University admissions: which system is the fairest?

Standardised test scores, interviews, entrance exams, choosing the top percentage of applicants: all are used in university admissions. Ellie Bothwell asks which methods provide the most honest reflection of suitability for higher education

January 10, 2019
woman-walking-past-signs
Source: Alamy

In the summer of 2014, the Harvard class of 1989 met in Cambridge, Massachusetts for their 25-year reunion. There was a series of mini TED talks, a “taste of New England dinner” and a chance to sing with the Boston Pops orchestra.

Hundreds of alumni proudly attended. But Evan Mandery was not one of them.

“I’ve happily attended many reunions for the other institutions with which I’ve been meaningfully affiliated,” Mandery, a professor at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, wrote in an article in The Huffington Post four years ago. “In each instance I’ve gone as an expression of support for the institution’s social mission. Each school, in my view, offers egalitarian access, a nurturing environment, and a ladder to class mobility. I don’t think this is true of my alma mater.”

There have long been debates over the best and fairest ways to select students. But the question has been brought to the fore in recent months, in the wake of a high-profile lawsuit challenging Harvard University’s use of affirmative action in admissions – a case that could have major consequences across the entire US university system.

The three-week trial in a federal court in Boston in October and November was instigated by Michael Wang, an Asian-American student rejected by Harvard in 2013, who claimed that the university’s admissions policies unfairly hurt ethnically Asian American applicants to the benefit of black students. But evidence revealed as part of the case illuminated the cohort that had long been suspected to be receiving even greater favourable bias: white applicants from well-connected families.

diversity-protesters

Opportunity knocks: protesters stand outside the Supreme Court as the justices heard oral arguments in the Fisher v University of Texas case, which could limit affirmative action practices that colleges and universities use in admissions departments

 

Ethnic Asians make up about 23 per cent of Harvard’s undergraduate class but only 6 per cent of the US population. Harvard alumni, meanwhile, constitute about 0.1 per cent of the US population, yet their children or close relatives – so-called legacy applicants – manage to claim about 30 per cent of all undergraduate places.

For Mandery, the advantage that children of alumni, donors and faculty receive in admissions should be the crux of the Harvard case.

“I’m less moved by the plight of Asian American applicants than I am outraged by what’s been done with the slots that they’ve been deprived of,” he tells Times Higher Education. “Those choices are indefensible. The idea that you’re going to let in someone with a lower SAT score because their parents gave a lot of money or because their parents are teachers here – those [choices] are absurd.”

But such choices are far from unique. In fact, about three-quarters of leading universities give an admissions boost to the relatives of alumni, according to a 2010 analysis by the thinktank the Century Foundation.

The judge had not yet made a decision by the time THE went to press, and a final verdict may take years if the case goes all the way to the Supreme Court. In the past, US courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly ruled that colleges may use race as a factor in their admissions decisions. However, some individual states have ruled against affirmative action. For instance, California’s state constitution was amended in 1996 to prohibit state universities from considering race, sex or ethnicity in admissions; in November, a University of California, Los Angeles law professor, Richard Sander, teamed up with an Asian American businessman and would-be Republican politician, George Shen, to file a lawsuit against the University of California over its alleged refusal to release data that could reveal whether, nevertheless, it discriminates against Asian Americans.

The state university systems of both California and Texas constitute case studies of potential policies that universities could introduce to increase diversity in the event that affirmative action is ruled unlawful.

Admission to the California system is based on a combination of standardised test scores, grade point average at high school and completion of at least 15 “college-preparatory courses”. State residents that meet the requirements are guaranteed a place at one of the system’s nine undergraduate campuses if they rank in the top 9 per cent of California high school students overall, or in the top 9 per cent of their graduating class at participating high schools: a system known as Eligibility in the Local Context, or ELC.

In Texas, a 1997 law enacted following a temporary ban on the use of affirmative action guarantees state university admission to all students who graduate in the top 10 per cent of their high school class – although the rule was amended in 2009 to cap automatic entries to the University of Texas at Austin at 75 per cent of total admissions, in effect requiring those with their sights set on the University of Texas’ flagship campus to be in the top 6 per cent of their high school class. In 2017, Republican state senator Kel Seliger called for the law to be eliminated, arguing that “our top-tier institutions such as the University of Texas and Texas A&M should not be mandated to use only a student’s class rank to determine a majority of their freshman class admissions, nor should they be directed by the state on who to admit”. However, he did not receive enough support to get the bill to the senate floor.

Meanwhile, a 2011 study, “Jockeying for position: strategic high school choice under Texas’ top ten percent plan”, found that the Texas law created a perverse incentive for students to move to lower-performing high schools to improve their chances of being in the top 10 per cent.

