How have Canadian university scholarships changed?

Nowadays financial aid is as essential to most Canadian university students as meal plans and textbooks, but that hasn’t always been the case. Here’s how scholarships became such an important part of higher education.

While it’s hard to know for sure, it’s thought that that the world’s first-ever formal academic scholarship was awarded at Harvard University way back in 1643. Created by Lady Ann Mowlson, a British noblewoman, the award was dedicated to “the maintenance of some poor schollar which shall be admitted into...Harvard[']s Colledge.” A lot has changed about the university experience since the days of Lady Mowlson, and a lot about scholarships has changed, too. While there are still many forms of financial aid specifically intended to benefit disadvantaged students, scholarships have now become a routine part of the admissions process for students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

From the 17th century to the dawn of the 1900s universities proliferated around the world, with other institutions following Harvard’s lead in offering financial help to students in need. The next major milestone in the history of the scholarship, however, came from British industrialist Cecil Rhodes in 1902 and was notably different. Upon his death, he created what may be the world’s first scholarship specifically dedicated to international study, the now-famous Rhodes Scholarship. Initially offered to students in the British Empire and the United States based on scholastic merit, sportsmanship and “moral force of character,” the program gave students from around the globe a full ride to study at Oxford University in England. Incredibly, the Rhodes scholarship continues to provide these opportunities more than a century later, and is now open to students from every country in the world.

In Canada the history of scholarships took a major step forward in 1939 with the founding of the Dominion-Provincial Student Aid Program, which provided federal funding to the provinces to help boost university enrolment. Some of this funding would take the form of scholarships based both on need and on merit. As the number of universities in Canada grew through the 1960s and 1970s, the number of university students grew—along with their need for financial aid. While the government’s approach shifted towards repayable student loans—much to the chagrin of students everywhere—scholarships and grants remained available from the schools themselves.

In 1998 the federal government established the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, a $2.5 billion dollar fund dedicated to providing scholarships to students across the country and by 2010, the fund had successfully distributed $325 million per year to students based on both need and merit. In part as a result of this effort, by 2007-2008 the amount of need-based aid for students in the form of scholarships reached 34 percent, an all-time high.

These days, while there may be more scholarships awarded than ever before, the rising price of higher education means that students are graduating with more debt than ever before. According to Macleans, a 2015 survey by the Canadian University Consortium for that 50 per cent of students at the time had student debt, and 29% of these reported debt of $20,000 or more. For students in Alberta, however, this number may have been significantly lower, thanks both to a tuition freeze the $97 million dollars in scholarships and awards that it gives to students in the province each year.

While the federal and provincial governments give out many awards each year, a lot of scholarships still follow the same form of that first one in the 1600s, with a donation from a private individual to a university of their choice. Lady Mowlson and Cecil Rhodes might be surprised by many things about the modern world, but this philanthropy is exactly how they could have imagined the tradition of the academic scholarship into the 21st century.

Jeremy Freed is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. His writing about fashion, travel, food and design appears in Sharp, Harry and re:Porter magazines, among many others.

Jeremy Freed is a paid Sonnet spokesperson.
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