The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our campuses are situated. With a history spanning 60,000 years as the original educators, Indigenous peoples hold a unique place in Australia. We recognise the importance of their knowledge and culture, and reflect the principles of participation, equity, and cultural respect in our work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future, and consider it an honour to learn from our Indigenous colleagues, partners, and friends.

You are reading: Moving Beyond ‘Acts of Faith’: Effective Scholarships for Equity Students

Written by Dr Nadine Zacharias, Professor Brenda Cherednichenko, Dr Juliana Ryan, Dr Kelly George, Ms Linda Gasparini (Deakin University), Ms Mary Kelly, Ms Smitha Mandre-Jackson (QUT), Ms Annette Cairnduff & Mr Danny Sun (The University of Sydney)


This study investigates the relationships between equity scholarships and the retention and success outcomes of recipients at three deliberately different universities, Deakin University, Queensland University of Technology and the University of Sydney, for the academic year of 2013. The key finding of this study is that equity scholarships are effective in retaining recipients, across the three universities, across demographic groups and across different scholarship products. The receipt of a scholarship reportedly reduced stress, boosted morale and allowed scholarship holders to dedicate more time to their studies at each of the universities. There were more varied results with regard to the success rates of recipients which may reflect design features of the scholarship products and programs and other variable institutional characteristics.

We undertook to investigate which types of scholarships were effective for equity groups. Rather than scholarship design features such as value, duration and timing of award, the most defining design element referable to student outcomes was a scholarship’s eligibility criteria, especially using Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR)/prior academic achievement (‘merit’) as a secondary selection criterion. The differences between equity and equity-merit scholarships matter because their selection criteria prioritise different sub-groups within equity groups: equity scholarships target those most disadvantaged and, thus, most at risk of leaving university prematurely. Equity-merit scholarships, on the other hand, target those disadvantaged students most likely to succeed because they have proven financial need and academic achievement at a high level. In our study, equity and equity-merit scholarships produced inverse student retention and success outcomes, i.e. equity scholarships had outcomes that were worse for those who got the highest value scholarships, whereas for equity-merit scholarships the outcomes were best for those students who received the most valuable scholarships.

In the allocation of equity scholarships a university effectively weighs up effort and risk in targeting and prioritising recipients. In addition to the importance of the selection criteria, the case studies illustrate that the more complex the institutional scholarship program, the less efficient is the administration of the selection process and the more difficult it is to evaluate relationships between scholarship product and student outcomes. Thus, the impetus is to design simple scholarship architectures with high volume products to generate effective student support, efficient processes and meaningful data.

Across institutions recipient type seemed to have more effect on student outcomes than scholarship type, with socioeconomic status, age, gender and basis of admission being categories that seemed to have a correlation with retention and success. Our findings suggest that a multi-factor assessment for scholarship eligibility is better than a single-factor one. Scholarships also have a value ‘beyond money’ in that latent potential can be realised if students have enough time to focus on their studies and receive a psychological lift from being recognised as worthy of the university’s support.

Universities and policy makers should consider that money does not overcome all barriers to participation and scholarships reach only a tiny minority of students. They need to be embedded in comprehensive support systems to attract, retain and graduate students from financially and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. The greatest contribution the Commonwealth can make is to provide consistent, predictable and appropriate levels of income support to all students by providing means-tested grants through the Centrelink system. There is great opportunity to build on these findings and explore the trends we found over time, and to assess and validate the observed relationships between scholarship types, recipient demographics and student outcomes using statistical and other methods.

Moving Beyond Acts of Faith – Effective Scholarships for Equity Students

Moving Beyond Acts of Faith – Effective Scholarships for Equity Students – Appendices

Zacharias, N., Kelly, M., Cairnduff, A., Cherednichenko, B., Ryan, J., George, K., Mandre-Jackson, S., Gasparini, L. & Sun, D. (2016) Moving Beyond ‘Acts of Faith’: Effective Scholarships for Equity Students. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.