John Aubrey Douglass, senior research fellow in public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, says that there has been “no real, significant proof” that middle-class parents in California have similarly tried to game the system. But he says that is partly because the policy is “just not that advantageous”, despite the fact that it is “extremely labour-intensive” to administer.

A high proportion of the 9 per cent of students eligible for the ELC programme “are not a new pool of students” as they would be admitted to the University of California anyway, he says. “It’s not a big bang solution” to the problem of how to get more underrepresented high school students into university, he adds. Indeed, critics argue that there are fewer black and Hispanic students at the University of California than there were before affirmative action was abolished.

Moreover, unlike the Texas model, the ELC programme only guarantees students a place at one of the University of California System’s nine undergraduate campuses, which widely vary in prestige.

“It doesn’t guarantee you admissions to Berkeley, for example,” Douglass says. “In fact, many of the students at the lower end of the ELC scale only get an option to go to Merced,” the system’s newest campus.

diverse-crowd-ucla

 

Across the Pacific, the Australian National University in Canberra has changed its admissions policy, in part inspired by the Texas model.

“We’re the only national university in Australia. So it’s not simply that we have students with the highest grades that come to the university,” says Marnie Hughes-Warrington, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor (academic). “Our view is that unless you can see the nation reflected in who you are [as an institution] then you might not be fulfilling your national mission as much as you might.”

The university found that about 85 per cent of pupils that ranked in the top three in their secondary school by Atar score “already meet our entry requirements but, for whatever reason, they’re not coming to the university right now”. Atar stands for Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, and is a standardised university entrance test that assigns each student a national ranking. According to Hughes-Warrington, it is a “really good predictor of academic performance”.

The university now offers admission to all pupils that rank in the top three in their school by Atar and that meet a certain academic standard, as well as students who are in the top 10 per cent in their catchment area. It has also made higher-level (the equivalent of A-level) English and maths mandatory for all applicants, as the subjects are “pretty good indicators of success at university”.

Finally, the ANU has added a co-curricular or service requirement, which maps applicants’ out-of-class activities against seven skills, in recognition that “a lot of students are doing very generous things in their community” and to “encourage them to continue doing that at university”. But it does not interview applicants, since this “doesn’t add anything that we don’t already know and, in fact, may screen out or discourage some students from applying”.

Hughes-Warrington says that a key part of the ANU’s approach is that there are “transparent rules for entry”, so that “students should be able to see whether they’re going to get in” when they apply. Such transparency, she adds, is “possibly one of the most underestimated ethical issues of our time. Universities are not here to confirm the world, they’re here to change the world. If you believe that universities can enable social mobility then we must do everything within our power to enable the most talented students, whether they’re advantaged or disadvantaged, to get to university. And we know that transparency is what is needed to assist students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. They don’t have people in the know to help them figure out how to get into university. So the more barriers we put up in terms of lack of clarity, lack of information, the more steps, the more complicated it is, the more distant that dream is for that group of people.”

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The Australian government has also made moves to improve transparency, by requiring all universities to publish the minimum Atar rank to have received an offer for each degree programme. A new Course Seeker website enables applicants to compare the entry scores for all degree programmes across the country.

However, Angelo Kourtis, vice-president (people and advancement) at Western Sydney University, believes that the Atar “should never have been the dominant avenue for admissions into universities” and is glad that the model is “losing its primacy”.

“A lot of research shows that there is a correlation between schools in high socio-economic areas and Atar results,” he says, adding that the Atar system means that students’ “whole academic future is reduced to a number”.

For that reason, the university has launched a new “HSC True Reward” scheme in which students are admitted on the basis of their performance in individual high school certificate subjects, regardless of their Atar results. It follows a pilot that found a “significant correlation” between students’ performance in high school subjects relevant to their degrees and “their progression at university”.

The initiative has now been extended to 90 per cent of Western Sydney courses, and, so far, nearly 4,000 students have been admitted to the institution through this model. The university is now looking at ways to measure skills such as resilience, time management, the ability to “form networks” and “cultural capital”, Kourtis says.

“It is time that admissions frameworks were overhauled,” he explains. “Often universities are judged on the quality of the students they are admitting. I think it is high time they were judged on the quality of the students graduating.”

Australia’s use of a national university entrance exam is far from unique. According to Berkeley’s Douglass, such exams took off after the Second World War and have now been adopted in most higher education systems. They are seen as “an equitable way of distributing a highly sought after public good”, but they tend to “treat admissions to a top flight university like an award” rather than a method of assessing “the ability of the student to be successful when they come to university”.

