Letter to the Editor: The underlying issue with Bucknell scholarships

Chris Bazela

We often think about scholarships in a positive light: providing financial assistance to young, budding students hoping to receive higher education. Scholarships have also been a tool to help support underrepresented groups in specific majors/career paths. But what if these “inclusive” mechanisms are actually having adverse effects?

The goal of a liberal arts university is to become broadly educated and well-rounded members of society. “With more than 60 majors and even more minors across three colleges, Bucknell invites you to venture into disciplines that fascinate you and find meaningful ways to connect them” (Bucknell.edu). Rather than narrow-career preparation, a liberal arts curriculum is centered around exposure to ideas and freedom. Currently, Bucknell offers 13 different scholarship programs in sectors ranging from the arts, STEM, ROTC and more. These scholarships are used to help combat the rising cost of Bucknell tuition and help those who may have not been able to attend Bucknell previously. As per the admissions office, for merit scholarships, students are agreeing to pursue that respective major, minor or program if they accept the merit scholarship. Scholarship recipients thus sign a contract when they enroll at Bucknell.

Although these scholarship programs have been beneficial in making Bucknell more affordable for students, I do believe that they can come at a cost. Research by Freedman (2013) suggests that an estimated 75 percent of college students change their major at least once before graduation (Freedman 2013- The Developmental Disconnect in Choosing a Major: Why Institutions Should Prohibit Choice until Second Year). By having these scholarships mandate a student’s intended major, students become financially and contractually obligated to pursue at least a minor in a certain field despite a possible change of preferences. A departmental minor typically consists of four, five or six courses in a department. An interdepartmental minor consists of five courses, with none of the five being in the student’s major department and no more than three of the five being in a single department. By faculty action, all minors are available to all students in the University (Bucknell Course Catalog). This means that four to six courses are mandated based on these scholarship requirements. A bit of an oxy-moron for a liberal arts university in which freedom and diversity of course selections are highly encouraged.

Furthermore, the diversity efforts of our university are pridefully shared through some of their scholarship offerings. Unfortunately after speaking with representatives of admissions and financial aid, they were not able to provide data or information on how much money is allotted for each scholarship. In addition, they were also not able to provide the number of recipients for each scholarship. My concern is the silence and lack of information are a reflection of the inequitable results of these “diversity” scholarships.

For example, the Bucknell Women in Science and Engineering scholarship awards $20,000 per year to high-achieving women applicants who plan to major in engineering, biophysics, chemistry, environmental geosciences, geology or physics. This scholarship is meant to provide a more equitable advancement of our science and engineering disciplines. However, Bucknell also offers an Arts Merit Scholarship which the offering could be equivalent to the Bucknell Women in Science Scholarship but also could be as low as $2,500. A female student who previously had a desire for the humanities could find herself pigeonholed in a STEM college path based on the difference in opportunity. This is not creating choice and opening pathways but rather could be skewing individuals’ preferences. Furthermore, this female student is now funneled into a major and career path “for the money.” The antithesis of the liberal arts mantra.

I am not sure what could be a solution to improve our scholarship and diversity efforts but I believe the concerns put forth should be taken into consideration. Two major flaws in the Bucknell scholarship system are damaging to diversity and inclusion: 1. Merit scholars are contracted into a specific course selection despite attending a liberal arts college 2. The scholarships and finances offered seem to reflect the agenda of the university rather than the interest of the students. If Bucknell hopes to continue to be a prestigious liberal arts college, their scholarship programs should reflect inclusive liberal arts values.

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