Announcing the Open Philanthropy Undergraduate Scholarship

by Bastian_Stern6 min read28th Aug 202131 comments

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We are pleased to announce the new Open Philanthropy Undergraduate Scholarship

From the program page:

This program aims to provide support for highly promising and altruistically-minded students who are hoping to start an undergraduate degree at one of the top universities in the USA or UK (see below for details) and who do not qualify as domestic students at these institutions for the purposes of admission and financial aid.

Funding criteria

We are looking to fund candidates who:

  • have demonstrated exceptional academic merit;
  • are interested in using their careers to do as much good as possible.

We plan to offer both full and partial scholarships, depending on candidates’ financial need and the strength of their applications.

Note that the application timeline will differ depending on whether candidates are applying for funding to attend university in the USA or the UK (or both) - see the sections immediately below.

Scholarships to attend university in the USA

Candidates are eligible to apply if:

  • they are planning to apply to one or more of the following universities for an undergraduate degree starting in 2022: California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Brown University, University of California - Berkeley; and
  • they qualify as international students for the purposes of admission and financial aid at these institutions.

Candidates who are applying to Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, and Yale in addition to (one or more) of the universities listed above are also eligible to apply. However, we generally don’t expect to offer scholarships to attend one of the former universities (Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale), given that these universities both meet full financial need of admitted undergraduates and select applicants - including international applicants - in a need-blind manner (i.e. financial need does not affect the chances of admission), which means that we see less room for our scholarship to benefit recipients.[1]

The application timelines for applicants seeking funding to attend one or more of the above-listed universities in the USA are as follows:

  • If you plan on applying to one of the above-listed universities in the USA through early decision/early action and would like us to consider your application for a scholarship to attend that university, you should apply here by October 1st, 11.59 p.m. Pacific Time. We plan to inform successful candidates by mid- to late October, in order to allow them to include information about the scholarship they have been awarded in their early decision/early action applications.
  • Otherwise, you should apply here by November 12th 2021, 11.59 p.m. Pacific Time. We plan to inform successful candidates by early to mid-December, again in order to allow them to include information about the scholarships they have been awarded in their university applications. Our impression is that for both early decision/early action and regular decision applicants, having already secured an outside scholarship (like ours) at the time of applying to the universities in question can in many cases meaningfully improve their chances of admission.
  • If you have already applied to one of the universities on our list through early decision/early action, you can still apply for a scholarship to attend one of the other relevant universities (by applying before the November 12th deadline).
  • Scholarships will be conditional on admission to one of the relevant universities. In some cases, we may offer scholarships conditional on admission to a specific subset of the universities listed above.

Note that for these universities, early decision/early action deadlines are generally around November 1st and regular decision application deadlines between January 1st-5th (exception: November 30th for Berkeley). However, they all require applicants to submit results from standardised tests (ACT/SAT and in some cases also English proficiency like TOEFL) which have to be booked and taken in advance of these deadlines, and also require applicants to submit materials that require advance preparation (essays, references, etc.). We therefore strongly advise applicants to familiarise themselves with the relevant application requirements as soon as possible and plan ahead.

Scholarships to attend university in the UK

Candidates are eligible to apply if:

  • they have been admitted to the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, or Imperial College London for an undergraduate degree starting in 2022; and
  • they do not meet the criteria for “Home” fee status in England (see here for more information).[2]

Applicants seeking funding to attend one of the above-listed universities in the UK should only apply (using the same form) once they have received offers from one or more of these universities, which will generally be in mid-January (unless they are also seeking funding to attend university in the USA - see below). The deadline for applications will be March 15th. We expect to notify successful candidates by mid-April 2022.

Note that the application deadline for Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial (for candidates who are also applying to Oxford or Cambridge) is October 15th. However, the universities require applicants to submit materials that require advance preparation (references, personal statement, etc.), so again, we strongly advise applicants to familiarise themselves with the relevant application requirements as soon as possible and plan ahead.