In Japan, for example, “students focus all their efforts in high school on the exam” and once they arrive at university “their level of engagement is extremely low”, Douglass says.

But, as in Australia, some US universities are distancing themselves from standardised test scores. Over the past six months, several prestigious private institutions, including the University of Chicago, have announced that they will no longer require their domestic undergraduate applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, while others, such as Princeton, Stanford and Yale universities, have said that the essay or writing sections of the tests will be optional.

Chicago says that some applicants may feel that the test score “does not fully reflect their academic preparedness or potential”, but adds that the tests “can provide valuable information about a student” and encourages candidates to take the tests and share their scores “if you think they are reflective of your ability and potential”.

Meanwhile, Princeton says that it no longer requires applicants to submit the optional writing section of the SAT or ACT, as this “adds an additional cost that may be a financial burden to some applicants”. Instead, applicants must submit a graded writing sample from high school.

Several institutions, including Harvard, have made submitting two SAT subject tests optional for students suffering “financial hardship”.

A recent report from Georgetown University’s Centre on Education and the Workforce argues that qualified black and Latino applicants are often excluded from selective public universities because of an overreliance on standardised tests that they claim are poor predictors of college success owing to the influence of preparation on scores. However, Mandery says that making standardised tests optional only increases students’ stress levels because it makes the admissions process less transparent.

“The greater the reliance on objective criteria, the less opportunity there is for corruption – and by corruption I mean giving out spots to people on the basis of wealth,” he says. “If we said we’re just going to consider SAT scores, now the game becomes, how do we create pipelines and enrichment opportunities so that people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds have the same opportunities to succeed as other people.”

However, solely using entrance exams is not a guarantee against corruption either: Tokyo Medical University was recently revealed to have systematically rigged its entrance exams to exclude many women.

chinese-students

Quiet please: the results of the gao kao are used to determine university entry and are increasingly recognised in admissions outside China

 

China is frequently cited as the country with the toughest university entrance exam in the world – the gao kao. Students are under so much pressure to succeed in the test that, according to reports, traffic is diverted away from examination halls so that students are not disturbed, while ambulances are on call outside in case of nervous collapses.

The exam is increasingly recognised internationally; in October, the University of Birmingham became the first Russell Group institution to accept gao kao results for Chinese applicants, while in June the University of New Hampshire became the first US state institution to accept the test.

Ye Liu, lecturer in international development at King’s College London, says that the gao kao appears to be fair “as the exam results are the only enrolment criteria” for nearly all fields of study (with the exception of creative degrees such as art and drama). However, she adds, the allocation of quotas for candidates from different provinces and differentiated cut-off scores based on each region’s distribution of scores have undermined the gao kao as a meritocratic selection system.

Her own research, based on a survey of 2,425 undergraduates in Shanghai, found that students from privileged backgrounds and metropolitan areas were more likely to enrol in their preferred institution and field of study. Students from poor backgrounds were also “more conservative and less risk taking” when making choices about where and what to study.

But Liu does not think that admission reform alone could resolve issues “deeply rooted in the household registration system – the hukou”, which assigns benefits to citizens based on rural or urban residency status and is sometimes likened to a form of caste system.

Elsewhere in Asia, Malaysia’s education system is modelled on England’s, and university candidates are required to achieve certain grades in the Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia: subject exams similar to A levels. Alternatively, they can take a one-year matriculation programme conducted by the Ministry of Education.

Peter T. C. Chang, deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) at the University of Malaya and an academic at the university’s Institute of China Studies, says that the country has a national affirmative action policy, whereby about 70 per cent of student places at the country’s public universities are reserved for the Malay majority, for whom entry requirements are also lower. The Chinese and Indian minorities, who tend to perform better academically, compete for the remaining slots.

A similar policy exists on the academic side, requiring 80 per cent of scholars to be Malay, Chang adds. But while there is generally public support for the policy, it has lowered the standard of public universities in Malaysia: “It creates a certain dependency within the Malay community. They always feel that they will be given easier access by the government, not needing to work as hard as the minorities do.”

Chang adds that some young Chinese and Indians, particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, feel “disenfranchised” by the policy, particularly given that tuition fees at private institutions can be 10 times those at public ones.

crowded-lecture-hall

 

European university systems are often perceived as having relatively non-selective admissions policies. But in some cases, selection simply starts much earlier.

In Switzerland, all students that attend a high school known as a gymnasium from the age of 16 are given a free ticket to the university and degree programme of their choice (with the exception of medicine). But only around 20 per cent of pupils are selected to attend such schools; the remaining 80 per cent take an apprenticeship, alongside which they can enrol in a university of applied sciences. It is then possible to transfer to a university for master’s level study.

