Faced with escalating recruitment pressures and concerns about grade inflation, at least two universities – the University of Saskatchewan and University of British Columbia – are adjusting admission requirements for entering high school students.
UBC is moving this year to a “broad-based” admissions process that focuses on more than high school marks, with applicants required to submit a personal profile as well. The personal profile consists of short answers to five questions that are meant to convey a sense of an applicant’s personal characteristics and non-academic strengths. “It’s a big change,” said James Ridge, UBC associate vice-president and registrar. “And it’s certainly not without risk, but we really feel quite strongly it’s the right thing to do.”
UBC tends to recruit from a narrow band of high-achieving students, and for this group, marks alone may not show whether a prospective student will be a good fit, says Mr. Ridge. “We really do want to know whether they are going to engage with others, the extent to which they have historically engaged with the community, their leadership ability and their ability to deal with and overcome obstacles,” he said.
A pool of trained evaluators will review all personal profiles, stripped of names and other identifying information. Each will be scored by two evaluators and then read by a third if the first two assessments diverge by more than a set amount. The score will be combined with the student’s marks before an admission decision is made.
UBC worked closely with Oregon State University, which has done extensive research showing that the questions have a strong predictive value, said Mr. Ridge. UBC’s Sauder School of Business has also used broad-based admissions for the past six years. While UBC remains interested in academic performance, Mr. Ridge said he hopes the new system will open up opportunities for students who are less strong academically “but have personal characteristics and experience that is really interesting … and would add something to the class.”
The change is partly fuelled by concerns about grade inflation. Since 2004, when the province made provincial exams optional (other than for Grade 12 English), grade point averages of B.C. high school graduates increased by about two percentage points. Mr. Ridge said that high school marks, while good predictors of success, are less reliable than they were five or 10 years ago.
For similar reasons, the University of Saskatchewan recently adopted a new admissions policy specifically for students from Alberta, one of the few provinces with mandatory provincial exams. In Alberta, exam scores count for half of the final Grade 12 mark, putting Alberta students on an unequal footing with students from other provinces. Starting next fall, U of S will admit Alberta students based on high school marks alone, or diploma exam marks, or a combination of the two – whichever is highest. The policy applies to students from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories who follow the Alberta high school curriculum.
David Hannah, associate vice-president, student affairs, at U of S, said there were concerns that Alberta students were disadvantaged because their diploma exams tend to bring down Grade 12 averages. Meanwhile, Alberta’s education minister recently told reporters that changes may be coming to put the province’s students on an equal footing.
Dr. Hannah said that the university’s own data showed that Alberta students fare better in first year than those from other provinces. “Based on that information, we felt it would be fairer to treat these students the same way we treat students from every other province,” Dr. Hannah said.
The change might help recruitment too, he noted; applications from Alberta students are 27 percent higher this year, compared with the same time a year ago. “We wanted to give those students a fair shake. And if that does draw some students to the University of Saskatchewan who wouldn’t be eligible for admission or scholarships to other institutions, we’d be happy with that,” he said.
Assessing applicants across provinces is an ongoing conundrum for universities. But Don Klinger, associate professor of education at Queen’s University, said the bigger challenge is assessing applicants from within a province, since standards and marks can vary among high schools. Yet only a small proportion of students – mainly high achievers – go to university outside their home province, and there are only small differences between provincial curriculums. Universities likely have unofficial procedures to deal with grading discrepancies both within and between provinces, said Dr. Klinger, but they rarely publicize them.
UBC, for one, said it adjusts scores for Alberta students. Wilfrid Laurier University, for another, said it considers admitting out-of-province students who are within three percentage points of a program’s cut-off mark, to recognize the variation between high school marking systems in different provinces, said a spokesman. Laurier also considers admitting Ontario students who are within three percentage points of the cut-off if they’ve completed an applicant background summary.
Some universities have tried to introduce admissions tests to curb grade inflation but these experiments have been short lived. The tests are costly to administer, said Dr. Klinger, and aren’t much better at predicting student success than high school marks.