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Bursaries, Scholarships and Grants

A very high cost intervention, with extensive evidence, which suggests it may have a positive impact.

Financial awards, paid directly to students to help support study and other costs. They are not usually repayable.

Bursaries, scholarships and grants often come with eligibility criteria. These can be:

  • Needs based: based on the students and their family’s income
  • Merit based: based on a student’s achievements – these may be academic, artistic or athletic achievement or a notable contribution to civic/community life
  • Performance based: payment of the bursary is linked to ongoing attendance and/or achievement while in higher education
  • Student specific / equality based: awards that aim to address inequality or particular needs, targeted at students who qualify by virtue of their gender, ethnicity, disability or experience (for example, care-experienced students).

The majority of evaluations reviewed as part of this assessment related to needs-based bursaries, scholarships and grants, although we also included findings from studies that evaluated merit-based awards.


University of Glasgow: Talent Scholarship Programme

Scholarship funding for Widening Participation students is firmly established and embedded as part of University of Glasgow WP provision. The Talent Scholarships Programme was launched in 2007/08 to support applicants to the University who face financial hardship in attending university, in particular those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, carers, care-experienced students, mature students, students from rural communities, BAME groups, disabled students, those who are estranged from their families, and asylum seekers and refugees. Between 50 and 70 new scholarships are awarded annually. Over 600 scholarships have been distributed to date at a cost of approximately £400,000 per year. More recently, the University has established partnerships with the Robertson Trust and the ICAS (Institute of Chartered Accountants Scotland) Foundation in order to expand it financial support and now offers 20 joint scholarships with the Robertson Trust and 5 with the ICAS Foundation.

The bursaries awarded to students are worth between £1,000 and £4,000 per year of study, depending on their individual circumstances.  A condition of the Talent Scholarships is that students must continue to display the talent they showed at the point of application throughout their degree. As such, Scholars are monitored and tracked throughout their programme of study and receive support from the Scholarship Administrative team, the UoG WP team and wider Student Support Services as necessary.  The package of financial support, underpinned by a broader input, is intended to help students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, fulfil their potential and successfully progress through their degree. There is evidence to suggest that retention and progression rates amongst WP students have increased as a result of the overall institutional approach to WP, which includes a Local Student Orientation event, extended inductions and the allocation of a Study Adviser in addition to financial support, and that the gap between the most and least disadvantaged students is narrowing.

For more information about the Talent Scholarships programme see:

Target Audiences

Evaluation evidence included in this review tested the effectiveness of the intervention on the following target audiences:

  • Lower-income students


  • Improved retention / qualification completion
  • Improved attainment while in higher education

How effective is it?

Most of the evidence reviewed suggests the intervention has a positive impact on outcomes, although some studies suggest no impacts.

Some studies reviewed have mixed results, for example, finding an impact only for some students or only for certain outcomes. On balance, however, most studies reviewed conclude that non-repayable financial support can be an effective mechanism to improve retention and enhance attainment. Performance-based rewards appear to be most likely to have a positive impact. The single UK based study reviewed found that unconditional financial aid increased likelihood that students would obtain a good degree. This was driven by increased probability of completion and improved test scores.

What are the costs?

Scholarships, bursaries and grants in the studies reviewed ranged from approximately £220 to £3,000 per student per year. Only one study reviewed included details of the cost of administering financial support in addition to the cost of the award. This suggest this is a very high cost intervention.

How good is the current evidence?

The strength of evidence on the impact of this intervention is extensive.

Ten individual studies were reviewed at level 3 and two reviews of studies mainly at level 3.

A further seven individual studies  and one review at level 2 were considered.

How relevant is the evidence?

Most of the strongest evidence comes from the United States (seven of the ten level 3 studies). Students attending college in the US must meet the cost of both tuition and maintenance. Without financial aid it would not be possible for low-income or most middle-income students to attend college. Most students are receiving some form of financial aid – this can include grants from federal, state, local government, institutional and private sources. Financial aid is increasingly in the form of repayable loans (see Cahalan, 2013). Whereas some studies included in this review evaluated the impact of financial aid on particularly disadvantaged groups, grant recipients in some studies were from middle-class socio-economic backgrounds.

There is some evidence from England, but this is generally not as strong as that from the US – we found only one level 3 study.

We found no published studies from Scotland on this intervention.

Overall, given the differences in the financial context of higher education between Scotland and North America, the evidence is to be considered of some but limited relevance to the Scottish and widening participation context.


Cahalan, M. (2013) Widening Participation in the United States of America, HEFCE,,international,research/2013_WPeffectivenessUS.pdf

Things to consider

Several of the level 3 studies conclude that financial support linked to attendance and attainment is more likely to be effective – that is, students must attend and/or attain at a certain level to receive ongoing financial support.

One of the reviews of level 3 studies also concludes that the complexity of financial aid programmes undermines effectiveness. Impactful schemes tend to have easy-to-understand rules and are simple to apply for.

