The Case for Need Based Scholarships

By Gary Topp '16

Gary Topp '16

Gary Topp '16

Last week the University of Chicago announced a $50m donation from novelist Harriet Heyman, AM ’72 and her husband Michael Moritz, chairman of Sequoia Capital, a VC firm. The money will support the University’s Odyssey Scholarship and Collegiate Scholars programs, the College’s primary means of making UChicago accessible for students from low-income families.

The University was keen to trumpet the expansion of these two programs, and it might. In 2015, Chicago ranked 81st on the New York Times’ College Access Index. In comparison, peer schools, such as Columbia and Penn ranked 40 places higher despite a lower endowment per student. With the College making significant efforts to close the access gap, it begs the question: what is Booth doing to make it more accessible?

Very little, based on the current set of scholarships available. Booth’s scholarship policy is purely merit-based and does not support need-based scholarships. Meanwhile, peer schools like Harvard and Stanford do consider need, and last-time I checked, the quality of their students hadn’t suffered. HBS, for example, offered an average need-based fellowship of $34,000 to 50% of the class. Stanford GSB does not even offer merit-based fellowships, only need-based.

This prompts another question: how do we define merit? It’s possible that first-generation students may not appear as merit-worthy on paper as other students. However, there is strong evidence that SAT scores and college graduation rates are strongly correlated with parental income and education levels. A first-generation college student with the requisite GMAT score, GPA, work experience and community service necessary to be admitted to Booth, is at the very top of the distribution of students from similar backgrounds. They should be considered merit-worthy, even if they are only in the middle or lower half of the distribution of all applicants admitted to Booth.

The Collegiate Scholars program assists talented Chicago public high school students with college admissions. The program has had great success, with 70% of students attending selective universities.

The Collegiate Scholars program assists talented Chicago public high school students with college admissions. The program has had great success, with 70% of students attending selective universities.

There are three additional reasons for need-based scholarships at Booth. First, need-based scholarships signal to talented students of limited means that they belong here. Relative to peers, Booth essentially signals they do not value such students as much, thereby potentially losing strong applicants. Second, prospect theory says we evaluate gains and losses relative to a reference point; those with a lower financial reference point are more likely to write off an MBA as too expensive and unnecessary. Need-based scholarships help counteract this bias. Third, we all recognize the value of the MBA network; such a network is most impactful to first-generation and other low-income students who often lack the informal networks other students have.

This doesn’t mean Booth should stop rewarding merit. Booth should always seek to attract the best students; need-based scholarships simply provide an additional means of doing so.

Perhaps next time Dean Kumar and Dean Kole are visiting potential donors, they will consider this article. I am sure someone out there will be willing to support a need-based scholarship scheme at Booth.

Gary is a second-year student inspired to leave his legacy on Booth by Navigating the Grey.