Candidates are welcome to apply for both funding to attend university in the USA and funding to attend university in the UK in case they are applying to relevant universities in both countries. In such cases, candidates can submit a combined application by the earlier deadline (October 1st for early decision/early action, November 12th otherwise) and we will evaluate the relevant parts of their proposals on the same timelines (decisions regarding scholarships for US universities by mid- to late October/early to mid-December depending on whether they are applying to a relevant university through early action/early decision, UK universities by mid-April at the latest). They will also need to notify us once they hear back about the outcomes of their UK university decisions (by emailing undergraduatescholarship@openphilanthropy.org) by March 15th.

Application process

To apply, complete the application form here.

The application form mostly just asks for pretty straightforward information about candidates’ academic record (similar to the information they will provide for university applications) and their family’s financial situation (similar to the information requested by university financial aid offices, to help us assess financial need).

In addition, candidates will need to provide responses to three brief essay questions (1,500 characters each, which corresponds to ~250 words apiece). It’s probably worth spending a bit of time thinking about your answers to these questions, but we generally think candidates shouldn’t invest more than two to three hours into actually writing/polishing their submissions.

Further information

  • We may be able to expedite decisions in cases where candidates require an earlier decision.
  • We encourage individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences to apply, especially self-identified women and people of color.
  • Given the anticipated volume of applications, we may not be able to notify all unsuccessful candidates.

Questions? Please contact undergraduatescholarship@openphilanthropy.org.

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31 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:04 PM
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If I were a student applying I might want to know if I were going to get funding before going through a complex applications process in another country. Is there anything that could be said to someone who feels like this - success chance, some kind of prescreening etc etc?

That’s a good point. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for me to say anything particularly informative to address this, given that most of the criteria we have in mind are qualitative in nature and don’t really lend themselves to being operationalised in a way that would allow candidates to better assess their odds of success.

A couple of things I can say that may or may not still be somewhat helpful:

  • There is neither a maximum nor a minimum number of applications we intend to fund. Instead, we intend to fund all of the applications that are above a certain bar in terms of our funding criteria. Given my current (very uncertain) assumptions about the program’s reach and the likely composition of the candidate pool, my best guess is that we will only end up awarding a handful of grants, but in principle, there is nothing preventing us from giving out a significantly greater number of scholarships if the candidate pool ends up being correspondingly larger and/or stronger than anticipated.
  • If an applicant’s academic record is comparable to that of other folks who get admitted to these universities, they are unusually thoughtful about the topic of how to do good in the world, and all of this comes through in their application materials, their chances of success should be favourable. (I appreciate that the second criterion in particular is somewhat unhelpfully vague!)

One way to address this issue would be to open the program for applications earlier in the year and to evaluate applicants well ahead of the university application deadlines, so that candidates already have their scholarship offers in hand before they need to decide whether to apply to the relevant universities, which should make this decision easy for those who did end up receiving scholarship offers. (As BrianTan notes in another comment, we do plan to inform successful applicants for scholarships in the US before the relevant university application deadlines in order to allow them to include information about the scholarships they have been awarded in their university applications. However, as noted in my post, they will have to get started with the required advance preparation - in terms of taking the required standardised tests, collecting references, etc. - much earlier than this.)

Given the timing of when we started working on launching this program, the fact that we will need some time to process applications, and the fact that applications to the relevant universities require advance preparation, this sort of format wasn’t really an available option for us this year, but it is something we may or may not consider doing next time around (assuming we decide to run another iteration of the program).

Another thing I’ll note is that obviously, folks with sufficiently strong academic backgrounds who apply to these universities generally also have a non-zero chance of getting admitted to and receiving funding from the universities themselves (even if for one reason or another they don’t end up receiving a scholarship from us), and they should factor this into their decisions about whether to apply.

I strongly agree. My impression (not based on research, but merely on unfounded hypothesizing) is that either an non-US applicant must have a finances arranged for a US university prior to applying. I would recommend providing the approval of the scholarship in advance of being admitted to the school. This way the applicant could apply and honestly list his/her method of funding the degree. The funds would be released only after the applicant is admitted to the school.

I believe OpenPhil plans on providing the scholarship decision before being admitted to the school for those applying to the listed U.S. universities, based on this line:

We plan to inform successful candidates by mid- to late October, in order to allow them to include information about the scholarship they have been awarded in their early decision/early action applications.

That's good. I'm glad that they thought of this. I can't imagine the difficulties in attempting to apply for a US university (and visa) as a non-US citizen without documentation of funding.

