The Channeling of Student Competition in Higher Education: Comparing Canada and the U.S
Davies, Scott, Hammack, Floyd M., Journal of Higher Education
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. Whereas students in the U.S. compete for access to elite colleges, students in Canada compete for elite majors. Where one studies is seen as more important in the U.S., while what one studies dominates in Canada. Second, we trace the source of these different forms of competition. Despite sharing many historical, economic, and cultural characteristics, these two nations have dissimilar postsecondary structures. The dissimilar ways in which these higher education systems are internally stratified serves to channel the new forms of student competition differently, which has the effect of reinforcing the pre-existing American hierarchy while perhaps triggering some change in the Canadian system.
As we elaborate below, these two countries offer a strategic contrast. The rationale for a sociological tradition of comparing them is that their remarkable similarities make it possible to isolate those factors responsible for any observed differences (e.g., Lipset, 1990; Skolnick, 1990). For instance, Canada and the United States are similar on a number of dimensions that scholars use to compare national school systems (e.g., Brint, 1998). Both nations have high school systems characterized by relatively late and mild tracking or streaming. In both, the majority of high school and postsecondary students enroll in nonvocational education, thus promoting an "opportunity consciousness" of relatively high aspirations among youth. Both have very high postsecondary enrollments compared to other nations. They have similar economies, occupational structures, and demographics. Further, they share a number of factors that have historically fueled postsecondary expansion. Thus, comparing these two countries allows us largely to isolate a key variable: the structure of their postsecondary systems. (2) In the next section, we outline some features of education that these nations share and then examine the ways in which their systems diverge.
The Context of Competition: Common Structures
American and Canadian higher education share some structural features that similarly shape student competition. First, demand is high for postsecondary education in both Canada and the U.S., and this is partly because both systems are relatively decentralized (Rubinson & Hurst, 1997). In other world regions such as Continental Europe and Asia, many countries have national education ministries that formally limit the number of available higher education slots. In contrast, neither the U.S. nor Canada has a federal authority over education or national universities to rigidly define what a university education should be. There is no federal "Canadian" or "American" system, but rather a series of unique provincial/state structures and policies (Jones, 1997). As a result, no central body can buffer local, state, or provincial education from political forces. Seeking electoral support, politicians in Canada and the U.S. have long courted the citizenry with promises of continued expansion of educational opportunities.
What further keeps the supply and demand for credentials buoyant in North America is the relatively loose connection between schooling and the economy (Rubinson & Hurst, 1997). Unlike some European continental systems whose graduates have institutionalized pathways to enter government service and the professions, most North Americans graduate into the mass labor market. Without such formal paths, connections between education credentials and access to most occupations are relatively weak. …
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Publication information: Article title: The Channeling of Student Competition in Higher Education: Comparing Canada and the U.S. Contributors: Davies, Scott - Author, Hammack, Floyd M. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Higher Education. Volume: 76. Issue: 1 Publication date: January-February 2005. Page number: 89+. © 1999 Ohio State University Press. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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