Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Admissions

January 11

Admissions policies: Marks-Based, Broad-Based, or Random?

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.

March 14

Canadian Higher Ed Exceptionalism, Part 1 (An Occasional Series)

For awhile now, I’ve been writing about other national systems of higher education in our, “Better Know a Higher Ed System” series, in part to throw Canada’s own policy system into sharp relief. But sometimes it’s better to look at some things a bit more directly, so today I want to start exploring some areas where Canada really is an exception, globally.  And there’s nowhere we stick out more than in the way we admit students to university.

There are a limited number of ways to admit people to universities.  One of the most common is simply to use the scores from a common secondary matriculation exam as the basis for admission decisions.  Most of la Francophonie works this way, since they’ve all modelled themselves on France’s Baccalaureate.

Another option is to have a national university entrance exam, separate from matriculation.  The most famous of these is China’s gaokao, which draws on a millennia-long Chinese tradition, but which is in fact only 35 years old, and a product of Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao reforms.  National exams are often a response to widespread cheating and corruption in schools.  In 2004, Russia introduced a new national exam with heavy security measures specifically to try to weed out academic corruption (it was only partially successful – since getting into university is a way for Russian males to avoid the draft, the impetus for academic corruption is pretty powerful).

In some places, individual universities have their own entrance exam, though these tend to exist only where a national exam is already in place.  Japan and Romania are two examples of this: in both countries, the more “elite” universities (e.g. Tokyo, Kyoto, Politehnica, Bucharest) have chosen to ditch the national exams and establish their own, for reasons of prestige, if nothing else.  And then, finally, you have the American options – not a university entrance exam but a national aptitude test, such as the SAT or the ACT.

So, now imagine trying to explain to foreigners how students get accepted to university in Canada.  Only Alberta, with its matriculation exams, has anything like the kind of standardized testing seen almost everywhere else in the world. In the rest of the country, you’re admitted entirely on the basis of grades based on high school marks predicated, to a considerable extent, on work portfolios rather than exams, and where grading standards between schools are only loosely consistent.  To the extent that there is fairness at all, it comes through the informal judgement of hundreds of admissions officers who, through simple experience, “know” which schools are easy graders, and take this into consideration when awarding places.

From the perspective of most other countries, the Canadian approach looks like sheer lunacy.  The scope for corruption in our system is enormous, but it’s simply not an issue here.  Everyone accepts the professional judgement of admissions officers and there are few complaints.  Such deep trust in the system is what has spared this country (outside Alberta, anyway) the kind of high-stakes exam nightmare that Americans endure.

In short, one thing that makes Canadian higher education exceptional is trust. That’s great, but trust is fragile.  It’s not something we should take for granted.

May 02

The Limits to Internationalization

There’s a very important question that institutions across the land will soon need to confront, namely: how many international students can a public institution accept before taxpayers and governments say “no more”?

It’s not an idle question.  In Switzerland, serious concerns are being raised about foreign student numbers that are getting close to the 40% mark.  In the US, where big flagship public universities have been adding international students in droves over the past few years, most feel reluctant to go beyond a threshold of about 20%; beyond that, they feel they would be courting controversy with their legislatures.

In Canada, we have a couple of institutions in the Atlantic, and a college in the GTA, where the percentage of students from abroad is hovering around the 30% mark.  We’ve already had skirmishes around the desirability of foreign students (e.g. the Ontario Tories’ attack on Trillium Scholarships), even when those students are paying their own way (e.g. Dalhousie’s decision to sell 10 medical student spots to Saudi Arabia).

The “danger threshold” in Canada depends on local context.  Universities in communities where youth demographics are falling off a cliff (e.g. Cape Breton) can almost certainly get away with more international students than can universities elsewhere – even 40% international enrolments probably wouldn’t cause many to blink in Sydney.  But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule: if Lakehead or Brandon were to try something similar, one could imagine a stir about concentrating on international students at the expense of the local Aboriginal population.

The really tricky cases are in Vancouver and Toronto, the two cities to which most international students want to go, but also the two parts of the country where the youth population is still increasing (Calgary fits into the latter category as well).  Schools there have no shortage of domestic students they could educate, so every time they admit a foreign student – even one who is being charged 100%+ of the cost of their education (true in every faculty outside engineering, basically) – it could be portrayed as taking a spot away from a domestic student.

How explosive an issue could this be?  A few months ago, we asked students how they would feel if their school were to limit domestic enrolment in order to increase foreign student numbers, and compared that to how they felt about a $5000 tuition hike.  Here are the results:

How Likely Would You Be To Protest In the Event of:













Not terrible, but not great either.

This isn’t a scenario most institutions face, of course.  But as budget cutbacks mount, and institutions’ financial calculus tilts in favour of increasing the number of full-fee paying international students, the chances of a nativist backlash increases.  Schools should be prepared for it.

April 12

In Praise of Downward Mobility

One much-used trope, among those wanting to bash higher education, attacks the idea of “downward mobility”.  Typically, a journalist finds a kid from a nice middle-class family, having a hard time making-it in the labour market, and uses this as a platform for a string of Wente-isms:  “Higher education is supposed to be about upward mobility – but now graduates are downwardly mobile!  Won’t somebody please think of the children?” Etc. etc.

