Do grants do any good?

Closing the higher education gap is more complicated than making sure everyone can afford it


A study of university graduate rates in Quebec suggests that while needs-based grants improve university attendance, they don’t help university graduation numbers. In other words, Quebec’s additional needs-based grants did allow more lower-income students to go to university, but that increase did not mean that more of those students actually graduated.

This study raises at least two questions in my mind. First, if a student goes to university and does not graduate, has that student necessarily wasted the time and money spent? The study’s author, Mathieu Chemin, seems to think so, pointing out that the labour market rewards graduation, not attendance. But labour markets are not the only measure of the value of education. I would like to see data regarding how many students who attended university without graduating still view their time there as rewarding and valuable. A half-eaten meal is still nourishing; it may be all you need. Might there not be many who attend university for, say, two years, and then decide to move on to other things, but do so with a wider range of knowledge, a better set of critical skills, and a fuller sense of the world’s possibilities? I have known more than one student who fits this description perfectly.

But even if many students do end up wasting their time pursuing a degree they don’t finish, another question arises: Why don’t more of those low-income students end up graduating? The possible answers that suggest themselves to me relate to preparedness. For one thing, low-income students may live in areas with inadequate educational resources. If their schools, libraries, and museums are inferior (or absent), poorer students may not be as well-prepared for university study. Similarly, if parents are struggling to make ends meet and working long hours at exhausting jobs, they may be unable to take as active an interest in their kids’ learning (directly or by hiring tutors, say) as richer parents. Still further, low-income parents may themselves not have been to university and, as such, may (consciously or unconsciously) teach their kids to undervalue higher education, which might make their kids less likely to stick with it even when they do go to university themselves.

In short, lower-income kids may be less prepared and less enthusiastic about university in the first place, leading them to drop out before finishing. A 2007 Statistics Canada study concluded something similar about university attendance in general: that poorer students don’t attend university as often, but not because of money per se, but because of lower academic performance and differing parental expectations. If this is true, though, it doesn’t mean there is no problem. Instead, it may mean that we need to concentrate less on grants to lower-income students and look more closely at public education to see if it can play a greater role in letting disadvantaged kids know that university is an option, and getting them ready to realize that choice.


Do grants do any good?

  1. In addition to the obvious caveats in interpreting this data (surely Quebec, in a variety of financial/social indicators, differs from other Canadian provinces by more than just its student financial aid system, so it’s not a “everything else being equal” situation), we should keep in mind that even if grants are not enough by themselves to promote participation and graduation by lower-income students, they might still be needed (i.e. the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions).

    That is, even if the financial barrier is not the only one, it is still a barrier.

    The same problems occur when you try to interpret the data from the 2007 study, since a lot of these variables (family income, parental expectations, education of parents, academic performance) are correlated, and it is difficult to decouple their effects unless you make questionable assumptions (e.g. that the effects are “additive”, for example).

  2. To be honest, this is the result that I would naturally expect from such an exercise. If the funding is uniformly distributed across the entire spectrum of students–from those who are unlikely to pass to excellent students–then to a zeroth order approximation, it seems reasonable to expect that the numbers in all such groups would simply increase by a fixed proportion–that is, a good student who isn’t attending university for financial reasons is just as likely to decide to attend as a poor student who isn’t attending for financial reasons. This type of effect won’t changed graduation rates–although, it is worth pointing out, in absolute terms, the number of low income students who graduate has still increased.

    The higher-order effect that they were presumably hoping to see would be that students with more funding could work proportionately less and thus devote more time to their studies. To my mind, unless the grant is a significant fraction of the cost of tuition, you probably aren’t going to see any substantial difference here since the amount of money going into student loans still dwarfs the size of the grant, which will probably mean that many students will work as much as they can regardless of whether or not the grant was given to them.

  3. There are many grant programs that offer significant contribution towards tuition. It takes a little know how and persistence, but they do exist. But generally I do agree with ABarlow’s comments above.

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  4. In celebration of its Golden Jubilee, the Indo-American Society (IAS) is proud to convene the first ever Indo-American Summit on Higher Education during 30, 31 July 2010 and 1 August 2010 at the Hotel Grand Hyatt, Mumbai.

    The Summit will present participants with an invaluable opportunity to collaborate with key business, political and academic personalities at a national and international level and address important issues, particularly in regard to policy framing and regulations and international partnerships.

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