Scholarships: myths and realities
Scholarships: myths and realities
Back in the 1940s, the marketing concept known as the USP appeared. This, of course, is the Unique Selling Proposition (or Point). The thinking was not just to come up with a slogan to sell your product, but to include in that slogan a genuine differentiating benefit of the product or service. So, for example, instead of saying their chocolate melted in your mouth (like all chocolate), M&M’s took the plunge in 1954 and said their product “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand”. Chocolate and clean hands: this was everything we’d ever wanted, and people were soon battering down the doors of candy stores to get at the colourful little miracles. Lots of companies followed suit, culminating in Domino’s Pizza’s bold “You got 30 minutes” slogan which promised free pizza if that Margarita wasn’t delivered in half an hour. (I assume the geographical caveats were extensive.)
It is the unique scholarship system that for many defines or at least differentiates UWC schools and colleges, but I would worry very much if it became a United World College USP. Yet sometimes it can feel that way. It is all too easy to talk about UWC scholars as show-ponies, and once that happens, the young people concerned can be burdened by false expectation or even become the easy targets for lazy and ill-informed criticism. In UWCSEA, where the scholars form a small percentage of the population (because our mandate was to educate the expatriate population of Singapore) we need to be even more sensitive than most to the issue of false expectation. When talking about the input, throughput and output of a school, the UWC movement can often, it seems to me, get bogged down on the first issue. Hardly surprising as the process of selection is far from intuitive. So, it might be worth reminding ourselves of a few salient points.
In 155 countries there are 3,000 volunteers working for UWC National Committees. These volunteers, themselves alumni of UWCs, promote the movement, identify possible scholars, interview them and help place them in UWCs around the world, including UWCSEA. Some National Committees have successful fundraising arms to help with this: many do not. The difference between, say, the resources of the German National Committee and the Afghan National Committee is marked. What is undeniable is that many very busy, very able and often distinguished people are giving time and expertise to a cause in which they passionately believe. I know of nothing quite like it: engaged alumni volunteers working to find not money but the students themselves. Most UWCs rely on the National Committees for their survival, and most UWC staff will not have met the new students who are going to turn up at the start of the year because the selection took place elsewhere. Again, we are an outlier as over 5,000 of our students came through an internal selection process.
And who are these scholars? Are they all operating at the extreme end of academic brilliance and poverty?
Absolutely not. Some scholars arrive speaking fluent English and knocking exams out of the park from the word go; others come with little English and require time to adjust. Indeed some find the academic challenges incredibly demanding throughout their time here. For the record, the average IB Diploma score of a scholar is a little lower than that for non-scholars. But that is to be expected, and as I’ve said a thousand times elsewhere, a hard earned IB score of 24 points under such circumstances deserves as much celebration as a less painfully achieved 40. And with UWC, an IB score is of course an element—not the quintessence—of education.
There are then the myths about the socio-economic status of scholars. First, not all ‘scholarships’ within UWC are fully-funded scholarships. There are partial scholarships (these are means tested of course) and sometimes a ‘scholar’ is actually paying full fees. The problem here is nomenclature: anyone who comes through a National Committee is termed a ‘Scholar’ by the movement, and so we immediately have potential for confusion. But many scholars are of course from backgrounds that offer little hope for personal and societal transformation, and the effects of a UWC education upon such young people are sometimes the stuff of dreams: it is this that prompted Shelby Davis, for example, to pour millions into the UWC scholarship pot—an act of extraordinary generosity which is changing young lives around the globe. The inspirational stories that have come from this are soaring examples of what a genuinely transformative education can do, and they are usually enough to silence UWC’s most ardent critics. At UWCSEA we set aside a small percentage of our fee income every year to fund such scholarships, and this is enhanced by philanthropic donations to and through the UWCSEA Foundation. Many teaching colleagues also contribute to a scholarship fund.
UWC is about impact. Throughput (what we do with students when they are here) and output (what they do with their lives afterwards) are crucial. But the factors that make our input unique (on different scales according to the college) are wonderful and cause for celebration. If I were in another industry I would suggest that at UWCSEA we should talk about scholars through positioning statements rather than USPs. Happily for me, I work in education and so I feel no compulsion to adopt either method. What I would rather say is that our scholars are young people with foibles, hopes and fears common to all young people, but many bring experiences that modify the thinking of others, redirect their gazes and thus present new, challenging pathways. So, for all the quantifiable scores and success of our scholars, we are, most importantly, immeasurably the richer for their presence.