Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Admissions timing

Next week the college will find out the exam results of all those students who have 'conditional offers' to come as undergraduates in October. Some will not quite get the required examination grades and will miss out. The college therefore has to make slightly more offers than it wants places filled. All in all, there is a degree of uncertainty about the process that might better be removed.

There is another problem with making admissions offers before examination grades: some people will do better than they or their school expected. They might not have applied to universities with generally higher conditional offer grades but then discover too late that they might have had a shot. In a new report, the Sutton Trust makes a compelling argument that maintained school students are more likely than independent school students to fall into this category and not have applied to a course they turn out to have good enough grades for. (You can read the full report here as a pdf file.)

Of course, things are a little more complicated, mostly because getting the right grades is not a sufficient condition for entry. But even so there is clearly an important point here based on confidence. You have to be in it to win it... Some pupils, perhaps encouraged by home and school, will take a punt on a course even if they are not sure that their grades will be good enough. Others will be discouraged. And on the present system you have to apply before you know your final grades.

The Sutton Trust suggests that the timetable might be altered so as to make applications based on final grades, that is to say that university applications might be delayed until after the final school exam results. I can imagine admissions tutors turning purple at the thought of trying to arrange everything between mid-August and early October even if they might know immediately how many people are going to turn up on day one. So perhaps the university term has to be delayed, say until January. Not sure about that: what can we find for all these eighteen-year-olds to do between August and January?

Maybe. The chairman of the Sutton Trust summarises the report as follows:
This research shows that even with the right grades in the right A-level subjects, thousands of state school students each year do not apply to the most academically selective degree courses. [1]

The timing issue is just one possibility. Another possibility, which the Sutton Trust also points out, is to tackle to confidence problem head on. Indeed, I like to think that much of the university's admissions and outreach programmes are designed to do just that. If in doubt and if the course offered is the course you want, then make the application. More people are getting 3 As than before [2], after all, and if the potential reward is big enough then give it a go. But this is also not just a problem for the universities to solve. Schools too ought to bear some of the burden of encouraging their students to apply to the best universities whatever the timetable for applications.

[1] The report, p. 21, gives the appropriately more nuanced: 'The evidence suggests that low application rates are a considerable factor in the relatively low entry into selective research universities from state maintained schools and from FE colleges. This research is not able to identify why application rates are lower: whether decisions not to apply to such institutions are due to poor advice and information or low aspirations, or whether they are simply the result of well-informed choices to apply elsewhere in the Higher Education sector. To determine this would require a study of young people’s decision making around choice of HE study.'

[2] Yes, I know Cambridge is going to move to a A*AA offer from next year. No one really knows what effect that will have so we'll have to just wait and see...

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