Do Higher Education Scholarships Enhance Social Mobility? A Case from Egypt on Scholars Transition to Decent Work

Amal Mowafy, USAID Scholars Activity, The American University of Cairo (AUC) and AbdelRahman Nagy, Sawiris Foundation for Social Development[1]

Alaoui and Springboard (2021) point to increased enrollments at all educational levels in the Arab world. However, they also indicate that those positive outcomes in terms of quantity have not translated into better quality of education nor did they have a bearing on existing power structures to allow for social mobility for the underprivileged and marginalized. This is manifested in the non-appearance of Arab universities in the top 300 ranking lists globally, lame linkages to the labor market, dismal economic return to education as well as absence of preparation for active citizenship. Economic inequality has been singled out as the key systemic and contextual determinant of this sub-standard performance.[2]  The “trilemma” of tertiary education implicating quality, quantity and cost demonstrated that only two can be realized at the expense of the third. Around 30% of those aged 18-22 years are enrolled in higher education in the Arab region but the bulk are from middle- and high-income families, even in public institutions.[3]

Quality of education as the fourth goal in the UN sustainable development agenda has been hard hit by the global pandemic. Target 4.b. of this goal specifically aimed to “substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries,[…], for enrollment in higher education, including vocational training, information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programs, in developed countries and other developing countries.” This target should have been achieved by 2020, as measured by the volume of official development assistance flows for scholarships; by sector and by the type of study. Whether this target has been met or missed is unknown because of the lack of a data collecting mechanism.[4] This is not unique to Egypt: tracking the impact of USD 750 million spent per annum on scholarships in terms of transforming the lives of individuals and communities on the African continent is almost non-existent.

What scholarships are offered in pursuit of the UN’s development goal? In Sub-Saharan Africa, undergraduate scholarships covered less than 0.5% of the 8.1 million tertiary education students. Government-led initiatives usually stand out in availing scholarships for Sub-Saharan African students. The Chinese government towers over Egypt and other countries as the sole prime provider, with over 12,000 opportunities annually. Regional and international organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the African Union, the European Union and the World Bank, also featured in the top 25 scholarship providers. “Corporations, including public enterprises and corporate foundations, represented 5 of the top 50 providers. The MasterCard Foundation and ABSA Bank contributed 95% of all corporate scholarships.”[5]

A study of over 350 scholarship programs offered across  the globe to scholars from Sub-Saharan Africa revealed underlying challenges such as an increase in student dropout rates, excessive risks of deceit, restricted assistance in the transition to the labor market as well as restrained access to scholars most in need of such financial support.[6] This paper aims to address the link between scholarships and transitioning to Decent Work using evidence from Egypt. Decent Work is defined by the ILO as “opportunities for work that are productive and deliver a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.” In the case of Egypt, like other countries on the continent, there is a need to significantly invest in data collection mechanisms to assess the impact of the scholarships on employment outcomes and social mobility in the short, medium and long terms.

Literature Review

Children are born with similar abilities. However, their opportunities differ. Among two students with similar test scores that do well in school, the one who comes from a higher income family is more likely to attend college. Socioeconomic status is an obstacle to students and their success rates at school.[7] The gaps in students’ grades between those who come from low-income vis-à-vis high-income families widens as students’ progress in their education.[8] This has consequences regarding their enrollment in college which consequently affect their access to job opportunities.[9]

Concerns arise regarding whether one generation’s social status affects their children’s access to the labor market and subsequently hinders social mobility. This is mainly due to the fact that families’ educational investment is unequal depending on their social background.[10] The wealthier a family is, the larger the investment in their children’s education and therefore the more opportunities in the job market. On average, high-income families spend seven times more on their children than low-income families. Families of higher income do not only invest more in regards to school tuition but also in the time spent with children to help with their homework, and other school expenses such as private lessons, private schools etc. Furthermore, social capital affects access to opportunities and therefore, social mobility. The higher the social capital of an individual, the higher their network and therefore a greater benefit of CV distribution and a wider access to opportunities.

There is also a notable inequality of incomes that stems from one’s educational background, which negatively affects social mobility. The higher the educational attainment, the bigger are the chances to earn a higher income. In today’s job market, at least a post-secondary degree is needed to succeed.[11] Thus, family income is stratifying the outcomes in the job market via unequal access to education. Low investment in skills and education most likely means low opportunities for climbing up the socioeconomic ladder.

