A fundamental principle of a liberal education is its status as “the great equalizer.” It’s meant to serve as a vehicle for talented individuals to reach their potential, no matter their financial background. It’s a justification for education’s status as a human right. It’s also why The Universal Declaration on Human Rights asserts that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”
To this end, virtually all Canadian universities offer merit scholarships to help poorer students invest in their futures. However, this vision of equal opportunity is threatened by a recent trend in scholarship applications—emphasis on extracurricular activities. “Broad-based” application processes are sold as a progressive practice, allowing capable students whose strengths aren’t measured in a grade point average to compete with their more traditionally academic peers. But, there are unintended, regressive consequences to this development: Namely, it disadvantages students from lower-class backgrounds when competing for the scholarships they need most.
According to a 2015 survey of university admissions teams by gap-year provider World Challenge, extracurricular activities—like volunteering, athletics, and the ever-nebulous trait of “leadership experience”—have grown in importance for admissions decisions over the last 10 years. The trend also applies to scholarship applications: For example, the McGill Major Entrance Scholarship application recommends listing service, athletic, and artistic activities.
While these non-academic experiences are valuable for students, the reality is that most model scholarship students are not self-made. Taking on extensive extracurricular activities often requires family support—logistically and financially. Athletics are particularly expensive: The cost of equipment, lessons, travel, and miscellaneous expenses can run into the thousands. Even less expensive activities, such as volunteering, take parental investment in the form of car rides, help finding opportunities, and above all, encouraging these activities from a young age. Without this parental involvement, students are left with the difficult task of organizing themselves. Some students may even need to balance school with working to support their families, leaving little time for unpaid community work or extracurriculars. It’s no surprise then that participation in extracurricular activities is split along class lines. Children from families wealthy in time and money have an inherent advantage in competing for scholarships, but the truth is, these are the people who need them the least.
In order to remedy these skewed opportunity structures, schools must de-emphasize consideration of extracurricular involvement in broad-based scholarships, and instead use a combination of high school grades and standardized testing. While some parents and educators argue that standardized tests are biased in favour of the rich, and that they only effectively measure test-taking ability, the data shows otherwise. According to a 2012 study from the University of Minnesota, 21.2 per cent of variance in SAT scores can be linked to socioeconomic status. While this number is significant, and speaks to a need for academic equalization as well, it is worth noting that 78.8 per cent of SAT scores have no correlation with socioeconomic status—which is no small amount. The study also found that SAT scores, especially when considered alongside high school grades, can effectively predict university performance.
It is true that students from low-income families face disproportionate challenges in their academic pursuits, and that the problem is not limited to extracurriculars. Schools in low-income areas may not offer the same resources as their wealthier counterparts. Certain lifestyle pressures, like needing to work to contribute to family expenses, are unique barriers. But merit scholarships aim to help those students who succeed in spite of such barriers. Admittedly, they’re a palliative solution until society finds a way to truly equitize the education system, but the current trend of broad-based scholarships is not helping in this aim.
Completely eliminating the educational advantages that come with wealth is a difficult task, but broad-based scholarship applications do more to disadvantage low-income students than they do to include them. Not using expensive, inaccessible extracurricular activities as measures of merit—or at least, viewing them in the context of a student’s financial background—is a start to making education accessible to all. Increasing need-based financial aid offered by governments and universities is even better. And, while not perfect, the use of standardized testing goes a long way in levelling the playing field. Incorporating them in a thoughtful way would help make sure education remains “the great equalizer.”