Maria Elena Oliveri and Cathy Wendler, Independent Consultants
COVID-19 is necessitating changes to the practices and criteria used to make admissions decisions. As higher education struggles with how the pandemic will alter admissions, changing the process and criteria used in college admissions is not new. Historically, several factors have impacted college admissions and beyond, including changes in philosophical values, shifts in political power, the demographics of students attending college, and the skillset needed for college success.
Zwick (2017) highlights that the postsecondary admissions process does not occur in a vacuum and must be evaluated in a larger context. Obtaining access to postsecondary institutions has critical implications for students, institutions, and society at large (Carnevale, Rose, & Cheah, 2011; Trostel, 2015). However, the selection processes used by institutions reflect their individual philosophical, political, and societal values and these have implications for what is perceived as “fairness” in higher education.
There is no single definition of what constitutes fairness in admissions. The definition not only varies within country but also across countries (see Oliveri & Wendler, 2020 for a more thorough overview of admissions-related factors in a global world). The concept of fairness has shifted as philosophical values, political influences, demographic characteristics, and required skillsets have changed. The particular processes used at an institutional- or country-level reflect these changes, as does the design and development of instruments and the criteria used in admissions decisions.
Philosophical Values. The higher education admissions process is filled with good intentions but raises many philosophical questions: Who should be allowed to go on to postsecondary education? Should all students have access to college? Are all current college admissions procedures really fair and equitable?
Lyrén and Wikström (2020) provide an example of how changing philosophical views may impact admissions systems. To illustrate, they describe the Swedish educational system, including higher education admissions, which is dominated by a belief in lifelong learning and in the importance of equal opportunity in education. For a long time, access to higher education was limited to privileged groups in Swedish society. The post-war era of the twentieth century brought a gradual change to the Swedish educational system, driven by egalitarian views and the need of the labor market for educated workers (Lundahl, Erixon Arreman, Lundström, & Rönnberg, 2010).
Higher education in Vietnam also demonstrates how changing philosophical views influence beliefs in who should have access to college. Pham and Sai (2020) describe the 1,000-year history of Vietnam’s higher-education system. From the eleventh to eighteenth centuries the Confucian school of thought was the main educational ideology, and examinations were used as selection criteria to select students for higher learning (Nguyen, 2012). During the French colonization period students were mainly selected from those fortunate enough to attend one of the few French high schools. The last two decades have marked rapid growth in the higher education system in Vietnam. The system is changing from an elite system available only to some individuals to a system more accessible to a greater number of students from diverse sociodemographic backgrounds.
Shifts in Political Power. Politics are known to drive policies, and policies related to entry into college are not exempt. For example, the Morrill Act passed by Congress in 1862 made college access possible for farmers and others previously excluded from higher education (Lorenzo, 1993). The Act set the stage for open admissions to what are now called community colleges.
Another example of political influence on admissions is that of The City University of New York (CUNY). Bowing to tremendous political pressure, an open admissions policy was adopted by CUNY in the 1960s to provide more diversity on its campuses. Unfortunately, the policy also had financial and resource ramifications and was dropped by CUNY in the late 1970s (Williams & Wendler, 2020).
Politics have also driven admissions internationally. One of the best known examples is the major impact political changes have had on higher education in South African institutions (Jappie, 2020). The nearly 50 years of apartheid had created 36 racially divided post-secondary institutions, resulting in wide-scale financial and resource disparities among institutions. Post-apartheid restructuring has reduced the number of institutions, and the Higher Education Act of 1997 has streamlined policies and criteria, but ensuring fairness continues to be a struggle.
Demographic Characteristics. It is predicted that an increasing number of students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds will be applying to higher education over the next several decades (Hussar & Bailey, 2017). However, beyond admissions, attention to enrollment and graduation rates are also important to help ensure a fair postsecondary schooling process. For instance, Oliveri, Mislevy, and Elliot (2020) discuss the challenges to remedial-course enrollment and graduation rates in the United States, pointing out that students from diverse ethnic groups often have significantly lower graduation rates from both 2- and 4-year institutions and higher remedial-course enrollment rates than their White counterparts. The authors suggest alternatives to traditional remedial-course enrollment practices to bring an enriched understanding of the obstacles leading to lower graduation rates and ways to overcome the obstacles – for example, the use of more innovative assessment practices (e.g., assessment for learning, and supplementing the use of cognitive assessments with the assessment of noncognitive skills).
Expanded Skillset. Central to fairness is to view college attendance and graduation as vehicles to support lifelong learning, preparation for more advanced studies such as attending graduate education, and equipping students with the skills needed for the workplace (Oliveri et al., 2020). To address those goals, colleges aim to continuously update their curriculum and align the skills taught and assessed with an evolving society and workplace. Consequently, given increasing changes in automation and the nature of work, attention to an expanding skillset is necessary to better prepare students for success at work and in life. This includes not only focusing on cognitive and academic skills but also learning noncognitive (e.g., communication and collaboration) skills. Harackiewic, Canning, Tibbetts, Priniski, & Hyde (2016) argue for a focus of self-efficacy to examine the independent and interactive effects of socioethnic background and social class when evaluating interventions to close science, technology, and engineering, and mathematics achievement gaps.
In summary, as long as a top priority for many countries is to retain a well-educated population, ensuring fairness in higher education admissions and beyond will remain important. The current pandemic is calling into question the practices and criteria used to make admissions decisions and the role of higher education itself. Students may be unable to take the tests required for admissions or to secure faculty recommendations in a virtual setting. Institutions are finding that online learning is not always viable, with many of the students they serve having limited access to the internet. Many low-income or unemployed students and their families can no longer pay tuition or fees. Overall, the pandemic is highlighting differences in secondary educational opportunities for many populations of students across the globe. Along with continuing historical factors, COVID-19 is emphasizing the need for new frameworks that conceptualize the role of fairness in higher education and, in particular, the process used to determine who has access to college. In closing, it is essential that the various factors and contexts influencing admissions decisions be considered in a more comprehensive and fashion. Leveraging lessons learned from around the world may also serve to help college admissions in this country rethink, reshape, and remain a fair process for all students.
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