Scholarship or indentured servitude?

Travis Knoll

January, the month of the scholarship application deadline bonanza, is fast approaching. Fulbright applicants hear back in January on whether their applications are sent abroad. Applications for university research fellowships, such as the Foreign Language and Area Studies program, along with various other study abroad grants, are also due in January. Scholarships can open doors for students’ dream travel or research topic, or, more pragmatically, stem the tide of the substantial student debt they may be taking on. However, students should always be cautious when considering these offers. Some scholarships are purely merit based, but some have additional “service” requirements. 

For example, I recently received a university email advertising an information session for the Boren Fellowship, which offers up to $30,000 to graduate students thinking of conducting research abroad. The fellowship’s stated goal is to help students improve in languages the U.S. government considers critical to U.S. interests abroad, and the publicity materials specifically highlight national security as a common career path for recipients. 

That load of cash sounds pretty good, especially when college debt is on the rise and funding and cheap loans are on the decline. Forbes reports that a student’s average college debt reached $27,000 — primarily because of the rising cost of living. Federal grants have fallen from $52 billion to $47 billion since 2010, and federal loans, cheaper than their private counterparts, fell from $112 billion to $101 billion in the same time period. 

There’s a catch to Boren though: The participant is obligated to serve in a federal position for a time equal to the grant period. Fellows can post resumes to the Boren site but are not guaranteed a federal job by the program. If fellows fail to get employment on their own after two years and after “exhausting all opportunities to fulfill the requirement to the federal government,” they must fulfill their service agreement “in an education position.” 

The Boren Fellowship is part of a larger trend of scholarships and financial assistance programs that require students to commit to certain careers. 

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan (PSLF), for example,  allows recipients to pay down loans by working for eligible public service organizations. The recipient must also stay on a prescribed payment plan to get their loans forgiven in 10 years.

The UT School of Law has a special variant on this program, the Loan Repayment Assistance Program. This program combines the PSLF with another federal loan plan that reduces payment amounts based on income and is intended to encourage law graduates to work in public interest legal areas such as civil rights, immigration or disability.

Scholarships like Boren and programs like PSLF and LRAP are useful for those who know what they want to do. Nevertheless, can’t these programs, which prescribe where and when you work, create the feeling of a modern “indentured student”? Isn’t the University about exposing students to knowledge, and letting them freely explore the doors their degrees open? Shouldn’t we allow students free choice in seeking jobs?

Moreover, such a quid pro quo as described above could risk creating a mercenary mentality. Attaching strings to plentiful funding may get bright students in need of money to apply, but it may not attract workers who are truly enthusiastic about the job in the long run. 

To be fair, plenty of programs give money without strings attached. UT is part of the Language Flagship Program, which allows qualified students language immersion opportunities in Arabic, Hindi or Urdu. The program is funded by the National Security Education Program, the same department that funds Boren, but does not require service. The Fulbright Scholarship, funded by the State Department, allows students to teach English abroad and conduct research with no strings attached. The Department of Education sponsors the Foreign Language and Area Studies scholarship but only requires that you take an eligible language and a course related to an eligible region of the world — Portugese and Latin America, for example. Some graduate students receive university fellowships from private endowments that cover their tuition and some living expenses in exchange for maintaining a 3.0 GPA.

Students have to pay off their loans somehow. Programs such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Boren can allow them to serve their community and pursue their interests without drowning in debt or having to work in the corporate world. That said, students should always investigate the strings and ideological assumptions behind funding.

Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.