Also, what about people who "ought" to apply but don't know it yet? Could there be an EA scholarship program for developing nations? 1 page application, a short test, then then anyone above a certain bar gets supported in a full funding application and if successful helped applying to a university.

If I had to guess I'd think there were many barriers in the way of students applying to foreign universities. 

I think something along those lines could be pretty promising. I’m not sure it’d be the best fit for Open Phil in particular (given that we generally focus on somewhat larger-scale types of grantmaking), but I know of some other folks active in this space who have expressed an interest in this idea/closely related ideas.

Another thing which I think could potentially be really valuable would be for someone to pull together in one place the most important information regarding the practicalities of applying to these and other universities as an international student (including e.g. information about how likely one is to get admitted to such-and-such a university with such-and-such an academic background, which was mentioned in another comment). My sense from skimming some of the existing resources is that they often aren’t great, although I haven’t tried very hard to look for better ones and it’s possible that something like what I have in mind here already exists - in which case just sharing a pointer to this could be equally valuable.

Why only US & UK universities?

This looks potentially very helpful to (foreign) students, thanks for setting this up! 

If you have a moment, I would be curious to hear your reasoning on why this is limited to US & UK universities only. I understand that for many students, their best choice is to study in the US or UK, but for many other students other universities might be a better choice, and this limitation would still bias them towards UK & US universities. 

In addition, there might more be cost-effective opportunities elsewhere, given that most other universities are a lot cheaper than those in US & UK. For example, the same grant that funds one student's tuition fee at Brown university ($76000/year) could fund up to four students to live and study at ETH Zurich (#8 in the QS world university ranking, expensive city but only $1200/year tuition fee). 

The main reason is simply that it so happens that most of the very top universities are based either in the UK or the US. (The fact that ETH Zurich is the only non-UK/US university that is in the top-20 on both the QS and Times Higher Education rankings partly reflects this, although my sense is that these rankings have some pretty serious limitations and should be taken with a major pinch of salt.) I also think there are additional benefits associated with attending university in the UK/US, including in terms of opening up career opportunities in the English-speaking world.

I agree that ETH has some things going for it and including it might well have been a reasonable choice, although my impression is that its teaching language at the undergraduate level is German, which means that it’s not really a relevant option for the vast majority of potential applicants.

In general, the decisions about which universities to include involved a number of debatable judgement calls, so I think there is a decent amount of room for reasonable disagreement on this topic.

I think that ETH  Zurich is a particularly good example since it's one place below Imperial. Not sure I'd be convinced of this argument if it was #15, say. 

Do you want to see a write up by me, not the OP, that gives some structure/rationalization/justification about why this set of universities was chosen?

This is an awkward subject and I think it’s unlikely that you will get a verbose response. 

I am worried that there will be a lack of response, and this might be create a perception  about the objective value of candidates outside this set of universities, despite these beliefs not actually being held strongly by anyone.

Instead of this situation, I'd rather produce a balanced write up, that can still be be kicked around (and maybe get explicitly stomped on by the OP).

Agreed. There are top-ranked universities in other countries. Additionally, $X might allow 5 students to attend a good university, or 1 student to attend a great university. I'd suggest learning toward a more "diversified" model in which more students receive funding (a larger number of "bets" are taken).

Did you mean to say $12,000/year instead of $1,200/year tuition at ETH Zurich? 

I think it's actually about $1350/year. Closer to $1200 than to $12,000.

US universities are way more expensive than universities in most other countries. I don't think they are a good value.

I see, then technically one student's tuition at Brown could fund 56 people's tuitions at ETH Zurich? And I assume living costs are expensive in both U.S. universities and Zurich, so the living costs should cancel out?

Zurich is way more expensive than the US, but maybe US universities are more expensive?

Or tuition plus several years of post-study research support

Zurich might be a little more expensive, but still.

I don’t think Zurich is necessarily an outlier. I think US universities (esp private) are simply massively overcharging.

I wonder if Open Phil would consider something analogous to the Thiel fellowship -- maybe they already have something like this?

