Increasing Socioeconomic Diversity among UTS Students

by Maria Murray, Donna Oh & Julienne Ching

 

A. OVERVIEW

The overall research question: How do institutionalized forces including merit produce the ideal UTS student?

Our group’s research question: How does the concept of merit stream applicants and limit the socioeconomic diversity of students?

B. PROJECT RATIONALE AND RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

As UTS students, we recognize the importance of having a variety and range of perspectives represented and heard within our school community. We believe that students from all walks of life have something meaningful and important to contribute to our marketplace of ideas; and so, when one portion of the population is underrepresented, a significant part of the picture is missing.  

While analyzing data on the location and demographics of UTS applicants over the course of 2012 to 2015, a disturbing trend became apparent: while UTS received a plethora of applications from many of the more affluent neighbourhoods in the GTA, the school received a distinct lack of applications from many lower-income neighbourhoods. In fact, as a student’s income level decreased, so did their likelihood of applying to UTS. This trend significantly decreases the socioeconomic diversity among members of our school community, contributing to increased homogeneity among our student body and highlighting systemic flaws in our ‘merit-based’ admissions.

Our goal was to research socioeconomic diversity among UTS applicants and which points in the admissions process filter applicants, contributing to trends we’ve observed in the student body. We hope to find reasons behind these trends and propose solutions accordingly to increase the socioeconomic diversity of our school community.

C. LITERATURE REVIEW

Our study matters because it looks at not one but multiple points throughout the application process (before, during and after) at which a prospective UTS student or their family might be discouraged from applying.  This ranges from talking about the outreach process at UTS (advertising + communications, and the lack thereof) to the effect of expensive prep courses and social capital on the application and interview, and the environment of the school and how it might encourage/discourage different types of students from applying.

D. THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

Meritocracy: At UTS, we pride ourselves on having ‘merit-based’ admissions, which are supposed to promote meritocratic values and encourage meritocracy. However, when we do this, we ignore the fact that our idea of merit in intrinsically linked to the financial resources and social capital of the individual in question. Through our project, we hope to examine the relationship between the way merit is measured through admissions and socioeconomic diversity at UTS, and analyze the way socially-constructed advantages are linked to UTS’ perception of a potential student’s merit. Using this principle, we also intend to propose ways to increase and enrich socioeconomic diversity at UTS, for example by instating differential measurements for people from different socioeconomic contexts.

Hidden Gold:  The concept of hidden gold is one that we discovered along the way in our research, we noticed that the phrase was part of the language UTS staff used in our interviews.  Essentially it refers to students that the school wants to admit.  These ‘hidden gold’ students exemplify the scholarship that UTS is looking for, but do not apply for various reasons.  Our group identified that the problem with this concept was that, while it does a good job of identifying that a meritocracy isn’t achieved when some students have an advantage over others in the application process (it addresses the fact that some students don’t hear about the school due to being in different networks, and that equally intelligent students might fare differently on standardized tests) it creates a deficit model of students, and the ‘mining’ analogy highlights one of the problems that the school might be having with increasing diversity in the applicant pool: unlike a miner looking for gold, the school cannot gain applicants simply by reaching out to them, they also have to ensure that the school environment is welcoming to students.

E. RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS

Stage 1 - Interviews and calls:  We conducted semi-structured interviews with three members of the UTS community whose roles are related to the admissions process and a call with someone outside of the community who had a specific experience with it.  We found this to be an effective way of collecting data, because it enabled us to get a sense of what forces were affecting the admissions process through analysis.

Stage 2 - Documents and research: In our search for more data, we requested that participants supply us with any relevant documents (without having any precise idea of what might be available).  The school does not directly ask applicants about socioeconomic status, but we were fortunate to have been provided with some documents showing where, geographically, applicants come from.  We also received a spreadsheet containing  the results of an interview question, asked to all students who had done well enough on the SSAT to be invited for an interview.  The question was about how much SSAT preparation the students had completed.  Both documents answered some questions we had about the socioeconomic diversity in the applicant pool.

F. PARTICIPANTS AND ETHICAL CONSENT

The pool of participants was comprised of Ms Evans (the head of school), Mr Chalmers (the head of admissions), and Mr Fullan (a teacher and head of outreach project). They were recruited via email.

G. FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION

One of our findings is embedded in the second theoretical concept Part D outlines, that of the Hidden Gold concept and what it reveals about the dialogue surrounding the application process: it fails to consider whether or not prospective students want to attend, and focuses only on whether or not the school wants the students to attend.  Also, the types of intelligence that qualify a student as ‘golden’ in this sense are still limited.

By extension, we found some factors that contribute to why students do not want to attend, even if they otherwise could have excelled in the school environment.  These are the elitist reputation of the school, the competitive environment, and the limited racial diversity, the intimidating application process, and the notion of what it takes for students to be ‘successful’ once they are admitted.

H. ACTION AND KNOWLEDGE SHARING

The actions we wanted to take were to examine other admissions processes, and address the exclusive and hypercompetitive UTS environment.  We want our actions to lead to the school creating more support systems for struggling students and continue with their outreach initiative and financial aid system.  By bringing this to the attention of staff, we hope they will understand the issues we have with the current system and take our recommendations seriously.

Our presentation is a slideshow containing our research question, an overview of how we collected data, and our findings about the admissions system divided into its three stages.  In terms of what happened, the response was positive from the staff members we worked with.  We are optimistic that they took our findings to heart.

I. CONFLICTS, CHALLENGES, GAPS, QUESTIONS, AND FUTURE OPPORTUNITIES

When our research of the admissions system began, one of the things that we looked at as a potential goal was finding the perfect system; one in which applicants would not be subject to inequities.  As we continued on, we shifted our focus towards addressing the challenges that UTS is having with its system, and our solution did not deal as much with the admissions process itself as we had initially thought.  Therefore, looking forward, more research could be done on creating a more equitable alternative to the standard admissions system.

J. Selected References

Bruni, F. (2016). Hidden Gold in College Applications. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/06/opinion/sunday/hidden-gold-in-college-applications.html?_r=1