Letter: Broad-based admission process furthers the divide of economic inequality

A degree from a good university is important. But who is most likely to get into a good university? In 2012, UBC included an admission process that doesn’t just look at grades, but also a personal statement where potential students can share that time when they travelled the world or maybe share what they’ve learned in a Shakespearean play in grade 9. Is this a new way to give more opportunity to students who otherwise wouldn’t stand a chance in getting into the “Harvard” university of Western Canada? 

I dedicated my research to investigating this new admission process that is meant to diversify the UBC student population or at the very least, “level out the playing field.” I draw on interviews with students of different social classes to examine if this new admission process is helping students from less privileged backgrounds. 

Here’s what I’ve learned: Middle-and-upper-class participants wrote extensively on extracurricular achievements, while working-class students focused on how they were able to triumph over social adversities and disadvantages. Working-class students are also less likely to participate in extracurricular and non-academic activities due to a lack of financial and social resources. Ultimately, well-branded and selective universities such as UBC can try to create an image of diversity with a fair admission process. But when given a closer look, students who effortlessly go through the admission process are still kids from rich families with highly educated parents.  

I still hold bitterness when I hear that my peers have parents who helped with their admission process. My parents struggle with ordering food in English at a local fast-food joint and spending money on any extracurricular activities was tough. While my parents worked double shifts every single day, the television was my main extracurricular activity after high school. 

But UBC doesn’t really care about that time Ross cheated on Rachel. I still got good grades because that’s all my parents told me I needed to do. They weren’t aware that skating, travelling the world, volunteering or learning another language was another requirement now to get into the good university of Canada. 

The admission process has become so accepted that when students receive rejection letters, they simply accept that they’re not smart enough. But family background and having lots of money are still important factors to consider if we want to know what kind of students universities want on their campus. 

If UBC is raising tuition every year and students are left with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, the admission process is weeding out poor kids who can’t study 18 hours while working a part-time job just to buy that $400 textbook. Even when poor kids are getting into university, a majority of the time they don’t gain the valuable networking experience because they’re stressing about money all the time. 

I argue that the broad-based admissions process reproduces class-based inequality that affects future working-class students’ chances of gaining university admission.

But rather than viewing a working-class background exclusively as a disadvantage, I also show how working-class students draw on their adversity, work ethics and family responsibility to construct unique personal statements that focus on strong work ethic, maturity and responsibility to overcome educational inequality. 

I still got into one of the best MA and PhD programs in Canada, but I don’t wish upon my worst enemy the time and effort I had to sacrifice in order to get into a good university. Social life? Non-existent. Mental health? It’s getting better — the sixth nervous breakdown really forced me to not work those 18-hour shifts. Confidence? Well, English is confusing and I’m still learning how to recognize bad grammar. Although professors have shrugged their shoulders and pulled the “hard work equals success” myth in front of me, I’m in the position now to understand that this is completely nonsensical. This is not what inclusivity and equity look like. 

Emily Truong-Cheung is a PhD student at the UBC researching inequality in higher education.