I would encourage people to think about this. I think the Thiel fellowship is genius  - to motivated, self-driven people, university is almost solely for signalling, because they would learn a greater amount of more important knowledge more efficiently without it. A large prestigious scholarship,  especially  with the requirement to drop out of university, easily provides the same signalling. Since there are no fees involved, it is also much cheaper to offer (although a big dollar value is a good idea for signalling, so don't make it too small!), and can maybe be given to more people, who can work without being constrained by the university system. People should of course be selected based on demonstrated ability to work on self-driven projects.

You mean people drop out of university to do EA-aligned work or skill-building? I don't see how that is necessary or something we'd want to particularly encourage, though I'd like to hear OpenPhil's thoughts.

Yes, or to find alternatives to university, directly working on projects, internships, self-learning and writing. Perhaps small clusters of very motivated and talented people working with experienced professionals.

If a ‘credential’ is necessary along the I thought we might align ourselves with a flexible community college.

Thanks for this post and scholarship! This is an exciting opportunity for international high school students. If this scholarship were available 6 years ago when I was a high school student, and I was as excited about EA as I am now, I would definitely have applied.

 I've publicized the scholarship to the EA Philippines community, my network, and through EA Philippines's social media, such as through this post on Facebook.  I don't think any of our active community members are still high school students, but maybe a few people in our extended network would apply and be a good fit.

I looked through the application form though and I wonder if Section 5 might be time-consuming and difficult to fill up? Maybe they would eventually have to fill up details like that for financial aid applications, but it's possible this application form would be the first time (and possibly also the first and only time) they'd gather these numbers from their parents. If so, it would probably take 1-3 hours for each applicant to fill that up, including talking to their parents to get the numbers.

Have you considered maybe asking for just a couple of fields about the applicant's family's financial situation, and then you can ask for more details when they are in the later stages of the application process? This is to avoid wasting their time if they are highly unlikely anyway to get the scholarship.

Alternatively, maybe to avoid having applicants that clearly won't get the scholarship or clearly won't get in to the schools, maybe you could give a few ways people can gauge how likely they are to get in to these top schools? Or like what Nathan Young said, maybe you can write a few details on how likely it is they would get this scholarship? 

Some students are just bad at estimating their chances of getting in abroad, and some might be ambitious/overconfident, so you might get people who apply that only have a low chance of getting the scholarship or getting into a top school.

Another suggestion on how to make the application form slightly better is to state in the form's description that the form autosaves your answers even after you close the tab, allowing people to not have to complete the form in one go. (I presume Paperform does this for all forms).

Thanks - I’ve now added something along those lines to the description.

Also, some people's parents would be quite hesitant to disclose what they actually make to their child. So that would just make it much harder for a student to get accurate figures on what their parents make. 

I'm not sure what the solution there is, but potentially you want to account for that scenario some way, such as giving the student the option to just give a rough ballpark of what their parents/family make, especially at just the 1st stage of the application. 

Strongly agree. In the USA it wouldn't be considered too abnormal for a child to tell a parent that he/she is applying for a scholarship for college and needs family income information. But because this scholarship is targeted at people from other cultures we should take those US-centric (or perhaps UK-centric) assumptions.

Perhaps a drop-down menu in which an applicant could select from various ranges might be a better shop: "To the best of your knowledge, what was your households total annual income for the previous calendar year: 0-10k, 10k-30k, 31k to 50k..."

We did consider asking for less detailed information in the financial information section for the exact reason you point out, but we ultimately felt that the current approach struck the best balance between a number of countervailing considerations. (For example, having to ask all of the most promising candidates to provide additional information at a second stage would have added to turnaround times, which would in turn have required us to set earlier application deadlines.)

Note that the financial section of our application form already requires applicants to provide meaningfully less granular information than the CSS/FAFSA forms and most of the university-specific financial aid forms I have seen, so I’m hoping that this won’t be too onerous on candidates.

I see, got it!

This is a great initiative! I just want to point out that if this is aimed at international students, it is quite difficult to accurately estimate their GPA. Also, they would not need to do for UK applications. You will be able to understand their academic performance from the transcript but requiring a GPA may not give you the information you are looking for.

Thanks for the suggestion - I thought I had addressed this by asking for people’s “GPA/aggregate score”, but I’ve now added a few sentences to the question description to further clarify that we’re just looking for people to use whatever metric of aggregate performance is commonly used wherever it is they go to school (not necessarily a GPA).