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I come from a fairly wealthy background, and am lucky enough to have parents who are both footing the bill for my tuition, as well as providing a very comfortable living stipend while I'm in school.

Without thinking much about it, I dropped a resume to be considered for one of several merit-based scholarships awarded each semester by my college. Short story short, I've been awarded a partial scholarship for next semester, but I've come to wonder whether it's ethical to accept it.

On the one hand, the criteria for the scholarship makes me as deserving is anyone, and that's of course why it was awarded to me. But I can't help but wonder if that doesn't ring a bit hollow. I don't even have to work while I'm in school, and am starting to feel as though I'd be taking the money out of the pocket of someone in a rougher spot.

It may be worth noting that my parents consider this money earned by me, and will simply pass any tuition savings directly to me in cash.

Is there a generally accepted view on this one?

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    This is specifically a merit based scholarship. Since these are intended to reward good academic work, there's no reason not to take the money. There are also separate need-based scholarships. – Jim Conant Apr 9 '15 at 0:02
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    Whatever the outcome, I admire your scruples! – Moriarty Apr 9 '15 at 6:58
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    In academia, scholarships give you more than just money. The CV points could (directly or indirectly) affect things like your chances of getting a research grant, which would affect your institution, any students/post-docs you might hire... – Jessica B Apr 9 '15 at 7:29
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    Isn't it possible to take the credit of the award (the official transcript) without taking the money? Your college would probably be very happy to save some money. If it is not possible, there are many NGO that would benefit of that money... – Taladris Apr 9 '15 at 9:18
  • In case you decide to decline the award, you can still add it to your CV and state that you were "accepted for" rather than "awarded" the scholarship. Bringing up the topic in an interview will surely have a positive impact. – Mohamed Khamis Apr 14 '15 at 23:54
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Congratulations! It's your decision, but I think the most commonly accepted point of view is that it's totally fine to keep the money. One thing you could do with it, or with part of it, is to give back to a need-based scholarship fund or to any other worthy cause.

Also, at least in the US, it is common for universities to solicit donations from alumni, so if you so choose you will have an opportunity to 'pay it forward' after you graduate.

Again, congratulations!

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    If you do decide to channel the money to a non-profit organization (such as university), consider tax implications of taking money (which becomes your income) and then giving it away. You might come away poorer as result. – Boris Bukh Apr 9 '15 at 1:48
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    @Boris: Maybe, maybe not. In the US at least, scholarships that are only used to pay for tuition and related fees are not taxable income. – Nate Eldredge Apr 9 '15 at 4:43
  • @BorisBukh Depending on one's financial situation, contributions to charity may also be deductible from one's income for tax purposes. – Andreas Blass Apr 26 '16 at 23:22
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I think it's healthy to ask yourself this question, regardless of the decision you come to. One aspect you may not have considered:

Since your parents have decided to pass on these scholarships directly to you, you will have a huge incentive to maintain a record of academic excellence. (Indeed, studying for classes might be the best-paying job you can find!) Neither your university nor your family would be unhappy if this was the result.

Personally, I'm sorry to say that when I was in college there were many merit-based scholarships that I was too lazy to apply for, even though (for specific personal reasons) I would have been an extremely competitive candidate. The most important consequence of my laziness was that my family, who made great sacrifices to support me to go to college, bore a greater burden than they should have; as an adult I am ashamed of this and I regret it terribly. But another consequence was that when it came time to graduate, I had no practice in applying for anything: I had never written a resume or CV, I did not have many faculty members who could write letters on my behalf, and most fundamentally, I had no idea how to portray myself as a desirable candidate for an internship, a fellowship, or a job. Even though the first consideration may not apply to you, this one very well might.

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You can accept the honor without accepting the money. It will not hurt your CV to have a merit-based award or a string of them. However... you probably know some bright students from pinched backgrounds who are trying to keep their grades up while working. If you put the monetary award into your school's need-based scholarship fund, the next winner would be competing with you on a more even footing and your good grades will mean even more.

This is a pretty strenuous standard of morality, but it does feel good afterwards.

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    This is an important point. Having a merit based scholarship is not only about the money itself. It's about having that extra line in your CV, which may help in opening doors in the future. Talk to your school - it may be possible to accept the scholarship and refuse to take the money. The hungry student next in line would gladly accept it. – Gimelist Apr 9 '15 at 10:28
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I want to add one thing to your situation I don't think anyone has touched on.

I come from a fairly wealthy background, and am lucky enough to have parents who are both footing the bill for my tuition, as well as providing a very comfortable living stipend while I'm in school.

When you say you don't need the money. Well you do! It's just that family is giving you the money instead of some scholarship.

Part of being an adult, or some might even say the defining characteristic is self sufficiency; cutting support from your parents. There is a certain pride in paying your own way through life. Even though your parents are being helpful and it sounds like you'll be self sufficient with no problem, it might give you some confidence that you are paying for things from something YOU did. It's a merit based scholarship which means it's your achievement, not just your parents' generosity.

Put it this way. After you graduate, would you take an unpaid job because your parents agreed to pay for your living expenses for the rest of your life?

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    +1 for There is a certain pride in paying your own way through life – scaaahu Apr 26 '16 at 3:53
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    The OP could suggest to the parents donating the savings to a needs based scholarship. That may be more tax efficient than the OP donating the money, and has the benefit of reducing dependence. – Patricia Shanahan Apr 26 '16 at 3:57
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Congratulations on the recognition of your merit, and congratulations on your strong ethical base.

