The college bribery scandal is spurring discussion about the ways in which money greases the wheels of the U.S. admissions process — and while most acknowledge there are fewer shortcuts to securing a spot in Canadian schools, advocates say the system is slanted to give well-off students a leg up.
American authorities have accused dozens of people of taking part in a $25-million bribery scheme in which parents allegedly paid to ensure their children’s enrolment in elite schools. Among the parents charged are Vancouver businessman David Sidoo, who has pleaded not guilty, and TV actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
The selection process at Canadian schools is heavily weighted towards high school report cards, leaving less wiggle room for the sort of chicanery being alleged in the U.S., an admissions consultant says.
“The competitive landscape is very different in the United States,” said Robert Astroff, president of Astroff Consultants, which helps students prepare for their post-secondary studies. “There’s much less opportunity to game the system in Canada.”
Canada doesn’t have standardized admissions tests like the SAT or ACT, which some of those charged in the U.S. are accused of falsifying, said Astroff.
Prosecutors also allege that parents bribed college coaches to recruit their children. In the U.S., varsity sports are highly monetized, Astroff said, so more emphasis is placed on athletics than in Canada.
There are several other factors that can contribute to a student’s chances of getting into a U.S. school, he said: personal essays, letters of reference, class rankings and relationships with alumni.
In Canada, the admissions criteria are less subjective, he said, and an applicant’s acceptance often comes down to whether their high school grades meet the minimum requirements.
U.S. schools are sorted into a “tiered” system in which there’s a vast gulf between going to an Ivy League university and a community college, Astroff noted. There’s far less differentiation among Canadian universities, so the selection process is not nearly as cutthroat, he said.
Admissions officials at Canadian universities also stressed these cross-border distinctions.
Curtis Michaelis, admissions and recruitment co-ordinator at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., said the U.S. students he works with are often shocked at how “transparent” the Canadian system is.
Richard Levin, executive director of enrolment services and registrar at the University of Toronto, said most programs accept 50 to 60 per cent of applicants, while acceptance rates at prestigious U.S. schools can be as low as five or six per cent.
“It reflects the fact that we have larger public universities with a big breadth of programs that are generally pretty accessible,” he said.
According to a 2017 report by Statistics Canada, the post-secondary enrolment rate of 19-year-old Canadians increased from 52.6 per cent in 2001 to 63.8 per cent in 2014 — with the largest gains being made among youth from lower-income families.
But Eloise Tan, research program director of Ontario-based advocacy group People for Education, said schools and policy-makers shouldn’t be so quick to pat themselves on the back.
“It’s not just about explicit paying or bribery to get your kid into school,” said Tan. “There’s other benefits to having a higher income, that the data shows those students are just more likely to go to school.”
Tan pointed to a report released earlier this month by the provincially funded Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario suggesting that high school students who come from families where neither parent has a post-secondary degree are 33 per cent less likely to earn one themselves compared to peers whose parents completed a university or college program.
Students from lower-income families were also less likely to pursue higher education than peers from more privileged backgrounds, the report found.
Tan said parents are increasingly spending money on tutors to boost their children’s marks, but many students can’t afford those supports. And as Ontario educators struggle for resources, she said youth from higher-income families are more likely to attend schools that have the fundraising to offer extracurricular activities.
Students from lower-income families are also less likely to have access to guidance counsellors, she said, and if their parents don’t have post-secondary degrees, the application process can seem overwhelming.
“(The disadvantages) are almost invisible, but we need to make sure they don’t remain invisible,” said Tan.
Even when universities try to level the playing field, they don’t always get it right, said one researcher with the University of British Columbia.
Emily Truong-Cheung, a PhD student in sociology, said UBC changed its admission process in 2012 in an effort to diversify its student population. Instead of just looking at grades, it asks applicants about extracurricular activities and volunteer work.
She interviewed 25 applicants and found that while upper-class youth have the time and resources for volunteering, travel and extracurriculars, working-class students often spend their extra time studying and working to support their families.
“They were very embarrassed — ‘I don’t want to write about working at McDonald’s. That’s not impressive.’ “
Working-class students also felt conflicted about answering a question on overcoming adversity, she said. They wanted to show they had triumphed against the odds, but they also questioned what it had to do with their potential success at UBC.
The University of British Columbia said in a statement the school scores every aspect of an application, so administrators can “empirically” measure where every candidate falls relative to the pool of potential students.
Truong-Cheung said she didn’t think the university should abandon the new process, but it should address the concerns of working-class students. She appreciates that the U.S. scandal has opened a conversation about class inequality in Canadian universities, she added.
“I think what admission processes are trying to say is: We want the best. But what this news has shown is that the best looks a lot like someone who has a lot of resources.”