Shopping for scholarships

macleans-universitiesMaclean’s Nov 20, 2000. Vol. 113, Iss. 47; pg. 94, 4 pgs

Shopping for scholarships

The notion still scares Michael Groves: monster student loans, multiplying by the minute and drowning him in red ink. It’s a fate that ensnares thousands of Canadian students every year. But so far, the second-year math and physics co-op student at the University of British Columbia has escaped the demons of debt. His secret? A strong portfolio of scholarships. With help from his mother, Kathy, a registered nurse and the single parent of three sons, Groves spent months last year searching for every conceivable source of assistance. On the strength of his grandfather’s Second World War service, the 19-year-old native of Kelowna, B.C., netted an $800 award from the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. And as a former “little brother,” he landed $500 from the Kelowna chapter of Big Brothers and Sisters of Canada. His 92-per-cent average also earned him a $2,500 entrance scholarship at UBC, plus more than $1,800 in provincial awards.

In the end, Groves’s total take was more than $5,000. Once he added his summer earnings as an army-cadet trainer, plus a modest family contribution, he managed to cover all his first-year expenses. This year, he did even better, collecting about $8,000 from the Royal Canadian Cadet Corp., the legion and other sources. “I’m trying to avoid student loans like the plague,” says Groves, who dreams of becoming an astronaut. “I apply for everything. You never know what you’re going to win.”

Call it shopping for dollars. More than ever, students of every stripe are tapping into a widening array of scholarships-from big-money awards for whiz-kids to grants for those with special hobbies. For many, it’s a matter of necessity. Tuition has jumped 135 per cent in the past 10 years, with the average undergraduate in arts and science now paying $3,378. When all costs are consideredtuition, books, lodging and a computer-one year of study away from home in Canada starts at about $13,000. The good news is as costs have risen, so, too, has the amount of scholarship and bursary money available. Since 1989, universities have more than tripled the amount they spend on all forms of financial assistance. As well, Ottawa has emerged as a major player with its $2.5-billion Millennium Scholarship Fund, designed primarily for students in financial need. The controversial initiative, which doles out awards worth an average of $3,000 a year, has been used by most provinces to enhance their student-aid programs.

At the same time, a wide variety of corporate playersNortel Networks Corp., Magna International Inc. and JDS Uniphase Corp., to name a few-have hopped on the scholarship bandwagon. In 1981, Imasco Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd.-established a scholarship fund for full-time undergraduate students living with a disability. One of this year’s recipients was Lisa Franks, an 18-year-old student from Moose Jaw, Sask., studying civil engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. Last month, Franks won four gold medals and a silver in wheelchair racing at the Paralympics in Sydney, Australia.

Altogether, Canadian governments, universities, companies and nonprofit groups now sponsor more than 60,000 need- and merit-based awards, ranging in value from $100 to $50,000 or more. And as the number of scholarships has risen, so has the number of applicants. Take the prestigious, privately funded Canadian Merit Scholarship, worth up to $36,000 over four years and billed as the largest independent scholarship in the country. In the 13 years since it was established, the number of candidates vying for the honour has more than tripled to 3,200 annually. Last year, 170 of those applicants qualified for a local or national award. Another hotly contested prize is the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation’s Excellence Awards, a merit-based program that accounts for five Der cent of the organizations $2.5-billion endowment. Last year, 7,600 students applied for one of 900 awards, which range from a onetime $4,000 payment for local winners to $4,800 annually, renewable over four years.

The competition for scholarship dollars has turned up the pressure to maximize marks and expand resumes. The Internet is playing a key role in raising the awareness of the choices available. In Canada, students are flocking to such sites as and The latter and its French counterpart, boun&, launched only two years ago, now boast 250,000 registered users and 3,000 visits a day, compared with more than 50,000 users for scholarshipscanada. “Scholarships are one of the first things students ask about when they get into the senior grades,” says Martha Cruikshank, head of guidance at A. N. Myer Secondary School in Niagara Falls, Ont. “But often they’re more savvy than the counsellors.”

In the new world of enrolment management, universities are stepping up their traditional practice of using scholarships to lure outstanding students. This year, McMaster University in Hamilton joined the growing number of institutions offering automatic award programs for entering students with high marks. The universitys $2-million program pays $750 to those with high-school averages between 80 and 84 per cent, $1,000 for applicants scoring from 85 to 89, and $2,000 for students with 90 and above. McMaster credits the program with a 40-per-cent boost to its share of students with entering averages of 80 or higher. “Because of this,” says Fred Hall, associate vice-president, academic, “students who may not have considered McMaster added us to their list.”

No doubt, the choices are often greater-and the rewards richer-for high achievers. But scholarships are no longer reserved for academic stars. Those with lower marks can compete for a whole range of other awards, many of them interest-based. The $2,500 Peter Corley Memorial Scholarship is open to members of the Soaring Association of Canada who have completed at least one solo flight in a glider in the past 12 months. The Maytree Education Access Program is geared to students from refugee families who are in financial need. Others, such as the Imperial Oil Higher Education Awards, are intended exclusively for the sons and daughters of employees.