Scholarship programs begin from the observation that children from lower income families should be able to access higher education without it being a financial burden in order to benefit from upward social mobility. When the children that benefited from scholarships succeed, they will be opening doors to the next generation despite one’s initial socio-economic background. This ensures long-term prosperity through improved social equity, stronger national cohesiveness, reduction of environmental stress and considerable effect on fertility and population growth and so on.

There are two primary types of scholarships. The merit-based scholarship follows the logic that we are in a meritocratic society, where academic success is based on the effort of each student. Merit-based programs give children the incentive to work and to do better and supposedly leads to learning gains. However, in practice these scholarships mainly go to students from high income families mostly because they are the most likely to go to school in the first place and once there, are most likely to succeed.[12] In fact, merit-based programs are most likely to benefit high school graduates from middle and high income families rather than those from low income families.[13] Low-income students rarely have access to merit-based scholarships and therefore the social gap remains and can even widen.

The need-based scholarship provides the opportunity of higher education based on one’s financial need as opposed to their academic success. The rationale for need-based students stems from the idea of ensuring equity and fairness among citizens. The literature has identified several ways to target and support marginalized youth as general calls for applicants often fail to reach students at risk of exclusion. Ahmad Binobaid, Jonas Draege, and Andrew Leber also address in this collection the point on limited citizen awareness and utilization of existing policies. It should be noted that marginalized students typically need additional services other than the tuition fees in order to succeed.

Scholarships must be well targeted to affect sustainable development as their goal is to create opportunities otherwise unavailable. For instance, need-based scholarships have to be tailored programs that include orientation, study and life skills training, mentoring and pastoral support, workplace preparation as well as psychosocial support. A cost-effective alternative for the provision of need-based scholarship is the establishment of relationships with local organizations that can nominate and interview candidates. Scholarship providers will be able to track their alumni as to observe their livelihood opportunities to improve employment outcomes. Alumni tracking showed that disadvantaged graduates faced prejudice and obstacles in finding decent work, even when qualified. Finally, providers often operate in isolation, with no culture of cooperation and few platforms to facilitate coordination.

Have scholarships succeeded in these goals? Donors and providers tend to lack verifiable metrics; they may not even have inclusion objectives. One approach to defining programs as inclusive is to consider those that offer full funding (tuition and living expenses) and have one or more of the following objectives: (a) access and empower young people from marginalized groups, (b) prepare applicants for decent work, and (c) promote national universities through programming involving long-term partnerships with institutions, including local education non-profit and non-government organizations (NGOs).[14]

Scholarships affect scholars in three distinct ways: availing the resource;  providing incentives to excel at school; and the labeling effect between merit and needs-based scholarships. This echoes the insider/outsider divide referred to in this collection by Steffen Hertog, Tina Zintl and others. Both types of scholarships lead to more educational attainment, but only the merit-based leads to increased learning. Evans claims that students that receive a scholarship based on ‘merit’ are constantly reminded of how successful they are and how much potential they have. However, those that receive a scholarship because of their ‘needs’ suffer from a much more pejorative connotation and are reminded of their financial deficiency. Moreover, merit scholarship recipients tend to have higher health and employment rates. Hence, it is important to emphasize ability over need where “the solution can be to use merit scholarships, but to ensure students with high need are among the beneficiaries.”[15]

Nonetheless, Haveman and Smeeding (2006) claim that students who receive financial aid are more committed and more motivated to succeed. Students that come from low-income families are not taught how to select colleges, apply and secure their acceptance and very often they lack information regarding the availability of scholarships and of needs-based aid.[16] Applying and looking for scholarships is a long process and scholars agree that if a student is motivated enough to go through the whole process, their determination to succeed is higher and therefore they put more effort in college.[17]

States employ need-based financial grants to account for the increasing costs of college. By giving this grant to mostly low income and middle-income students, college persistence within three years is supported.[18] The need-based grants have also allowed for the enrollment of students from low-income backgrounds to rise, making it more easily accessible.[19]  After extensively exploring the dichotomy of the merit versus need-based scholarships above, it is evident that they should not be mutually exclusive.