Swiss universities are required by law to accept all eligible applicants and are barred from limiting class sizes. This can cause problems. For instance, the University of Zurich expected 50 students to enrol on a biomedicine course it started recently, but was obliged to accept 250 eligible students in the first year, and 300 in the second. This left it “completely overwhelmed”, according to its rector, Michael Hengartner, who is also president of the Swiss Rectors’ Conference.

Contrariwise, students that twice fail the compulsory modules at the end of the first year of university study are forced to drop out, which can result in courses losing a third of their students (most of whom then enrol on a different course). Nevertheless, Hengartner says that Swiss universities “have been very coherent in their message – we are willing to put up with the pain that this generates because we’d rather teach students what they really want to learn”.

Moreover, there is a “strong consensus” within the country that the model works well, since it “allows you to start more or less anywhere and, by bridges, move on to something else. A sizeable fraction of our government are people who went the apprenticeship way. There’s no strong feeling that you have to go to university to be successful.”

By contrast, the UK’s extremely hierarchical education system means that a great deal rides on where students go to university. This makes it politically difficult to implement any policies that widen participation at the expense of traditional university-going demographics. That is particularly the case when caps are imposed on the number of students that universities can recruit: a policy that was abolished in 2015 but that may be reimposed if it is recommended by the Augar review of post-18 education, which is due to report this month.

“The minute you reimpose student number controls, you’re turning getting into university into a zero-sum game,” says Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. “And the middle classes do not willingly give up their places in higher education.” For him, bringing back caps would be “the single worst thing we could do as a country in terms of widening participation”.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of education charity the Sutton Trust, claimed in 2017 that contextual admissions policies should be a “central element” of top UK universities’ admissions processes. But according to a 2017 essay written by Durham University academics Vikki Boliver, Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui and published in a Hepi/Brightside report, only 18 of the 30 most selective universities in the UK reduce entrance requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants. Even when they do so, moreover, it is rarely by more than one or two grades.

However, Hillman does not agree with the view that elite universities must do most of the legwork on widening access in order for there to be true social mobility.

“Is the country’s biggest need to have a few more kids from tougher backgrounds at our selective institutions? Or is it to have more people educated to a higher level overall? They’re both important questions, but my view is that you make bigger, quicker differences by getting more people into higher education overall, and by encouraging employers to recruit from a wider range of universities,” he says. He also advocates reintroducing maintenance grants and ensuring that individual universities’ use of contextualised admissions policies are “fully informed by evidence”.

“It worries me that such a high proportion of widening participation and access budgets still goes on [ineffective] bursary schemes,” he says.

Meanwhile, Mandery says that university admissions should be “random among applicants who meet a certain qualification that the schools would decide”. But he admits that such a scheme would never be implemented in the US, since universities “would never sacrifice their degree of control”. This is because they believe that the mutually selective element between students and universities means that students feel more invested in and loyal to their institutions than they otherwise would. “But it’s not true,” he adds. “People who end up going to a college that’s not their first choice end up liking it just as much as people who get their first choice.”

Mandery would also abolish interviews, arguing that they “don’t tell you anything meaningful”, but rather “create wiggle room” for universities to justify admitting students on criteria “that wouldn’t otherwise be acceptable”. And he brands the use of essays as “silly”, claiming that they are gamed by rich, often white applicants able to pay for editing services.

Returning to Harvard’s use of legacy admissions, Mandery says that the institution is only likely to overcome its “resistance to change” if current and former students push for it.

“A lot of social change that you’ve seen at universities has been led by students and alumni,” he says. Examples include universities’ divestment from South Africa in the 1980s and their more recent initiatives to become carbon neutral. But, on the legacy applicants issue, “there hasn’t been a groundswell of alumni opposition”. 

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Print headline: The fairest of them all?

Reader's comments (1)

Hillman asks "Is the country’s biggest need to have a few more kids from tougher backgrounds at our selective institutions?" The answer is no. We need a lot more "kids" from tougher backgrounds to go to these institutions. I also take issue with the pejorative use of "kids". Nearly all first year undergraduates are aged 18+ in the UK and therefore should be considered as adults. They are certainly considered old enough to take on significant adult-sized debt. The only fair answer is a university lottery to decide your institution. Minimum 3 Es or equivalent and you're in the lottery. Think how that would help with widening participation. Think how that would bring real diversity to your instituion. If you don't think a lottery is fair then remember this would only be replacing the existing postcode lottery that currently works against those born and living in the most disadvantaged areas. If you are also worried this excellent idea would reduce standards, don't panic. If we offer Nandos, Just-Eat and discounted gym membership to anyone with a minimum A and two Bs we may even seen grades improve.

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