Half of university scholarships go to students from our wealthiest families, dismaying teachers in disadvantaged areas who see even their brightest students struggle to get a foot in the door.

A Weekend Herald investigation into five universities found, last year, high decile schools received four times the number of entry-level scholarships as those in the low deciles.

Schools in the most exclusive neighbourhoods were winning up to $1 million in prizes each year, while schools in more deprived areas were lucky to gain $100,000 in rewards.

For example, Epsom Girls' Grammar, a decile 10, gained $225,000 worth of scholarships from Auckland University alone. Mangere College, a decile 1, was awarded one prize worth $20,000 by the university.

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Unlike students from wealthy families, failing to get a scholarship often meant the end of the dream for disadvantaged kids - particularly for those from families who'd never had anyone go to university before.

"What puts them off is going into debt," said Mangere College principal Tom Webb.

"The pressure from family to go out and work is a disincentive to go on with study. There is an expectation to become an earner for the family earlier on."

Aorere College Head of Careers Mary Kerrigan said she had tried to raise the scholarship issue with Auckland University after extremely bright students at her school - including the Dux - failed to get scholarships two years in a row.

She said they were denied despite having significant financial issues, which was unfair.

She also complained about the criteria, which placed a large weighting on extra-curricular activities.

"For many students from low decile schools, being able to participate in multiple extra-curricular activities is challenging due to a lack of finances and time as many are working part time to help support their families or have additional home responsibilities," she said.

In an email, she was told by Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon the scholarships were not just about equity - they were also about attracting very able students to the university.

"I find that very disturbing, especially in light of the fact that there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor," Kerrigan said.

"They want the most able to improve their global ranking, but I think first and foremost they should be concerned about improving education for New Zealanders, in particular for those who are unable to access university because of financial hardship."

However, Glendowie principal Richard Dykes said while low decile schools should get more scholarships, he wouldn't want to see his students disadvantaged by a change in policy.

"Our students enjoy success in scholarships, and do extraordinarily well. I would hate to see them denied access to those resources," he said.

"Equity is a bigger issue than changing a couple of scholarships. It's a bigger issue than education."

In a statement, Auckland University said it was committed to recruiting high-achieving students and also providing opportunities for the disadvantaged.

However, it did not think it was beneficial for students who were unable to meet academic standards to be put into a university situation.

"We continue to review how we can best support students from low socio-economic backgrounds and other equity groups," it said.

"We are also actively seeking further philanthropic funds to support entry level scholarships."

Revelations about the scholarship pay-outs follows a Weekend Herald investigation last month about huge discrepancies between the numbers of rich and poor accepted into elite university degrees.

That found only one in 100 entrants to law, medicine and engineering courses were from the most deprived homes, while 60 per cent came from the richest homes.

The scholarship data was requested from the same universities who run those courses - Waikato, Victoria, AUT, Auckland and Canterbury Universities.

Otago refused the request, saying the information was commercially sensitive.

Private schools were not counted, as they are outside the decile system.

The Herald also asked for information about which schools universities visited, to try to get an understanding of recruitment practices. That question was refused.

"It's been life changing"

Lafoai Luaitalo knows the difference a scholarship can make - without hers, she has no idea how she would have made the transition from foster care to university.

Now, about to graduate with a law and arts degree from Auckland University, she says she wants to set up her own scholarship to help others like her.

"That's my dream. So that it doesn't go to people that will automatically get in to university, but to those that are struggling."

Luaitalo was in Year 12 at One Tree Hill College when she received a $22,000 grant from the First Foundation - an organisation that focuses on disadvantaged students from diverse backgrounds.

Until then, she says she had no way of making her dream of being a human rights lawyer a reality.

Although she had a supportive foster family, she had no money.

The scholarship not only paid her fees, but provided a mentor - in her case a criminal barrister - and work in the holidays from her sponsor business, Coca-Cola.

"The financial assistance was massive, but my mentor has been life-changing. I was so privileged, I remember when I found out about her background and life experiences and I thought, 'wow, this going to be my mentor for life'."

Luaitalo says she thinks there should be more scholarships like those offered by the First Foundation, or universities should look at what they're asking for.

"All the categories you have to meet to be successful are a massive put off," she said.

"Having scholarships that are aimed at high achievement only is a massive barrier. I think financial hardship and achievement should be something they take into consideration."

Annette Fale, First Foundation CEO, said the organisation had supported 600 students through university in 20 years, and knew its formula worked.

"Our programme is unique in that it provides a mentor, wraparound support, and finances. All the students say the outstanding contributor to them was a mentor, that they became like whanau."

She said they were always looking for more business sponsors, and more mentors.