Some observers see the race for scholarships as ominous: yet another sign of the Americanization of Canada’s academic landscape. For critics, every new award inaugurated by Nortel or the Lion’s Club underscores the fact that governments slashed billions of dollars from post-secondary education during the 1990s, and have failed to ensure equal access to higher education. To offset huge cuts in funding, most provincial governments have allowed universities to increase tuition fees. In Ontario and Nova Scotia, fees for such professional programs as business, law and medicine have been deregulated. In return, universities have been told to reinvest a portion of those tuition revenues to increase financial assistance. “We’re heading towards a more American model of building universities, funding them and providing student assistance,” says Michael Howell, author of Winning Scholarships. “It’s a more Darwinian approach-the survival of the fittest.”

Canada may be getting closer to an American model, but it still falls far short. If anything proves the gap with the United States, it is sports scholarships. The average athletic award south of the border is $18,300 a year, whereas until recently, most provinces had established a limit of $1,500 apiece. In June, the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union voted to increase the limit, matching awards with the cost of tuition and fees-and boosting the average award to $3,400. Still, Ontario universities have chosen to stick to the $1,500 limit.

Student leaders underscore the fact that the United States does a better job of serving those with the greatest need. By virtue of their long histories and wide networks of well-heeled alumni, Ivy League universities have accumulated huge endowments, allowing them to dedicate large amounts to needs-based financial assistance. Meanwhile, two months ago, California unveiled the most generous student financialaid plan in the country, worth about $1.5 billion a year. Starting in January, any high-school graduate in the state with a B average and a household income of $96,000 or less for a family of four will qualify for free tuition at any public university in California, or a $14,500 grant towards tuition at a private college. Even C students from families with a household income of less than $51,000 will receive $2,250 in grants to help them qualify for post-secondary admittance.

In Canada, some of the most generous awards are based on merit as much as marks. The TD Canada Trust Awards, one of the country’s most coveted prizes, is presented to 20 young Canadians each year who demonstrate outstanding community leadership. The scholarship covers full tuition, $3,500 for living expenses and a guaranteed offer of summer employment for four years at TD Canada Trust. Candidates for the prestigious Canadian Merit Scholarship, who must have at least an 80-per-cent average, are also called on to demonstrate character, leadership and service. “We’re not looking for conventional students,” says Colleen Cowman, executive director of the Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation.

Taylor Adams is by no means conventional. After two days of interviews in February, the 18-year-old native of St. Johns, Nfld., was declared one of 30 winners of this year’s Canadian Merit Scholarship, and it’s easy to see why. During her years at Holy Heart of Mary High School, Adams played on the volleyball team, belonged to three choirs and the string orchestra, and was heavily involved in the peercounselling program. She also participated in science fairs, including the national high-school science fair in Edmonton in May, 1999, and graduated with an 88-per-cent average. Outside of school, Adams volunteered through her church and was an active member of the Newfoundland Symphony Youth Choir. Thanks to her scholarship, she is now studying at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and hopes to become a psychologist, helping young women with eating disorders and other challenges. Says Adams: “I want to help them build their self-esteem so they’re not lost in the images our society creates for them.”

Clearly, Adams is in a special league. But students of all kinds can improve their odds of winning awards. Many counsellors recommend that teens start preparing as early as Grade 9, working to maintain good marks and adding community service and extracurricular activities to their resumes. Ideally, students should have a scholarship “coach”-a parent, teacher or guidance counsellor who can alert them to opportunities and guide them through the application process.

Despite cutbacks that have significantly thinned their ranks, guidance counsellors still play a key role. At Calgary’s Sir Winston Churchill High School, Sharon Lalonde and her three fellow counsellors meet with students in Grades 10, 11 and 12 to discuss scholarships. The school also publishes its own guide to awards, which is updated on an annual basis. Last year, the number of provincial Rutherford scholarships awarded to the school’s graduating class for academic achievement totalled $464,000, and the goal this year is $500,000. “If they’re not paying the bill, students aren’t always conscientious about learning what’s available,” says Lalonde, who has worked as a counsellor for 22 years. “Our job is to raise awareness.”

In the end, one of the biggest factors in earning a scholarship is simply applying. “Ignorance and apathy are the two biggest reasons why kids end up empty-handed,” says Howell. The choices are many, and the rewards go beyond the monetary. Some scholarships also include mentorships, travel opportunities and youth conferences. Summer internships offered by the Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation have allowed students to spend summers at a marine biology institute in Bermuda, a water-purification project in China and at Jean Vanier’s L’Arche community in France. For Taylor Adams, the honour has provided opportunities she never would have dreamed of, including the chance to study in another part of Canada. “I’ve never done anything for recognition,” says Adams. “But it makes you feel proud, and it definitely opens doors that otherwise would not be opened.” An education-in every sense of the word.