The Channeling of Student Competition in Higher Education: Comparing Canada and the U.S

Article excerpt

Introduction: The New Competitiveness in North American Higher Education


The past decade has witnessed a sea change in ideologies about higher education in North America and in many countries beyond. Canadians and Americans increasingly believe that an emerging "knowledge economy" is demanding skills than can be acquired only with a post secondary education. In the United States, a "college for all" ethos has emerged (Rosenbaum, 2001), while Canada is witnessing a revolution of educational expectations (Davies, in press). Observers now predict an imminent evolution from "mass" to "universal" postsecondary systems (Kerr, 2002). Such predictions are supported by enrolment trends. Over 63% of American high school graduates now pursue postsecondary education, split almost evenly between community colleges and 4-year colleges and universities (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2002, p. 220). Similarly, over 60% of Canadian high school graduates now attend postsecondary institutions (Butlin, 1999). In both countries, applications for undergraduate admission have reached record numbers, and enrollments are projected to rise further (Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada [AUCC], 2002; Butlin, 1999; College Board, 2001; NCES, 2002, pp. 200, 201, 205, 207).

This evolution towards a universal postsecondary system has altered the nature of student competition. As colleges and universities face unprecedented numbers of applicants, entry into the more prestigious segments of higher education is becoming increasingly difficult. Though struggles to enter top schools are hardly new, today this competition has become increasingly keen, as indicated by several trends.

In the United States, a number of indicators suggest that admissions standards have increased. For instance, more institutions are now classified as "selective" than was the case in 1979 (College Board, 2000). Average SAT scores needed to enter top American colleges and universities have risen steadily in the past decade (Bowen & Bok, 1998; Geiger, 2002). A smaller but more detailed study of 16 liberal arts colleges found that they became increasingly stratified by SAT scores between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s. Schools that were already highly selective became increasingly selective, while the less discriminating expanded their enrollments (Breland, Maxey, Gernand, Cumming, & Trapani, 2000; Duffy & Goldberg, 1998). (1) National data show that top-ranked American students are increasingly concentrating themselves in prestigious colleges and universities (Frank & Cook, 1995; Geiger, 2002). Many administrators claim that top students are competing against one another on a larger, national scale and are being sought by selective institutions from all regions, solidifying a national market for upper-level students and colleges (Bronner, 1999; Immerwahr, 2002; Winston, 1999). In Canada, required high school grades, the prime currency for entrance into Canadian universities, have steadily risen over the past decade, particularly in fields like engineering. Canadian universities are boosting their entrance standards and tuition fees, gaining repute not only by admitting top students but also by rejecting large numbers of qualified students (Lindgren, 2003).

These examples suggest that competition has intensified among students for advantageous spots in North American higher education. As more youth enter the postsecondary system, the competition for desired spots within the system has grown more intense. Given this, our task in this article is twofold. First, we compare how this competition occurs in Canada versus the United States, focusing on undergraduates, who comprise the vast bulk of students. To attain the most valued credentials, students and parents are adopting a variety of competitive strategies. While Canadian and American students are experiencing very similar pressures and are enrolling in higher education at similar rates, their responses to the new competition differ. …