Cambodia’s $45 Scholarships: What Is the Impact?

April 15, 2014

CHREY, Cambodia -- Most mornings, 14-year-old Ruon Vannoy rushes through her chores, hops on her bicycle, and pedals to Svay Thom high school in the northwest Cambodian village of Chrey. She files into her classroom, opens her notebook and waits for the lesson on Khmer literature—her favorite subject— to begin.

The path that brought her to this crowded ninth grade classroom hasn't been an easy one. She is the second of four children in her family and the only one in school. Her two younger siblings aren't in school because they're disabled and her 16-year-old sister dropped out.

Vannoy received a $45 scholarship earlier this year as part of the Cambodian government’s Secondary School Scholarship Program, which helps children from poor families like hers to stay in school. Originally supported by the World Bank's Cambodia Education Sector Support Project, the program has been run by the Cambodian government since 2010.

Scholarships Linked to Enrollment

When the program was launched in 2005, an impact evaluation was built in to measure the effect of scholarships on enrollment and whether the $45 scholarship was as effective as a $60 one. The evaluation, supported by the World Bank’s Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF), found that students who received the scholarship were more likely to stay in school. Enrollment jumped to 80% for scholarship recipients, compared to just 60% of students who didn’t receive a scholarship. The impact evaluation also showed that the $45 scholarship rate was as effective as the $60 rate.

“The results amazed us,” said Simeth Beng, a World Bank education specialist in Cambodia, who worked on the program.

The evidence convinced the government to expand the program using the $45 rate; this year, some 56,000 students received a scholarship, including Vannoy. The government is also piloting scholarships for primary school students, as well as a merit-based scholarship that aims to boost learning quality.

The impact evaluation helped the government determine “what works, what does not work and what should be improved,” said H.E. Nath Bunroeun, Secretary of State for the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.

Money for Uniforms, Books

School in Cambodia is free, but uniforms, textbooks and notebooks are not, and many poor families don’t have transportation to ensure that their children have a reliable way to get to school each day. Vannoy’s family used the money to buy her uniforms and books, as well as an occasional snack at school.

“During recess, their classmates buy food to eat, but the poor students stay quiet in class, even though they also want to buy food,” explained Naing Haun, director of the Svay Thom high school. “They feel ashamed and as a result, tend to dropout.”

The struggles Vannoy’s family faces are hardly unique in a country where more than 20% of the population lives under $1.25 a day. Vannoy’s father is a construction worker, and her mother is a cook at a nearby municipal building.The money the family earns goes first to providing staples like rice. “I hope my daughter will get a higher education and find a job to help our family,” her mother, Voeun Vanna said.

A Family’s Hopes

Earlier this year, Ruon Vanneth, Vannoy’s 16-year-old sister, was forced to drop out.

"I hope someone helps me go back to school," said Vanneth, who did not have a scholarship. Like her younger sister, she loved Khmer literature, but her favorite subject was chemistry. "I am sad that I cannot study. If we don’t finish grade 12, we will have a hard time finding a job.”

Som Rachna, a classmate of Vannoy’s and another scholarship recipient, spends many afternoons working in the rice fields near her home. “The challenge for me and for my community is poverty,” she said during a short break from harvesting, resting under the shade of a nearby tree. On days when she is not in the fields, Rachna walks two kilometers each way to the forest to collect wild potatoes and sloek bas [green leaves used for cooking] that she then sells at the market. At just 15, she is helping feed her family.

Her mother, Som Him, completed the fourth grade and takes pride in her eldest daughter, who is hoping to one day be a school teacher. “We face challenges, but we will support Rachna until she finishes grade 12,” she said. “Our family’s hopes rest on her.”