The Weight of Wealth: What Are University Admissions Actually Measuring?

Teddy Kassa

January 26, 2021

Elite post-secondary programs struggle to match the composition of their classes to the diversity within the regions they serve. One of the problems most frequently cited whenever addressing the issue of underrepresentation, in all sectors, is an inability to fill these programs/jobs/leadership positions with diverse candidates simply because there aren’t enough strong applicants.

 

But what does it mean to be a strong applicant? What does the process of measuring such strength entail? Long-standing elements along the path from kindergarten to high school have played a crucial role in helping fuel a divide between those who are best armed for applying to university and those who feel they were eliminated from the race long before the starting pistol was fired. Unfortunately, many of these feelings are credibly rooted in truth, in our status-quo of systems and institutions which claim to preach meritocracy, while in reality enabling the mediocre with money to supplant those who were never given a real shot.¹ In all this fear-mongering surrounding diversity recruiting and the risk of lowering the supposed bar for applicants, where’s the important discussion on how the bar might as well be practically non-existent for the well-to-do children who are reliably parachuted over?

The admission requirements and supplemental applications of elite programs add additional roadblocks on a journey already marred by institutionalized obstacles for marginalized students.

Confronting the ways that our seemingly innocuous processes can have insidious outcomes is a crucial part of authentically pursuing a system with greater equity for all young Canadians.

Let’s explore how the apologies university programs give are disproportionately blocking the path for marginalized candidates while providing a margin of safety for richer parents to ensure their kids have a better shot at receiving the elite credentials that can cement their legacies.

I’m sorry, but you should’ve taken the right courses.

Recent political promises² have brought the issue of streaming back into the public spotlight, a practice that disproportionately sees marginalized students virtually eliminated from university contention at 14 years of age as they’re encouraged to enrol in applied classes instead of academic ones. The scale of this discrepancy has been proven to be massive: in Toronto only 53% of Black students were in academic programs, compared to 81% of their White counterparts.³ The fact of the matter is that many university programs only accept grades from 12th grade “university-level” courses, which requires the foresight to either take academic-level courses from the start of high school, or otherwise fulfill rigorous supplementary requirements to switch into university-level courses. When considering the fact that students who took applied English and Math in the 9th grade were half as likely to attend any form of post-secondary education, with only 3% surmounting the roadblocks set by applied courses to ultimately attend university,⁴ it’s clear to see how streaming vastly undercuts marginalized students long before many have an idea of what sorts of post-secondary options they’d like to pursue.

While recent plans will admirably attempt to de-stream the 9th grade Math curriculum, it will unfortunately be nowhere near enough. While a university-level 12th grade Math course (or several) is a mandatory requirement for a sizeable number of faculties, virtually all university programs from Business, to Engineering, to the Fine Arts require a university-level 12th grade English credit as a mandatory requirement. Thus, the damage streaming causes in terms of disproportionately providing marginalized students with high school transcripts ineligible for university application will continue into this new school year—and the list of victims will continue to grow.

I’m sorry, but you should’ve had higher grades.

Disadvantaged students are disproportionately racialized, and poorer students of all races are watching the divide widen as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic reveals just exactly how wealth can make all the difference on a student’s report card.⁵ Not all students have access to their own personal computer, and while many are receiving loaners from their school boards on account of distance learning, delays have been well-recorded and to the detriment of our most vulnerable students.⁶ Yet even with a device, internet access that enables effective distance-learning isn’t always a given.⁷ Wealthier parents who see their children at risk of falling behind under existing distance-learning regimes are not just paying for tutors, some are going so far as to construct ‘learning pods’ where board-certified teachers provide private instruction to small groups of students with parents that can afford their fees.⁸

It’s important to note that even outside the context of this pandemic, the differences that tutors, personal devices, environments conducive to studying, and reliable internet connections make to a student’s grades persist. The changes COVID-19 demanded only serve to exacerbate previously existing gaps, creating a ripple effect on academic performance for years to come.

Some disadvantaged students will in many ways be a year behind their peers who were either able to make distance-learning work or afford the alternatives.  

For parents with the means to afford private schooling, their children are free from the risks associated with ongoing cuts to public school education.⁹ Enrolling children in certain private schools can also free them from fears of having grades docked because of silly things like missing deadlines, making spelling errors, or failing to show one’s work.¹⁰ If that isn’t enough, some of these so-called credit mills enable parents to simply buy their children the grades they need in specific classes to meet cut-offs or give their applications an edge.¹¹ With enough financial resources, the opportunities are endless.

I’m sorry, but you should’ve participated in more extracurricular activities.

Before our present class of university applicants were even born, admissions officers were already sounding the alarm of how their processes were becoming increasingly inequitable, and stressful, as candidates with means were performing increasingly elaborate activities outside the classroom in an attempt to stand out.¹² While a great deal of Canadian programs do not ask for or require essays, supplemental applications detailing extracurricular involvement are a mainstay of the more competitive “elite” Canadian programs that marginalized candidates see themselves underrepresented in. There is a level of privilege to being able to partake in impressive non-scholastic ventures on a wide number of fronts. The fact that some of these applications ask if students have acquired any international experience speaks to the level of disconnect between a Canadian family who is barely managing to make ends meet, versus those who have the means to send their children abroad volun-touring. Domestically, students can feel a stark difference between going to a well-funded private or public school with a wealth of clubs, sports teams, and leadership opportunities versus a lower income school which cannot provide the same scope or depth of options. And this is before even mentioning the fact that some private schools mandate their students get involved in after-school programs, which ensures that come university application season none of their students are left without experiences to write about.