But upward mobility is greatly overrated.  Downward mobility is where our focus should be.  And here’s why:

Part of the problem with the notion of upward mobility is that, with respect to education, the term gets used in two distinct ways.  The first is a, “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” interpretation, where everyone is upwardly mobile in the sense that everyone’s purchasing power is rising.  Universities and colleges, through their enriching of human capital, and their contributions to the national innovations system, are seen to be key actors in this process – though, obviously, there are many other things which also go into economic growth.  Right now, this kind of upward mobility is in short supply.

But even where there is little or no economic growth, upward mobility in a second sense – that of people changing their position within the overall social hierarchy – can still exist.  But this type of mobility is a zero-sum game.  Upward mobility can only exist to the extent that downward mobility does.

The book I discussed yesterday, for example (Paying for the Party), is full of stories about downwardly mobile middle-class kids (albeit mostly ones who don’t work very hard at their studies).  That’s sad, but what’s truly appalling is the complete lack of downward mobility among the upper-class students.  No matter how useless they are academically, mom and dad are always there to help them avoid the consequences of their inaction.

A fair society, one where social position is actually reflective of effort and ability, requires more downward mobility, not less.  We need to be finding ways to take inherited privilege away, not re-inforce it.  It’s why the rich need to pay more in tuition (and why the poor need grants to offset it).  It’s why legacy admissions and merit scholarships that don’t take social origins into account need to be fought.  It’s why all those unpaid internships in so-called “desirable” fields (mainly media and publishing) are not just illegal but are also immoral, because they tilt the playing field to the trustafarians who can afford them.

In a low-growth economy, allowing some to rise in social position means others must fall.  We in higher education have a vital role to play in this, and we shouldn’t be squeamish about it.

February 08

The Collapsing Demand for Law School

If there is one place bucking the worldwide trend of rising higher education enrolments, it’s American law schools.

As the New York Times noted last week, demand for US law schools is down by something like 40% over the last two years.  The effect on enrolments hasn’t been as pronounced – excess demand meant that schools were collectively only meeting about 60% of total demand in 2010.  But inevitably, outside the very top tier, all schools are cutting admissions standards in an attempt to keep the numbers up.

The reasons for the collapse aren’t hard to find.  Tuition at American law schools is astronomical – in some places $70K per year, or more.  Meanwhile, signs indicate that the current  hiring lull at law firms isn’t just a temporary fad; most observers seem to think that billing margins are tumbling and remuneration – at least below partner level – is likely to be squeezed for some time (see: The Atlantic’s Jordan Weismann for more).

In the US, there’s a lot of vitriol attached to this debate.  There are a pair of new “insider” books on the subject: Failing Law Schools, by Washington St. Louis Law School Professor, Brian Tamanaha, and Don’t Go to Law School (Unless), by Colorado’s Paul Campos, (who also writes the very good blog “Inside the Law School Scam”).  And the anger’s easy to locate  – it’s not just the high fees, but also the perception that law schools were either deliberately negligent, or outright deceptive, about reporting their graduates’ outcomes.

There are echoes of this in Canada, particularly in Ontario.  As I noted in a piece a couple of months ago, Law school admits were increased just before the economic bust, leading to a shortage of articling spaces (and, presumably, of underemployed law students).  And though our law school fees aren’t in the same league as American ones, they’re high enough that this situation causes serious irritation among graduates.

Some of the criticism of law schools is misplaced.  The idea that there’s some kind of “scam” going on unless every single law school grad gets a job in the legal profession – which some of the wilder critics occasionally imply – is nuts.  Not everyone who wants to study the law wants to practice it (same goes for teacher’s college).  And we no more need to align law school intake with labour market needs than we do philosophy program intakes.  If people want to use their hard-earned money to study law, let ‘em.

But there is a lesson here: as tuition rises, so too does the need for better data and greater transparency about outcomes.  That truth is universal, and Canadian law schools need to take it more seriously than they currently do.

November 08

Narcissism of Small Differences – Admissions Edition

Why do Canadian universities make admissions so complicated?

A couple of years ago, for a client, I took a look at the number of different undergraduate admissions requirements there were to various universities.  What I found was that at comprehensive universities in Ontario, there tended to be no fewer that 15 separate sets of admission requirements to various programs or faculties, and at some universities it was as high as 20.

Nearly all of them required grade 12 English (though engineering schools tended to waive that requirement), but after that the pre-reqs became bewilderingly complex.  Some required both of Ontario’s grade 12 level math courses, some required one or the other,  some required one of the two specifically.  Some just required a math or science course – some required specific science sources, others required a science course (from a menu of choices).

Then, just for the sake of comparison, I checked some American universities.  My data’s a few years old, but I doubt much has changed.