Other answers have already discussed the topic well - I will offer this: if you don't accept the money, where will it be used? Could you ask the scholarship committee to redirect it to somewhere it will do more good?

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This is easy. It is completely ethical to take the money. It is no different than the presumably fat bank you will be paid when you get a job that accounts for your life's status level.

What's not ethical is having surplus money and not giving it away. In Judaism, we call this tzedakah, balance or justice. You have too much. Others have too little. Until this imbalance is remedied, you have an obligation to do what you can to change it. Every ethical system has a variation on this theme.

So, to maintain your ethical position, when you receive the reward for your achievement, you must give some or all of it to someone in need. It is perfectly fine to give it to a charity or something but, were it me, I would look at my circle of friends for those who have economic struggles (one hopes you do not hang exclusively with other wealthy folk) and help them out. Pay a bill. Pay an installment of a student loan. Take them out to dinner. Whatever.

Just set aside that lump of money and make sure that it is used for things that primarily benefit others. You can deflect the issue of obligation, etc, by noting that you got a one-time lump of money and thought it would be fun to share.

This will have two consequences. First, it will help people out. Second, you will really enjoy the feeling.

I had a period where I made a lot more money than my friends at the beginning of my career. I tried to share as best I could. It was great. It got me in the habit of generosity. My advantage has since faded but, I still do what I can and it makes me a happier and, I think, better person.

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    Re: Unethical to have a surplus of money and not give it away - why is this necessarily so? – Huns Apr 15 '15 at 4:44
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Congratulations!

Definitely keep the scholarship. Regardless of the monetary value of the award, it looks great on your CV – it is outside confirmation that you can work hard and will be appealing to employers when you graduate. If you think that pursuing a career in academia could be for you, then it is actually critical to have it on your resume, because scholarships at an earlier stage in your career are like compound interest: a scholarship at the undergrad level helps you get more scholarships in the future because funders have confirmation that you have been successful in the past and that you won’t waste their money. This builds momentum and will help you acquire academic grants in the future – whether financially important to you or not, it is important when applying to universities at all levels in your future career. This will give you more options and the freedom to continue working in the field you are most passionate about, which is where you are most likely to make a positive difference. In sum, the award may not seem important to you now, but it is important for employers, universities, and your future potential.

What you do with the money is up to you – you can donate it to charity, invest it into another worthwhile cause, or use to further expand your horizons to see where you can make an even bigger difference in the future. If money isn’t motivating you, you could find a creative way to channel the scholarship winnings into something that you do truly value. No matter what, it sounds like you’re already on a great path – I hope that you continue to foster this ability to self-reflect and your kindness toward your fellow students. It sounds like you’ll go far.

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Your college education will greatly increase your income. This increases the government's tax revenue significantly, which is important. That education is an investment that will pay both you and the government back many, many, many times over during your life.

If the scholarship is coming from the institution itself, you're in luck because that makes the ethical considerations easier. They will simply write off some of the expense of teaching you. This is not the same as them giving you a pile of money. However, even if it was, there's a good case for why it still doesn't matter.

Suppose the institution is publicly funded. It gets money from the state's tax revenues. They give you a helping hand. Your education nets you far more money than someone who only has a high school diploma. That income is taxed. Education is a huge part of the budget in any state; my own (California) spent over $50 billion on it yearly the last time I checked. If you make more and get taxed more, a big chunk of that is going to go into helping other students. In a public institution, the government already foots almost all of the bill. Whatever you pay per term is a small portion of what the institution actually gets!

Furthermore, the government is going to gank your money year after year and spend it on incredibly stupid, unethical, wasteful things whether you agree or not. If they give you back 0.5% of what they take out of you, TAKE IT!!!

Now, suppose the institution is privately funded. It gets money from other students' tuitions, donations from living alumni, endowments from dead millionaire/billionaire alumni, and a few other sources like trademarks, patents, property holdings, etc. In the case of fellow students, they had the same opportunity to win that scholarship on merit, and did not; so if they don't get the scholarship, is it your fault? Hardly.

Likewise, suppose a dead billionaire bequests $50 million to the university. A great deal of that money is there solely because of the reputation and connections that billionaire enjoyed. You probably know that most of the reason people try to get into Ivy League schools is the gravitas of the university's name, and the connections that can be made there!!! Merely saying "I went to UCLA" or "I went to Harvard" will open doors that would remained closed if you'd said "I went to Bumf*** College of East Nowhere". If a tiny drop in that billionaire's bucket propels you to great success, increasing the glory of the university the billionaire loved to the tune of $50 million, I would see that as a positive rather than a negative.

Ultimately, it's up to you. These are all just rationalizations. Someone else will have different rationalizations. Some may say it's immoral, but morals are just opinions we automatically absorb from the people who we grow up around and go through adulthood with. Morals are almost never thought through; they are merely parroted for the sake of group membership, which is why the subconscious mind cares about them in the first place.

Instead, it's best to consider one's moral sense as a source of information, but hardly an infallible one. Consider morals in 1850 vs. today - is someone's moral conviction enough reason to think they're right? Certainly not! With ethics, the question becomes this:

"What are other peoples' rights and reasonable expectations?"

If someone says they have a reasonable expectation and/or a right to get the scholarship because they're poorer than you, ask why their interpretation is necessarily the only valid one. (I've given you plenty of valid interpretations above that are perfectly valid, so this is not difficult.)

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  • Downvoted because the fraction of rant is larger than the actual answer. – Davidmh Apr 26 '16 at 7:39

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