The Conditions for Admissions: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities

By Kwong, Jolina | College and University, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Conditions for Admissions: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities


Kwong, Jolina, College and University


The Conditions for Admissions: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities JOHN AUBREY DOUGLASS STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2007; 332 PR; $24.95

Reviewed by Jolina Kwong

As higher education becomes more market driven, the concept of education as a public good is beginning to fade. The widely accepted notion of viewing students as consumers rather than as contributing citizens of a democratic society should prompt university administrators, academic leaders, and the general public to reconsider the role of public institutions and their place in society.

John Aubrey Douglass, a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, addresses this issue as well as many other important aspects of higher education admissions policies and administrative practices in The Conditions for Admission: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities. Like Douglass's previous contributions to the literature of higher education, to include The California Idea and American Higher Education as well as articles on access and equity and the evolving role of universities in national economic and science policies, The Conditions for Admission will be beneficial to academic leaders, lawmakers, and the general public.

The book is grounded in a historical study of the admissions policies and practices of public universities in the United States. Its intelligent narrative and vivid examples expand the reader's understanding of the various dynamics of college access and admissions by putting such practices into the context of our nation's history. By helping higher education leaders understand the past, this book helps them better anticipate the future of admissions policies and university practices.

According to Douglass, public universities at their founding devised a social contract that included the profoundly progressive idea that any citizen who met a prescribed set of largely academic conditions would gain entrance to the state university. This was in sharp contrast to most private institutions, which, throughout most of their history, used sectarian and racial and sometimes social and economic criteria to exclude groups (p.6).

Douglass explains that over time, states and academic leaders collectively developed five core and interrelated responsibilities that help define and give meaning to the social contract of public universities. Each influenced the admissions practices of public universities; emerged in one form or another by the early twentieth century; and underwent marginal forms of redefinition. Douglass sets forth the following five core responsibilities:

* Public universities have been duty bound to primarily serve the constituents of the states that have chartered, funded, and regulated their establishment and development.

* Public universities have a responsibility to operate as components and partners of a much larger public education system.

* Public universities must encourage participation in higher education by setting clear admissions criteria that, if met, offer access to any citizen regardless (in theory) of socioeconomic background.

* Public universities must provide academic and professional programs relevant to individuals and society.

* Public universities must grow in some form in their enrollment capacity and academic programs as the population of a state grows and changes (pp.8-9).

Examination of these five core responsibilities hints at the underlying purpose of public universities and their social contract, which, as Douglass states, was to "benefit the individual not as a goal unto themselves, but as a means to shape a more progressive and productive society" (pp. 7-8). However, Douglas also reminds us that an equally important factor for understanding the distinct social contract of America's public universities is the political and economic environment that continually shapes it. …

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