College Scholarships for Community Service

Attending university has become a great burden for many students, especially those from poor rural areas.

What is the best way to deliver need-based aid at universities?


The rapid expansion of enrollment capacity in China's colleges since the late 1990s has come at the price of high tuition hikes. The cost of a four-year university education in China is now 60 times the annual per capita income for families at the poverty line. Yet, at nearly all the institutions that poor rural university students attend, need-based financial aid remains almost non-existent. Thus, poor families who send a child to university must exhaust their savings, sell already scarce assets, and borrow from relatives, friends and money lenders. The burden on poor families and students is enormous, as are, we expect, the economic, educational, social and psychological consequences.


Our goal is to identify what impacts need-based financial aid has on:

  • poor students who successfully enter a university;
  • poor students who successfully enter a university, for whom need-based aid is given with “strings attached”;
  • poor families struggling to support their child throughout the four-years of her/his higher education program.


We ran a randomized controlled trial at 4 universities in 3 Chinese provinces: Anhui University, Sichuan University and, in Shaanxi province, Xi’an Jiaotong University and Northwest University. The program intervention provided 200 first-year students with a four-year scholarship (4,000 yuan per year). The treatment groups were broken down as follows:

  • Need-based financial aid recipients, no obligations:
    80 students, randomly selected by REAP from the university's poorest incoming first-year students
  • Need-based financial aid recipients, “strings attached”:
    60 students, randomly selected by REAP from the university's poorest incoming first-year students
    Awardees are obligated to participate in community service activities with their university’s “CaringHearts” community service club.
  • Financial aid recipients, who may or may not be poor:
    60 students, non-randomly selected using each university’s traditional procedure (of which merit is a key criteria) for awarding the Cyrus Tang “Scholarships for Personal Development” to incoming first-year students
    Awardees are obligated to participate in community service activities with their university’s respective “Caring Hearts” community service club.
  • Control group:
    In order to provide a baseline against which the results from the treatment groups can be judged, REAP will also randomly select a group of students from the university's poorest incoming first-year students, but who were not originally selected for a Cyrus Tang funded scholarship (groups 1), 2) or 3), above). Students selected for the control group are not excluded from receiving any other scholarship available at their university. Indeed, seeing how many of these poor students received other scholarships was part of our research experiment.

REAP conducted an initial survey of all incoming first-year students at the four universities designed to determine which students at each university were the poorest, and therefore were considered for need-based financial aid. 


After financial aid award notifications were made, REAP will conducted a baseline survey of students and their families. REAP conducted follow up surveys at the end of years 2 and 4. By comparing results across groups at these times, were tested:

  • the educational performance and attainment of the students
  • the educational attainment of the students’ siblings
  • the students’ weekly time allocation
  • the students’ social and psychological attitudes and well-being
  • the trends in poverty and debt among their families


We found that providing full scholarships to poor first-year students at first-tier universities did not measurably improve student stress levels, self-esteem, or participation in college. In fact, poor students who did not receive scholarships (the control group) were able to access approximately equivalent amounts of financial aid, and the poorest students received teh most aid. This study demonstrates that financial aid in first-tier colleges is currently sufficient and accessible for poor rural students, insofar as they do not experience any additional stress, reduced self-esteem, or reduced college participation. 

Thus, additional funding for China's educational system would likely be more impactful at lower tier colleges, high schools, or primary schools than first-tier scholarships.


Funding for the financial aid awards is provided by the Cyrus Tang Zhongying Foundation in China. Funding to support the evaluation is provided by the Cyrus Tang Foundation in the United States.