As for even having the freedom to get involved outside of school, schools that serve wealthier families are more likely to offer child care programs,¹³ freeing up older siblings from having to choose between basketball or babysitting. For those with means, extracurricular time commitments do not become trade-offs with necessary part-time jobs; asking a parent for transportation to and from a volunteer opportunity is an expense given no second thought; and summer becomes an opportunity to attend camp, a mini-internship, or a third-world country to further develop their post-secondary application outside of the school year. And then marginalized students are asked to go head-to-head with those experiences, and are told the process is fair when their applications are rejected due to a lack of competitive leadership experience. But how fair was this competition, really?

I’m sorry, but you should’ve put more effort into your application.

After overcoming the improbable and securing the right grades in the right courses and spending sufficient time outside of school doing the right things to appeal to the right university admissions teams, some lucky marginalized students are finally given the opportunity to apply to elite institutions and have their countless essays, personal statements, and supplementary materials evaluated alongside those of more privileged students with an entire team of supporters behind them.

 

The imbalance in information is palpable. Those who attend private schools and public schools in favourable neighborhoods have guidance counselors, alumni networks, and sometimes even recruiters from the universities themselves providing them with pointers on how to approach the metagame of writing university applications. Successfully navigating the ins and outs of taking all of one’s experiences and putting them together into a cohesive, cogent application is in many ways the be-all and end-all to securing an offer of admission. The advantage of being privileged enough to have the assistance of the aforementioned resources available at one’s disposal is in many ways immeasurable.

However, do you know what is measurable? The purported success rates of the Canadian undergraduate admissions consultancies that offer to spoon feed your child on ways to “wow” an admissions officer, along with the ludicrously high prices they charge for their services. Read their reviews to see what a few hundred dollars or more can do to secure your child’s admission into the best programs our country has to offer. When we have school boards lamenting how even the relatively newly added $50 switching fee for applications are discouraging students from applying to programs,¹⁴ not to mention how our elite programs ask for even more on top of these OUAC fees, it is easy to see how students with the means to pay magnitudes more are given quite a leg-up in terms of not having to place all their golden eggs in one basket.

I’m sorry, but these excuses have been excused for too long.

No one wants to be the villain, but our present reliance on excuses and discomfort with radically rethinking the status-quo will do nothing but propagate more victims. Too many of the solutions being offered today are merely small-scale harm reduction measures that fail to address the fundamental flaws in a system that claims to be based on merit, but finds itself severely adulterated by wealth. Universities that claim to develop students into leaders instead end up selecting those that clearly fit a mold, rather than trying to explore other means of equitably and authentically gauging potential. It is disingenuous to understate how difficult an undertaking like this would be, but it is similarly disingenuous to not acknowledge the fact that those who benefit from the current system are most often the ones making the decisions around how university admissions are conducted. At the end of the day, both parents with or without means are going to try to secure a better future for their children. However, failing to address how the children of the former are afforded a plethora of keys that fit perfectly into the doors of our public institutions will continue to see the latter’s children disenfranchised and locked out. These apologies ring hollow if we allow the outcomes to remain the same.

[1] Foroohar, R. Why meritocracy isn’t working. The Financial Times. September 3, 2020.

[2] DeClerq, K. Ontario to begin phasing out Grade 9 applied and academic streaming in 2021. CTV News Toronto. July 9, 2020.

[3] Draaisma, M. Black students in Toronto streamed into courses below their ability, report finds. CBC News. April 24, 2017.

[4] Andrey, S. The work to end academic streaming is only just beginning. Toronto Star. July 28, 2020.

[5] Yang, J. and Kennedy, B. As wealthy parents turn to learning pods and private schools, low-income families say they’re being forced to choose between their health and their kids’ education. Toronto Star. Sept. 12, 2020.

[6] Samba, M. Nearly 2,000 TDSB students still waiting to receive laptops, tablets for virtual learning. CBC News. October 19, 2020.

[7] Caton, M. Study shows inequities of online learning in Ontario. Windsor Star. May 8. 2020.

[8] Bascaramurty, D. and Alphonso, C. How race, income and ‘opportunity hoarding’ will shape Canada’s back-to-school season. The Globe and Mail. September 5, 2020.

[9] Subramanian, S. Every child left behind: How education cuts fuel inequality. Maclean’s. June 13, 2019.

[10] Pagel, J., Weingarten, N., Rowe, A., and Ore, J. ‘It was a joke’: Students describe lax standards, easy high marks at private schools known as ‘credit mills’. CBC Radio. January 28, 2020.

[11] Sutherland, T. GTA secondary schools faking grades in exchange for cash. CityNews Toronto. July 29, 2019.

[12] Zernike, K. Ease Up, Top Colleges Tell Stressed Applicants. The New York Times. December 7, 2000.

[13] Breen, K. Ontario schools with well-educated parents more likely to offer child care programs: report. Global News. June 25, 2018.

[14] Ottawa-Carleton District School Board says new university application fee unfair. CBC News. May 01, 2017.