Thanks to Bridget Shoo, Keira Chen and Salima Nadira for helping to proof-read this article and offering helpful comments.
Yesterday (21 October 2011, Friday 7.15pm), Professor Tan Tai Yong, Vice Provost in charge of Student Life, took time out to meet a group of USP and non-USP students to discuss issues raised by two previous KRC articles, Will the USP turn into a middle-upper socioeconomic cluster? and Another View.
The move from Block ADM to UTown charted out a new path and vision for the University Scholars’ Program (USP) which now comes with a compulsory 2 year residential college component. What are the costs of this new venture? What are the support mechanisms in place?
Professor Tan, Professor Richardson Professor Kang, as well as 11 other students were present to discuss these issues and more.
This meeting was organized to address the issue of cost – the cost of staying at UTown, the extra cost of participating in the USP program that now comes with a compulsory 2 year stay at the RC (with a price tag of at least $11,050 on top of tuition fees). How will that affect future USP cohorts?
Professor Tan began with the basics and explained the difficulties of obtaining donations, patiently elaborating upon the delicate task of soliciting donations and persuading donors to channel their funds towards areas of need.
More often than not however, donors have their own agendas and perceptions – for example, many would want to set up ‘scholarships’ in their (company’s or their own) names, as scholarships sound more prestigious. These donors may then want to stipulate that recipients must have a CAP of at least X.X (4.5?). If they want to set up bursaries, then donors may want to stipulate the eligibility criteria, whether or not they are aware of the real areas of need of prospective university students, or how the numbers may not necessarily reflect real living standards and financial needs.
Professor Tan noted that we tend to understand the problem of resources and finance in polarized terms – the very intelligent on one end of the spectrum are blessed with merit-based scholarships, the very poor on the other are eligible for bursaries. Yet, there is a large middle chunk that are also in need of financial aid for a more holistic undergraduate experience – whether for exchange programs, for overseas internships, or for residential college living opportunities– but somehow either do not make the cut for a comprehensive merit-based scholarship, or they narrowly miss the income ceilings stipulated for bursary eligibility.
The hard work thus comes in here for Professor Tan and his colleagues at the Office of the Provost, to bridge the gap between donor’s aspirations and visions and the university’s real needs.
USP and Its New Price Tag
Professor Tan admitted candidly that the financial support needed for UTown residency is still in its nascent stage – if so, then does it make sense for the USP to start making it compulsory at this stage for prospective USP students to stay at the Residential College for 2 years? Should the USP not ease into this new prerequisite as the financial arms of support build up their muscles, and not just jump straight into the deep end of the pool?
Most of the people present recognized the ‘problematic’ nature of the lack of sync between available financial aid and USP’s reinvention of itself as a residential college program, but there was little by way of commitment to addressing this problem that was expressed last night.
A student also shared his view that students who would be able to get into USP would most certainly be eligible for a merit-based scholarship, like he was. He also shared that he was from a financially disadvantaged background, and had not liked the idea of living at UTown. Nevertheless he had completely changed his views after securing the financial means to live there. In fact, he now ardently subscribed to the vision of a USP program that comes with a residential college component.
Most people present disagreed with this student, and pointed out that many USP students are not at the same time scholarship holders. Further, USP is meant to be an ‘intellectual’, not ‘academic’ (meaning CAP) experience, as Professor Kang pointed out – whilst scholarship recipients are assessed based on their CAP or paper results, USP applicants are assessed on different criteria and many USP students did not achieve As at their A levels.
At this point I want to insert an anecdote I had heard from a friend. Somebody had asked an African-American student in a US college who had the most racist attitude towards African Americans in American society. That African-American student thought for awhile and replied, “The educated African-Americans. Because they feel that since they have succeeded in this system, the system works. So if other African-Americans don’t succeed in the same system, it has to be something that’s wrong with them, and not the system.”
The previously-mentioned financially-disadvantaged student, through sheer merit and hard work, managed to obtain both a scholarship, a place in the USP as well as means to live on the residential college. For him, the system works and he has managed to survive and benefit from it – thus, he reasoned, others who are equally deserving and hardworking would be able to profit from the same system as well. This student also shared that he did not think USP should feel ‘apologetic’ towards those students that it leaves out of its program, because the resources are there for those ‘deserving’ enough.
This presents a somewhat psychologically interesting phenomenon — that people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have managed to succeed based on their hard work and merit feel that their experience should not be unique. Yet if we can humbly step outside of ourselves and consider that other students may be endowed with a variety of aptitudes and learning styles, may be from a variety of disadvantaged backgrounds, each of which is peppered with a variety of complications, we can work together to make the system more compassionate and responsive to our fellow schoolmates.
Just because an individual is fortunate enough to be equipped with the traits that enable him or her to succeed in the current system, does not mean that all others who fail in the same system are not deserving, and does not mean that the current system cannot be tweaked or improved.