Scholarships are bullshit

A man walks down the street. It’s daylight, but there’s no sidewalk or much of a shoulder. He’s trying to get to the nearby convenience store for some diapers. Suddenly, a car zooms by and hits the side of his left arm, shattering his elbow.

The man falls to the ground writhing in pain. Bystanders rush over, “You should put ice on that,” someone says. “Here, let me help,” says another person as they apply pressure to the man’s leg. The paramedics arrive and take him to the hospital where they fix him up, and later bill him for $19,000. This happens all the time on this stretch of road.

“Justin, what are you talking about. That’s crazy. If he had ice I’m sure he’d use it. And how lame is that anyway?” Yes, I know.

The poor guy got his elbow all beat up and all anyone can do is apply pressure to his leg and tell him to ice it with ice he doesn’t have. How dare he not carry ice in his pockets all the time. Lame advice and lousy help. He’d be better off with no help at all. And the medical bills consumed nearly half of his income for a full year.

“We should have better healthcare!” “We need better trained citizens!” “He needs affordable insurance!”

No he doesn’t. What he needs is a damn sidewalk.

All this lousy treatment and mildly cruel “advice” is exactly what we give students running off to college. Don’t believe me? Let’s try this story again with a slightly different angle:

A young lady graduates from high school. She doesn’t have much of an income or family support. She’s trying to become a pharmacist. She goes to school and receives her first bill for $19,000. She falls down to the ground writhing in pain.

“You should apply for scholarships,” someone says. “Here, let me help,” says another person as they pull out $20 from their wallet. “You should get a job to pay it.”


I happen to know a few things about scholarships and I think they’re of no help to the majority of people they’re intended to serve. In fact, they may actually do more harm than good. And how’s she going to pay for school working as a damn “Sandwich Artist”?

Unless scholarships cover absolutely everything — 110% of everything — they are almost certainly useless and should be abolished. At best you can make a case for the support of scholarships covering 80% for some people of modest means, but for people who start at (practically) $0 in income, 20% of $20,000 is still more than $0 and these are precisely the people we all agree should be going to college and getting help.

To put that in perspective: what’s the difference between a billion dollars in debt and two billion in debt to your bank account? Not a lot, practically, and it doesn’t matter, because your life is ruined and you’ll never be able to pay it anyway. Hell, add another billion in debt if you want. It didn’t really matter after the first $100,000 or so.

A student who enters college with barely enough income to afford a crappy apartment with 3 other people and some lousy food does not have money for school. If they can’t get loans, they’re sunk. And students who don’t have great parents, any parents, or parents that even pay the light bill from time to time will have absolutely no chance of getting a loan. It all runs through their parents and their credit score. No private bank will loan money to someone underage or just barely of age to even know what a loan is. And so the parents, who are likely just as poor and uneducated, sink their kids before they even got out of middle school and they don’t even know it. Government grants are the best alternative, if you qualify, which a lot of people don’t for a whole slew of reasons.

So scholarships exist for this very scenario, right? Schools give out scholarships, foundations give them out, even entire cities and towns give out scholarships to all their students so they can go off to college.

Except there’s all these little nickels and dimes that have to be accounted for. I bet this sounds pretty good to most people:

“This scholarship will pay 50% of your tuition!”

Hell, even if it said 100% that’d be better, right? Except tuition is just a small part of college. The fees are just as much, often more, than the tuition. So if your tuition each year is $5,000 and your books are $500 and your fees are $4,000, you owe $9,500. But that “50% of tuition” scholarship is only going to give you $2,500. So where’s the other $6,000 plus rent, water, Internet, heat, and food come from, Moneypenny?

If you’re most students, it comes from nowhere. You drop out with the first semester or year’s bills under your belt and you entered with nothing and now all you got to show for it was a lousy t-shirt and $6,000 in debt.

Pumping scholarships into the system is like applying pressure to the guy’s leg on the sidewalk. And no one’s doing anything to solve the root problem: schools cost entirely too much for what they can reasonably offer.

I have some ideas on how to help, but it requires a change in our culture.

Which is better:

1. 100 students enter college with scholarships covering 15% of their expenses each year. 40 students drop out due to cost, 20 drop out because they shouldn’t have been there in the first place but went because it seemed affordable, and 40 muddle along for 4-5 years and come out with enough debt to buy a house.


2. 50 students enter college with 100% of their expenses covered each year. 2 drop out because they were uninterested or shouldn’t have been there. They all live with no student loan debt and actually bought a house with the savings.

I think option 2 is way better. More students actually graduated, the money was truly invested wisely, and few students entered when they had no business. Which happens a lot, by the way. Students that get this big “We’ll pay a bunch!” carrot in front of their face run off to college when what they really wanted to do was become a plumber. Now we have no plumber and nothing else, either. This happens. A lot.

So let’s stop offering piddly little scholarships. Go big or go home. No more $500 here, $1,000 there. All of it. You’re going to start a scholarship, it’d better offer 110% of everything for every year for each recipient. $500 pays for a book. Woopteedoo. Small towns that offer these scholarships for students should go all-in for the ones with the highest need and the most promise. When I left Salem I had a scholarship for $1,000 in my hands. A nice gesture, but hardly much help. It would have been better if we all put all the scholarship dollars behind one student and said, “Here you go.” If it were me, maybe I would have actually finished school.

Let’s stop telling kids to “get a job” and recognize they’re there so they can get a job and no job they do manage to get is going to pay anything close to the costs they bear.

And let’s have schools stop becoming shrines. If you want to build a campus with big stadiums and pools, talk the local YMCA into building one near you. If you want big food courts and crap, talk to the local Subway. Build rooms for classes and cheap housing and call it a day.

Pay fair wages relative to the local community for your deans, instructors, and administrators. No more million dollar payouts for an administrator who lives in Bloomington, Indiana where the average income is $40,000 a year and a house costs $100,000 on the high end. And if they do get paid a bunch, like a coach, you’d better be able to prove they can pay their own salary through volunteer-based fundraising and sales. So that’ll eliminate all those Deputy Assistant Deans to the Assistant Deputy Dean positions. While we’re at it we can eliminate all the people you hired to squelch a lawsuit and pretend you care about things — like “Director of Diversity Services”.

It’s time to recognize the beast needs starved, and scholarships are only feeding it. Let’s be creative, realistic, and actually make a dent in fixing the problem by investing wisely, building appropriately, and with a clear mission.

Remember, it’s cheaper to build the sidewalk than it is to run the entire healthcare system around the lack of it.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

3 thoughts on “Scholarships are bullshit”

  1. What a great beginning… “no he doesn’t. What he needs is a damn sidewalk.” my favorite part. I don’t like scholarships either, I never win them lol

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