Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University

Research at PESD

Scholarships with Strings Attached: Promoting Community Service

REAP Project


“What if Need-Based Aid Was Available at Universities?”
Universities in China have become very expensive, and this is only more so for students from poor households. The cost of a four-year university education in China is now regularly 60 times annual poverty income. Yet, at nearly all the institutions where poor rural university students attend, need-based financial aid remains almost non-existent. The result is that 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.
Attending university has become a great burden for many students, especially those from poor rural areas
[For a more detailed overview on the issues related to the high costs of secondary and tertiary education in China and the absence of financial aid, please visit the Educational Challenges – Financial Aid section of the website.]

























Our goal is to identify what impacts need-based financial aid has for:
  • 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.



Our research approach is to run a randomized control trial at 4 universities in 3 Chinese provinces: Anhui University, Sichuan University and, in Shaanxi, Xi’an Jiaotong University and Northwest University. In total, the program intervention will provide 200 freshmen a four-year scholarship (4,000 yuan per year). The treatment groups will be spread evenly across each of the four universities and broken down as follows:
  1. Need-based financial aid winners, no obligations:
    80 students, randomly selected by REAP from the group of entering freshmen who we determine to be the university’s poorest.
  2. Need-based financial aid winners, “strings attached”:
    60 students, randomly selected by REAP from the group of entering freshman who we determine to be the university’s poorest.
    (Awardees are obligated to participate in community service activities of their university’s respective “CaringHearts” community service club.)
  3. Financial aid winners, who may or may not be poor:
    60 students, selected (not randomly) using each university’s traditional procedure (merit is a key criteria) for awarding the Cyrus Tang “Scholarships for Personal Development” to entering freshmen.
    (Awardees are obligated to participate in community service activities of their university’s respective “CaringHearts” community service club.)
  4. 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 entering freshmen class that we determine to be the university’s poorest, 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 do receive other scholarships is part of our research experiment.
On the ground implementation of the experiment will begin with REAP conducting an initial survey of all incoming freshman students at the four universities. This survey will be on various topics, but will include critical questions to solicit student responses on what assets their families own. Household asset valuation will be the criteria of poverty we use to determine which students are the poorest in their respective universities and thus, which students we consider for the need-based financial aid awards.


REAP will conduct a baseline survey of the students and their families after the award notifications are made during the first year. REAP will do follow up surveys at the end of year 2 and at the end of year 4 (post-treatment). Taking measures at these time intervals, of both the treatment groups and of the control group, will allow us to test for the need-based financial aid effect on specifically:
  • 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; and
  • the trends in poverty and debt among their families.
Pending additional funding, we will also follow up with the students after they graduate from university to evaluate the longer-term effects of need-based financial aid at the higher education level.



This project is classified as ongoing. 


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.