Two level 2 studies suggest that the size of award may be less important than the fact of being in receipt of an award.

Some of the studies indicated that certain groups may be more responsive to financial support – such as those with low prior attainment, women, and BAME groups. But the findings were not consistent across studies.

Further Research Recommended

More level 3 studies in the UK or in HE funding contexts more similar to Scotland.

Further Information

Financial Aid Policy: Lessons from Research provides an accessible review of some of the higher quality evaluations of student financial aid, albeit in the United States context.

See Testing Means-Tested Aid for a level 3 evaluation of bursaries at nine English Universities.

The Office for Students provides a set of online tools to help institutions to better evaluate their financial support.


Level 3

Angrist, J., Lang, D. and Oreopoulos, P. (2009) ‘Incentives and services for college achievement: evidence from a randomized trial.’ American Economic Journal, 1(1): 136–163.

Bettinger, E. (2004) How Financial Aid Affects Persistence. Cambridge: NBER Working Paper Series.

Curs, B. R. and Harper, C. E. (2012) ‘Financial aid and first-year collegiate GPA: A regression discontinuity approach.’ Review of Higher Education, 34(4), 627-649.

Desjardins, S.L. and McCall, B.P. (2014) ‘The impact of the Gates Millennium Scholars Program on college and post-college related choices of high ability, low-income minority students.’ Economics of Education Review, 38: 124–138.

Dynarski, S.M. (2008) ‘Building the stock of college-educated labor.’ Journal of Human Resources, 43(3): 576–610.

Dynarski, S. and Scott-Clayton, J. (2013) ‘Financial aid policy: lessons from research.’ The Future of Children vol. 23, no. 1, 2013, pp. 67–91.

Goldrick-Rab, S., Harris, D. and Trostel, P. (2009) ‘Why financial aid matters (or does not) for college success: toward a new interdisciplinary perspective.’ in: Smart J.C. (eds) Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research. Vol 24. Springer, Dordrecht.

Mealli, F. and Rampichini, C. (2012) ‘Evaluating the effects of university grants by using regression discontinuity designs.’ Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (Statistics in Society), vol. 175, no. 3, pp. 775–798.

Murphy, R. and Wyness, G. (2016) Testing means-Tested Aid. CEP Discussion Paper, 1396. London: London School of Economics and Political Science, CEP.

Patel, R. and Richburg-Hayes, L. (2012) Performance-Based Scholarships: Emerging Findings from a National Demonstration. New York, NY: MDRC.

Richburg-Hayes, L., Brock, T., LeBlanc, A., Paxson, C., Rouse, C.E. and Barrow, L. (2009) Rewarding Resistance: Effects of a Performance-Based Scholarship Program for Low-Income Parents. New York, NY: MDRC.

Scott-Clayton, J. (2011). ‘On money and motivation: quasi-experimental analysis of financial incentives for college achievement.’ Journal of Human Resources, 46(3): 614–646.


Level 2

Alon, S. (2007). ‘The influence of financial aid in levelling group differences in graduating from elite institutions’. Economics of Education Review, 26(3): 296–311.

Harrison, N., Baxter, A. and Hatt, S. (2007) ‘From opportunity to OFFA: The implementation of discretionary bursaries and their impact on student finance, academic success and institutional attachment.’ Journal of Access Policy and Practice, 5 (1). pp. 3-21.

Hatt, S., Hannan, A., Baxter, A. and Harrison, N, (2005) ‘Opportunity knocks? The impact of bursary schemes on students from low income backgrounds.’ Studies in Higher Education, 30(4), 378-388.

Hossler, D., Ziskin, M., Gross, J., Kim, S. and Cekic, O. (2009) ‘Student aid and its role in encouraging persistence.’ Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research Vol XXIV ed Smart, J. 389-425 Dordrecht: Springer.

Jones-White, D.R., Radcliffe, P.M., Lorenz, L.M. and Soria, KM (2014) ‘Priced out?: the influence of financial aid on the educational trajectories of first-year students starting college at a large research university.’ Research in Higher Education, vol. 55, no. 4, pp. 329-350.

McCaig, C., Harrison, N., Mountford-Zimdars, A., Moore, D., Maylor, U., Stevenson, J., Ertl, H., and Carasso, H. (2016) Closing the Gap: Understanding the Impact of Institutional Financial Support on Student Success – Final project report for the Office of Fair Access Office of Fair Access.

Stater, M. (2009) ‘The impact of financial aid on college GPA at three flagship public institutions.’ American Educational Research Journal, vol. 46, no. 3, 2009, pp. 782–815.

West, A., Emmerson, C., Frayne, C. and Hind, A. (2008) ‘Examining the impact of opportunity bursaries on the financial circumstances and attitudes of undergraduate students in England.’ Higher Education Quarterly, 63(2), 112-140.