I could go on, but you get the picture.  I’m not singling out those four Ontario institutions for special opprobrium, either – I could have picked any four and it would look largely the same.  Basically, we let departments and faculty set whatever sets of criteria they want – presumably on the grounds that it will make the entering students slightly easier to teach – while in the US they set single, institution-wide standards and spend the first year or two getting students up to speed via a broader curriculum.

How ludicrous does it get?  Well, at one of those Canadian institutions mentioned above, “Computer Science” and “Computer Solid State Technology” have different entrance criteria; so, too, does “Business Admin and Business Economics”.  Different disciplines?  Sure.  But to an 18 year-old the distinctions are meaningless – it’s just bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy.

I’d really like to hear a good defence of this practice.  Why, exactly, do we require students to gain admission to a program or faculty rather than to the institution as a whole the way Americans do?  What do we gain by it?  Is there any evidence that we get better students as a result, and better student outcomes as a result?  Or are we just indulging the amour propre of department academic committees, and creating confusion for students and extra work for admissions offices in the process?

February 01

UBC Gets It

Credit where credit is due: some absolutely brilliant stuff has been coming out of UBC in the last little while. Everybody in the country should pay attention.

Exhibit A: The university’s decision to use broad-based admissions (BBA) – that is to say, an application process which takes into account not just grades, but also extra-curricular activities and the contents of personal essays – for its entire student intake. This is an enormously positive step. Just as the university experience is about more than just classes, students are more than just grades. BBA recognizes that fact, and makes it the central feature of the admissions process.

Now, this isn’t an entirely revolutionary step. Many universities use some form of BBA to help decide between candidates who are at the bottom of the grade range to get in. A number also use it in particularly competitive faculties (UBC’s Sauder School has used it since 2004, SFU’s business school began last year), and of course, BBA is actually the norm at smaller, faith-based institutions.

But most big universities shy away from using it across-the-board because it’s simpler and cheaper to use grades exclusively to decide who gets in and who gets an entrance scholarship. That’s undeniably true, but there’s no faster way to turn yourself into a cookie-cutter institution than to treat your applicants in a one-or two-dimensional fashion. UBC’s initiative is a big step away from that.

Exhibit B: UBC has axed its $6 million, grade-based automatic admissions scholarships (i.e., where one-time entrance money is distributed to students simply for achieving a certain average in secondary school), and redistributing the money towards need-based bursaries, work-study and a smaller number of larger, more prestigious multi-year scholarships.

The university has correctly sussed that the awards are not in fact a major draw for the institution, and that by distributing these awards, they were spending a lot of money to no real effect (a point we at HESA made a few years ago when we were working under another corporate name). Re-directing that money towards need-based aid means money is being used for far more socially valuable purposes, and enlarging the top-end scholarships puts the institution in a much better position to compete for the very top (1-2%) in the country – which is the real target of any institution of UBC’s stature.

Too often, universities have trouble doing the right thing because in this very conservative industry it’s hard to convince people to do something if no one else is doing it. UBC, gloriously, has just erased that excuse as far as improving admissions and scholarships are concerned. May they be widely imitated.

January 25

Distinct Missions

Why are Canadian universities so scared of acting differently from one another?  Why does no one want a niche? I’m not just talking about their cookie-cutter mission statements here, which seem to involve adding the words “research” and “excellence” to the output of a random word generator. I’m talking about the cookie-cutter ways they go about their daily business. In marketing-speak: they have little or no brand personality.

It’s not as though cool niche missions are that hard to dream up. Here’s two:

The “Best Jobs” University.  Giving employment guarantees and talking up graduate employment rates are so 90s; with a shrinking labour force, the issue isn’t going to be whether graduates get jobs, it’s what kind of jobs they will get. So why shouldn’t some university take it on as a mission to ensure that its graduates get the best jobs?

Think about it: if that were your mission, your professors would be bound to spend a lot more time talking to employers not just about “what they want,” but really working with them on a day-to-day basis to understand what skills students need to be more effective in the workplace. It would mean spending lots of money on placement officers and on career services. And it would mean a serious commitment to tracking and measuring how students do, and taking their feedback about what helped them and what didn’t to heart. It wouldn’t be easy, but at the end of the day, you’d be able to tell a real, quantifiable story about how your graduates succeed.

The Character University. One’s university experience is to a very large degree conditioned by one’s classmates. That’s why selective U.S. universities subject prospective students to a rigorous interview process; to make sure they are getting not just good students, but the “right” ones. Canadian universities instead choose to make their admissions decisions based entirely on grades, in part because they feel it’s an easy place to cut costs.

Two words: false economy.

So why not reverse the process and put character at the heart of an admissions process? It’s quite possible: the Loran Awards do it year after year and they manage to pick one future Rhodes Scholar each year in the process. Sure, it would mean spending more on admissions, but involving alumni as American schools do would keep costs down. And the benefits are enormous: your students would be a lot more interesting and rewarding to teach (filtering out the whiners and grade-grubbers would be central to the process), and moral fibre would be your selling point.

These ideas aren’t cost- or difficulty-free, of course. But they’d pay for themselves pretty quickly by attracting better students, producing happier alumni and raising public profile.

Any takers?