A decade ago, Janice Aurini interviewed 41 upper-middle-class parents in Canada and asked whether they had a preference for where their children earned a university degree. One woman named Grace said her child wanted to go to medical school, but she didn’t care where because it’s not as if the patients would care. Grace elaborated, “I don’t know anybody who goes to the doctor’s office and looks at what school they graduated from and what marks they got, right?”
Another mother called Lily told Aurini that her oldest son went to the University of Toronto, but not because it’s often labelled one of the best universities in the world. Lily was more excited that he was able to live at their Toronto home for the first three years “so that we could feed him and what have you, and didn’t amount a lot of debt.”
“She didn’t even mention the ranking,” said Aurini, a sociology professor at Ontario’s University of Waterloo and the author of an upcoming study on steps that parents take to prepare their children for college.
Alex Usher, the president of the consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, received the same kind of responses when he did a similar survey of Canadian parents a couple of years ago. Usher lost track of how many times parents said something to the effect of “let ’em go to the local school, they’re all kinda good.”
“The basic assumption was there weren’t huge gaps in quality,” Usher told HuffPost. “Everybody knows the university down the street is not necessarily the best in the country, but it’s good, it does its job.”
This attitude runs counter to the common belief among upper-class parents in the U.S. that the pathway to the top isn’t through a good school ― it’s through the best school. But students north of the border enjoy the same — or better — economic opportunities after college graduation as those in the U.S., without the cut-throat competition to score a place at the most elite campuses.
“The quality and social return between the sort of least prestigious university and the most prestigious university is much smaller in Canada,” Brendan Cantwell, a Michigan State University professor of educational policy, told HuffPost. Whereas in the U.S., he added, attendance at elite universities provides access to many of the top jobs, so the emphasis is on getting in.
This brutal competition for entrance to top colleges has long been a feature of the U.S. education system with wealthy parents using their privilege to secure places for their children. Many pour money into their kids’ educations from a young age, hiring admissions prep counsellors and making big-dollar donations just to get their offspring into elite preschools that are seen as early-stage pipelines for the Ivy League.
The recent U.S. college admissions scandal has thrown the ability of the richest to game the system into even sharper relief. Dozens of wealthy parents, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were indicted in March for allegedly taking part in an illegal scheme to scam their kids’ way into top-tier schools such as Yale and Stanford through bribes, fake athletics scholarships and test cheating. The illegal activity exploited weak points in the admissions process at the most elite universities in the U.S.
But in Canada, a different system plays out.
The country’s higher education system comprises mostly public universities that use a far more streamlined admissions process, and students don’t receive an admission boost because they’re good at tennis or their parents are alumni. “It’s not the same game [in Canada],” said Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford in the U.K. “There’s certainly less scamming ― in fact, there may not be much at all. Donations don’t get you into the University of Toronto, and certainly, backdoor routes like sports and so on are not very important.”
Canadian universities largely admit students based on their transcripts and grade point averages. If your grades at a Canadian high school pass the bar set by the university, then you’re in, without any need for letters of recommendation or essays at most schools. There is no Canadian equivalent of the SAT and ACT.
“What’s really different about our system versus the American system is that there is almost a uniformity of post-secondary experience,” said Fiona Deller, the director of research and policy at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, an independent advisory agency.
“Our process is — I believe for many reasons ― not perfect, but it’s very simple,” Deller told HuffPost. “It’s just, you know, grade point average, and that’s kind of it.”
And while elite U.S. universities try to enhance their prestige by boasting of single-digit acceptance rates, the top Canadian schools end up letting in many more applicants while maintaining their elite status. The University of Toronto and McGill University, arguably Canada’s top two universities, are ranked higher than most colleges in the U.S., including a couple of Ivy League schools. They’re also huge: Toronto and McGill combined educate about as many students as the entire Ivy League.
The University of Toronto, rated one of the 25 best institutions of higher education in the world, has around 71,000 undergraduate students and an acceptance rate of 69 percent.
Higher education is also cheaper in Canada. The average annual undergraduate tuition is $6,838 (the equivalent of about $5,068 in the U.S.), compared to $9,700 for state public colleges in the U.S. and around $35,000 for private colleges.
Level playing field
These may be a few of the reasons why Canada ranks at the top for the largest percentage of adults with some form of a college degree, ahead of the U.S., the U.K., Israel, Germany and Australia, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The size of Canada’s top schools helps make the search for employment after graduation more of a level playing field. With exclusivity downplayed, there is not such a premium on hiring grads from certain schools.
“Employers don’t see nearly as big of a differencebetween institutions. The name brand from one institution or another seems to matter less,” said Scott Davies, a Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto.
This contrasts with the U.S., where research has shown that employers at the most prestigious firms in law and finance tend to only consider applicants from a handful of top-tier campuses. A 2011 research paper found that employers placed a premium on the prestige associated with specific universities rather than how students actually performed while they were there.
When fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, the husband of Lori Loughlin, first started working with William Singer, the man at the centre of the alleged admissions scam, Giannulli said in an email that he wanted help getting one daughter into “a school other than ASU” — suggesting that Arizona State University wouldn’t be acceptable. Both of his daughters got into the University of Southern California, a private school with a record low acceptance rate of 11 per cent for the 2019 admissions year.
If you already come from a middle- or upper-class family, the main benefit of this exclusivity is a school’s alumni network and the assistance it provides graduates in obtaining the most prestigious jobs.
“The more exclusive that the place is, the tighter those networks are,” said Cantwell, the MSU professor. “The social nature of higher education in the United States is probably not as widely discussed as it should be. Some aspects of higher education are much more like nightclubs, where what matters is who you let in and who you don’t.”
Elite universities in the U.S. that boast of how few applicants they accept have been on the defensive for years over whom they admit. Harvard argued last year in court that it’s a good thing to give preferential treatment to the well-connected and rich because that ultimately leads to more donations that the school can use to offer scholarships to less privileged students.
Top-tier U.S. universities have been hesitant to grow their undergraduate enrolment even though their large endowments give them a lot of financial flexibility. Those who do so proceed at a modest clip: Princeton is adding around 125 students per class, while Yale is in the midst of expanding its undergraduate enrolment by 15 per cent. Harvard has set fundraising records in recent years but hasn’t announced plans to add more undergraduates.
Canadian public universities are incentivized to accept more people because they receive funds for each student enrolled. By contrast, U.S. public colleges are restricted in their expansion because they are typically funded by state legislatures with a lump sum that is appropriated each year. But private colleges in the U.S. — especially in the top tier — could expand if they wanted. Instead, they choose the allure of exclusivity.
“If we were really interested in just merit and efficiency, places could just get bigger ― and in some ways, they have an economic incentive to get bigger and collect more tuition,” Cantwell said. “But their social standing rests on the ability to exclude people. I don’t know of any easy policy remedies. Shifting the culture is a lot of work.”
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