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Scholarships that Balance Equity and Efficacy

Continuing research in Cambodia explores whether benefits from scholarships extend into adulthood
Cambodian School by Andy de Barros

Across the world, a central dilemma for educators and education policymakers is how to ensure that students actually go to, and stay, in school.

A decade ago, a team of researchers, co-led by Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Felipe Barrera-Osorio, set out to discover whether scholarships could help third- and fourth-grade students in rural, impoverished areas of Cambodia attend and stay in primary school. More than that, they wanted to know which type of scholarship worked better — a merit scholarship, awarded based on academic achievement, or poverty scholarships, awarded according to highest financial need.

Both types of scholarships resulted in students staying in school longer. But that didn’t automatically lead to other gains. Students who won the merit scholarships saw more cognitive benefits as measured by standardized tests than students who received the poverty-based scholarships.

The researchers caught up with the students, now adults in their early 20s, last year. Barrera-Osorio and his co-researchers, Andreas de Barros, a Harvard doctoral candidate, and Deon Filmer, lead economist at the World Bank, wanted to know if the patterns had held, and if the type of scholarship had any lasting effect on how the students were doing in the labor market. They also wanted to see if staying in school longer had any relationship with social-emotional skills — skills that help students connect with one another and contribute to their emotional well-being.

What Happened Next

When the researchers caught up with the respondents as young adults, the merit-scholarship advantage for cognitive skills remained — but only for students who were poor enough that they would have qualified for either the merit-based or the poverty-based scholarship. The researchers found that poor students who had received the merit scholarships not only had learned more in school, as measured by cognitive tests, but they also reported being healthier and happier than those who had received the poverty scholarships, but also qualified for the merit scholarships.

The merit recipients overall, however, did not show any benefits when it came to social-emotional skills, an deviation from other studies in developed countries that closely link gains in cognitive and social-emotional skills.

The implications for the efficacy of merit scholarships can be tricky when it comes to equity, since achievement is often correlated with family income.

And, in a surprise to the researchers, students who received scholarships of either kind — merit or poverty — actually earned less at their jobs. While more research needs to be done — Barrera-Osorio hopes he can return to Cambodia to continue tracking the students through their adulthood — researchers do have hypotheses. Their wages might have been lower at age 20 because they were entering the workforce slightly later and it’s possible, Barrera-Osorio says, their education will allow them to catch up and eventually surpass the wages of their peers with less schooling.

The Significance of Labeling

One conclusion of this long-lasting study, Barrera-Osorio says, is that labels matter, at least for some students — in this case, the poorest.

This could be because teachers invested in students more once they were labeled as smart, or that families did. The label could have helped students invest in themselves. Whatever the reason, merit scholarships made more of a difference to poor kids’ when it came to how much they learned.

In this study, most of the students came from similar financial backgrounds. However, the implications for the efficacy of merit scholarships can be tricky when it comes to equity, since achievement is often correlated with family income. In the United States, for example, merit scholarships typically go to middle- and upper-middle-class students, reinforcing an existing achievement gap. In other words, when policymakers or school administrators opt to focus more on merit scholarships, they’re making a trade-off between equity and efficacy, says Barrera-Osorio.

To address this concern, equity-minded policymakers might want to follow the lead of this study, and even focus merit scholarships on students with financial need. The labels associated with merit tend to be a boon for all students, regardless of income — and that boon might an especially big difference for students from poorer backgrounds.


  • Labels matter. Students who otherwise had the same characteristics vis-à-vis family income and test scores performed differently depending on whether they received a merit-based scholarship — a label having to do with their ability — or a poverty-based one — a label having to do with income.
  • Scholarships matter — to a point. Either kind of scholarship encouraged students to stay in school longer. But only merit-recipients saw obvious benefits from staying in school longer, when it came to their self-reported health and well-being.

Photo by Andy de Barros

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