect on students’
enrolment choices. The survey found that while more than half of students said they had been offered a scholarship, only 39 percent said their
eligibility for one had been a factor when they chose which institution to
attend. Just three percent of students were “flipped” away from their first
choice of school due to a scholarship offer (see Figure 1 on pg. 14).
In fact, a school’s reputation for academic excellence and good student experience was valued far more highly than an entrance scholarship.
Most scholarships were worth less than $2,500 and were only for the
first year of study, leading the survey report to suggest that institutions
should consider offering fewer scholarships at a higher value to attract the
students they really want.
Alex Usher, president of the consulting firm Higher Education Strat-
egy Associates (HESA), says it is common for 60 percent of an incoming
undergraduate class to arrive with some form of entrance scholarship.
More than anything else, it is an “admissions management” tool, he says,
designed to get a student to commit earlier to an institution. “Students
have a pretty good sense of which institutions they want to go to, so using
these awards to try and change their mind is actually kind of difficult.”
Guaranteed or “automatic” entrance scholarships that first-time stu-
dents don’t have to apply for are found across the country but are espe-
cially prolific in university-rich Ontario, where their popularity soared in
the late 1990s. That was a time when tuition fees climbed rapidly in many
provinces due to federal funding cuts. From a handful of Ontario uni-
versities offering them in 1994, some 15 of the province’s 19 universities
were providing “automatics” to students whose high school marks aver-
aged 80 to 90 percent, according to research published in the Canadian
Journal of Economics in May 2012.
Most universities continue to post grids online, spelling out guaranteed amounts of entrance scholarships based on students’ high school
grades. These range from $500 for an 80-percent average to a student’s
entire tuition for a 95-percent average. Students receive the scholarship as
long as they accept the university’s entrance offer by a specified deadline.
When such scholarships are so common yet seem to have such little real
impact, some people are asking whether the funds couldn’t be better spent.
One student-aid manager says she wishes there weren’t any entrance
scholarships, apart from the very prestigious ones that students have to
apply for (and which are often financed by privately raised endowment
funds, not by operating funds). In that way, a university’s student-aid