Though here in egalitarian Canada we don’t like to talk about it much, the fact of the matter is that universities are selective. More people want to enter them than there are places available. The more prestigious the institution, the greater the imbalance between demand and supply of places, thus requiring more challenging and discerning barriers to entry (though self-selection reduces actual application numbers somewhat). The question is: on what basis should we select students?
(OK, some of you are now saying “not so fast! not all universities are selective! What about countries like France or Germany which give automatic access to everyone who gets a Baccalaureat/Abitur? which have “open access”? Or what about Quebec?” Well, in fact “open access” countries are nothing of the sort – they just put the selection filter further back in the educational chain when they stream kids at age 12 or so. Quebec is a different case: the UQs will accept anyone in possession of a CEGEP diplome d’etudes collegiales (DEC) which in global terms is pretty radical. But selection still exists at the rest of the province’s universities).
Now, of course, in selecting students, everyone thinks we should consider “merit”. But in most of the world, merit simply means “taking exams well”. It means passing a set of secondary matriculation exams (e.g. in France and Germany), or a set of national university entrance exam (China’s gaokao, College Scholastic Ability Tests in Korea, etc) or even in some cases specific university entrance exams (for instance, the University of Tokyo – an exam sufficiently difficult that specially-programmed AI robots cannot yet pass. Occasionally, as in the US or Sweden, psychometric exams like the SAT are used as well. Are these methods fair? Depends on your criteria. If you think test and exam-testing are the be-all and end-all of merit, then yeah. If not, no. But finding alternatives is tricky.
Famously, the elite US universities went for a broader definition of merit in the 1920s, one which emphasized character and sporting ability. Of course, the reason they did this was because their WASP donor base was getting pretty freaked out about the number of Jews getting in under the old scholastic-ability-only rules (see Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen for more on this). That worked until the late 1960s/early1970s, when growing concern about racial inequality led some to start musing about whether elite private institutions shouldn’t be forced to accept more minority students. Lo and behold, the definition of merit was changed to avoid clubby, exclusionary things like “character” (at least in the clubbable sense of that word) and include nice things like “diversity”. Of course what it didn’t do was restore points for simple “academic merit” alone. Nowadays, some see this as discriminating quite significantly against one ethnic group in particular: Asian-Americans, who by some reckonings are estimated to have a 67% lower chance of admission that a white student with similar GPAs/SATs.
In Canada, we’ve mostly relied on a portfolio of marks over high schools rather than a set of exam results, but the result is pretty similar: the academically inclined (a status yuuuugely-correlated with parental education levels) win out just the same. Because none of our institutions is that selective, we’ve never seen the kind of crazy admissions scenes the US has, but a few selected hard-to-enter faculties have, most notably the Sauder School at UBC. Back in the early 2000s, it took averages in the mid-90s or higher to make it in. But the business community who hired Sauder graduates wasn’t enthused about the quality of the output: too many kids who knew math, not enough who understood leadership. So Sauder moved to something called broad-based admissions, which basically meant a more intensive evaluation of students in order to create an entering class which was less academically focussed and more “well-rounded”. Not surprisingly, some think this gives an edge to the white upper middle class and served mostly to reduce the number of Chinese students at Sauder (which, say it softly, may have been what the Vancouver business community meant when it said it wanted fewer kids who were “good at math”). Yet broad-based admissions were such a success that they were introduced across the university just a few years later.
Now there are ways to run broad-based systems which don’t simply reinforce cultural capital: the Loran Scholarships have a long track-record in doing precisely that, mainly by evaluating achievement in the context of parental background. But most systems don’t do that, and as the University of Manchester’s Steven Jones’ has pointed out in a couple of excellent recent articles, most attempts to broaden the base of assessment end up reinforcing privilege. Which leaves you with a conundrum. If you set a firm marks-based standard, you’re probably giving a huge advantage to those with better-educated parents; in a broad-based system, you’re probably giving an advantage to those with a lot of cultural capital.
Is there another way to do it? Well, yes. Two, as a matter of fact. The first is to try to select on something other than academics or character. Robert J. Sternberg, an American academic, has written an engaging book entitled College Admissions for the 21st Century which recounts his own efforts to create tests to complement the SAT/ACT by measuring things like tacit knowledge, wisdom, and creativity. Some skepticism is warranted – Sternberg is talking his own book, after all – but it’s an intriguing effort that more should emulate.
The second way is lotteries, which have been used extensively for medical school admissions in both the UK and the Netherlands (though it is being phased out in the latter). Usually what happens in admissions lotteries is that the bar for admission to the lotteries is set substantially below what it would be if pure competition were allowed to reign. So, if we take the case of somewhere like the Sauder School, instead of setting the bar at a 95 or 96% average, you set the bar at say 80%: not so low as to let in just anyone, not so high as to exclude candidates who might really benefit from a Sauder education. Maybe that gives you five times as many students as you can handle: fine, just pick one out of five of these students randomly. In the Dutch variant, you might give a bit of an edge to higher-scoring students by giving them multiple entries into the lottery, but that’s optional.
Clearly, this doesn’t give you “the best” students, if you define “the best” as doing well on exams or being elected student council President. But that’s the point. It gives you a good class of students without creating educational arms races which produce either the gruesome test-taking cultures of East Asia or the nauseating college admissions industry of the US. As such, it deserves to be in wider use.