The Case of Egypt

The association between education and wealth still persists in Egypt despite its aspiration to reach an enrollment rate of 45% by 2025, as Samar Abdelmageed notes in this collection. Egypt has shifted the funding burden for higher education onto the private sector as a policy solution both by allowing  private or civil institutions of higher education to enter the space which was the exclusive prerogative of the public sector for decades and through adopting credit-hour/fee-based programs administered in parallel to standard (or sub-standard)/nominal fee programs in public universities to render better quality services resulting in “limited access orders”. While the Egyptian government provides a limited number of graduate scholarships to study abroad, a number of growing philanthropic and private sector foundations, as well as regional and bilateral organizations, have been increasingly getting involved in this domain at the undergraduate level. A Ford Foundation study mapped 18 key organizations offering scholarships (of which only four were private foundations) with a total of 82 programs. Of these programs, only nine programs were need-based while 73 were merit-based. Also, amidst the 18 programs that offered scholarships at the undergraduate level, the specializations trend was not apparent. Very few programs had clear-cut geographic representation such as Upper Egypt and Frontier governorates in the case of Misr El Kheir or particular suburbs of Greater Cairo in the case of Qalaa Holdings. Also, the intended impact of scholarships in terms of gender, professional level of the target population and leadership were mostly absent. [20]

With the limited research focused on return on investment based on cost benefit analyses on the “plausible impact of scholarships on social change and development”[21] we take a process evaluation conducted in April 2021 for the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development estimating the Return on Investment (ROI) as indicated by the Internal Rate of Return (IRR), and comparing the IRR with the Social Discount Rate (SDR), which reflects the opportunity cost of capital in the Egyptian economy) to the scholarship for each sector as follows:





Job Family



Estimate of Average ROI (%)

1 Accounting & Finance 17
2 Administration (General) 15
3 Architecture & Interior Design 18
4 Culture, Art, Media & Journalism 14
5 Engineering (Civil, Electrical & Power, Mechanical, Chemical,….) 21
6 Human Resources 18
7 Information & Communication Technology 22
8 Legal 13
9 Sales, Marketing & PR 16
10 Scientific Research (Physical, Chemical, Biological,…) 18
11 Teaching (Higher Education) 15


The analysis covered the period from 2006-2020 over nine programs for 279 students. Data collection included mixed methods such as desk research, key informants’ interviews and online surveys. However, it is worth noting that this estimation had several limitations such as estimating the non-financial benefits as well as the estimation of the ROI of the counterfactual. For instance, estimating that the return on providing scholarship in a certain sector does not mean that the whole return is coming from providing scholarship alone. It could be because of one’s personal connections, especially for the merit-based scholarships. It could also be a result of other non-observable characteristics for those who received the scholarships. It should be noted that we are quite skeptical about the accuracy of the ROI percentages given the numerous limitations. In addition to that, we are unable to determine if these are over or under estimations.

Key findings include positive social impact on scholarship graduates that helps them improve in their personal and professional lives through having good job opportunities or by starting their own businesses. This could also be attributed to a number of indirect benefits such as i) enhanced self-confidence, independence and increased multicultural awareness; ii) new leadership qualities or professional advancement; and iii) strengthened technical, managerial, and leadership capabilities. While scholarships seem to have contributed to having a better ability of 90% of graduates to find a job with 30% attaining their job through competitions. However, 50% of graduates were not satisfied with their wage levels and 25% experienced “taking a long time to find a job”. Also, some scholars were over qualified for the jobs available in the labor market. This relates to the point raised by Nada Berrada in this collection that youth unemployment is not a supply side but rather a demand side problem where economies in the region are not generating enough decent jobs to absorb the youth bulge. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the current (static) employment status of graduates’ scholars is not indicative of the longer-term (dynamic) projections of their life-long earnings. Graduates indicated the need for additional career guidance and counseling during their study and soon after graduation to have better understanding of the Egyptian labor market. Among the major challenges enumerated by alumni was home sickness, housing problems and academic support, and to a much lesser extent, language and dealing with other colleagues.

