Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Equity

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.

January 20

The Inter-Generational Equity Thing

I see that one of my favourite student groups, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Association (OUSA), has come out in favour of a tuition freeze.  Fair enough; not many students endorse fee increases, after all.  But the stated rationale for wanting one is a bit disappointing – mixing, as it does, poor historical analysis with poor generational politics.

Here’s their thinking:

In 1980, student contributions to university operating budgets in Ontario, which include tuition and fees, were only 18 per cent. In 2014, accounting for inflation, that number reached 51 per cent. I’m no financial planner, but I do believe that if I invest 33 per cent more into something—I should probably receive a comparable amount in return, or at the very least, expect to.

So let me ask: are there more jobs available for university graduates? More co-op and paid internship opportunities? Are students being taught to articulate their soft skills to employers? Has the ratio of students to faculty in the classroom improved? Most importantly, are university degrees more valuable now than they were in 1980? If the answer to these questions, particularly the last one, is no, then why are students paying more than ever for a university education?

(You can read the complete document here.)

There are a number of errors here.  Are there more jobs for graduates?  Yes, of course there are.  Maybe not relative to the number of graduates, but even so, graduate unemployment rates are a lot lower than they were in the early 80s and early 90s (though of course that has more to do with the state of the economy than anything else).  More co-ops and paid internships?  Incomparably more.  In 1980, Waterloo was still about the only place doing co-op; today, the practice is widely spread (and at Waterloo itself, the number of co-op students per year is at least three times what it was back then). The only piece that’s unambiguously true here is the bit about student-teacher ratios.

If we really want to understand why students are paying more for their education we need look no further than the facts that: a) enrolments tripled, and b) the cost per-student for education got more expensive (not always for good reasons, but true nonetheless).  Governments paid for part of this – admittedly less so in Ontario than elsewhere in the country – and students paid for the rest.

And this is why we have to be careful when making comparisons over time.  Of course, we could bring student contributions back down to 18% of total costs: but remember, part of what that increased contribution bought was vastly increased access.  Anyone want to make that trade and return to a time of cheaper education for a luckier few?  No, thought not.

So that’s the analytical error.  The political error – and it’s a seductive one, I’ll admit – is to claim that every time a new generation doesn’t get something that the old generation got, it’s “unfair” and a basis to lay a claim on state resources.  But this way madness lies.  Where PSE is concerned, it’s tantamount to saying “our parents were oversubsidized and we demand the same treatment”.  Or maybe, “we’re getting a pretty good deal on PSE, but we demand that our deals be ludicrously good like they were in the 70s”.

For a whole bunch of very long-term demographic and economic reasons, today’s students are going to find it harder than the boomers, and even the Gen Xers did (also harder than the generation that passed through university between 2000 and 2005, who did pretty well).  There’s not a whole lot anyone can do about that: some cohorts just have it easier than others, and progress isn’t always linear.  Policy shouldn’t be totally insensitive to these shifts, but neither should our goal be to preserve certain benefits in amber just because “that’s what our parents got”.

None of this is to say there aren’t decent arguments in favour of tuition freezes, or even that the “universities need to show value for money” argument is wrong.  (If it were me arguing the case, I’d push for limiting increases in student fees to whatever the increase in public funding is.)  But arguing on the basis of changes that have occurred over 35 years is a mistake; too much of the money spent over that period did too much good to be criticized.  Inter-generational arguments are trickier than they look, both analytically and politically.