Photo C/O Madeline Neumann

It’s scholarship season. If you’re like me, you probably spent a few days scouring Mosaic to find a list of awards to apply to, in hopes of receiving a subsidization of your degree, no matter how small. Many of McMaster University’s largest scholarships are merit-based, which strike me as odd; would it not be more beneficial to assist students demonstrating financial need?

A good example of such a merit-based scholarship is the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award, awarded annually to three undergraduate students and three graduate students. Recipients of this award, known as Wilson leaders, receive up to $25,000 and gain access to an incredibly exclusive leadership program, meant to connect them with other leaders.

If you are a Wilson leader, you are probably a bright and capable person and there is no denying that. But it is important that we interrogate what being a person of merit typically means and how other factors may affect someone’s ability to achieve that image of success.

A high grade point average and involvement in extracurricular activities often help someone win merit-based awards. But there are very obvious roadblocks that can hinder someone’s ability to achieve both, especially if they do not have financial support.

More often than not, lower-income students take on part-time jobs in order to pay for school, taking away valuable time that may otherwise be used to study or be involved in the community.

These students are still incredibly impressive; it is no small feat to finish a degree while also supporting yourself. Many students are also still engaged within their community, but in ways that cannot be put on a resume; running a babysitting ring in your neighbourhood, for example, does not have the same ring as volunteering for a daycare centre despite it being similar work. It just seems a little unfair to pit students who may not have the time nor resources to be involved with multiple clubs, maintain their GPA and live comfortably against those who do.

No matter how successful these students are, it can feel daunting to apply to major merit-based scholarships with the knowledge that someone without any financial barriers is also applying and was able to dedicate more time into resume-building activities.

This is not to say that wealthier students do not work hard and should not be offered any sort of award—we should just reconsider what that award should look like. This also is not meant to deride merit-based awards as a whole; people should absolutely be recognized for their hard work, no matter their financial situation. But it is worth considering how students would benefit if scholarships were restructured.

What if, for example, the Wilson Leader Scholarship offered their cash prize on a needs-based system, but offered the mentorship program to all those who receive it? A simple change would not only incentivize lower-income students to apply, but it would still preserve the program’s goal of recognizing student leaders.

Offering the title and its other benefits still recognize a student’s accomplishments but providing the monetary award on a need-be basis allows McMaster to support students with financial need. Imagine how much more a student leader could do if they were able to quit their shitty part-time job?

While it is important to recognize student merit in whatever shape it takes, McMaster should take a more formalized approach to support students who demonstrate financial need. Offering large scholarships on pure merit alone does not ensure that funds are being distributed equitably, and efforts should be made to mitigate that.

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