Conclusions and Recommendations:

Heady et al have argued that “equipping students to get fulfilling jobs needs proper evidence-based approaches, alongside learning and adaptation.”[22] Proposed key performance indicators to measure impact included inclusive access (residents of rural communities, living with disability, refugee and first-generation scholar), completion of degrees, university engagement and transition to employment. Factoring in measurement, evaluation, research and learning would be helpful. This should include impact assessments in the technical and financial design of scholarships programs deploying randomized controlled trials wherever possible to account for employment outcomes and social mobility in the short, medium and long terms. Scholarship programs should include a range of skills enhancement programs such as English Language, leadership and entrepreneurship training, internship, job placement and networking. Additionally, a study abroad could allow scholars to be better prepared for the national and international labor market requirements and find decent work.  Academic, social and psychological support are key for the scholar’s well-being to be able to better handle the transition from school to university and from rural home to urban dorm settings as well as equip them for further transitions throughout life with the unfolding future of work with its requirements albeit rights. The future of Decent Work requires that scholarship administrators carefully focus on majors where there is a growing decent job potential and higher return on the investment.


The authors acknowledge the data of Sawiris Foundation for Social Development. They are also grateful for the able research assistance provided by Patricia Samman.


[1] Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the organizations they are affiliated to.

[2] Alaoui, Hicham and Springboard, Robert. “The Political Economy of Education in the Arab World.” In The Political Economy of Education in the Arab World. Lynne Rienner Publishers (2021).

[3] Waterbury, John. “Missions Impossible: Higher Education and Policy Making the Arab World.” Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press (2020).

[4] UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report 2020, Inclusion and Education: ALL MEANS ALL. Chapter 18, TARGET 4.B. Scholarships, 293-299.

[5] Heady, Lucy et al. Increasing the impact of scholarships for young people in sub-Saharan Africa. Education Sub Saharan Africa. 2021.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Baum, Sandy, Jennifer Ma, and Kathleen Payea. “The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society. Trends in Higher Education Series.” College Board Advocacy & Policy Center (2010).

[8] Ellwood, David, and Thomas J. Kane. “Who is getting a college education? Family background and the growing gaps in enrollment.” Securing the future: Investing in children from birth to college (2000).

[9] Morris, M. Lindsay. “Low-Income Women and the Higher Education Act Reauthorization.” On Campus with Women 33, no. 3-4 (2004).

[10] Rumberger, Russell W. “The Influence of Family Background on Education, Earnings, and Wealth.” Social Forces 61, no. 3 (1983).

[11] Haveman, Robert, and Timothy Smeeding. “The role of higher education in social mobility.” The Future of children (2006).

[12] Evans, David. “The Power of Labels Merit Scholarships VS Needs-Based Scholarships” World Bank Blog, 2018

[13] Longanecker, David. “Is Merit-Based Student Aid Really Trumping Need-Based Aid?” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 34, no. 2 (2002).

[14] Heady, Lucy et al. Increasing the impact of scholarships for young people in sub-Saharan Africa. Education Sub Saharan Africa. 2021.

13 Evans, David. “The Power of Labels Merit Scholarships VS Needs-Based Scholarships” World Bank Blog, 2018.

[16] Haveman, Robert, and Timothy Smeeding. “The role of higher education in social mobility.” The Future of children (2006).

[17] Castleman, Benjamin L., and Bridget Terry Long. “Looking beyond Enrollment: The Causal Effect of Need-Based Grants on College Access, Persistence, and Graduation.” Journal of Labor Economics 34, no. 4 (2016).

[18] Bettinger, Eric P., Bridget Terry Long, Philip Oreopoulos, and Lisa Sanbonmatsu. “The Role of Simplification and Information in College Decisions: Results and Implications from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment. National Center for Postsecondary Research (2009).

[19] Deming, David, and Susan Dynarski. “Into College, out of Poverty? Policies to Increase the Postsecondary Attainment of the Poor,” 2009.

[20] Ford Foundation. Mapping The Landscape: Scholarships And Fellowships In Egypt, October 2018.

[21] Hamazia, Adel and Leber, Andrew. “Foreign Scholarship Programs in Algeria and Saudi Arabia.” In The Political Economy of Education in the Arab World. Edited by Hicham Alaoui and Robert Springborg. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers (2021).

[22] Heady, Lucy et al. Increasing the impact of scholarships for young people in sub-Saharan Africa. Education Sub Saharan Africa. 2021.