The Controversy Behind College Admissions

Although going to university doesn’t guarantee a successful career or a giant leap towards greater opportunities, it is at least a potential path which can help economically disadvantaged groups move up the income spectrum. 

Higher education plays a key role in helping individuals climb the social ladder and also reduces intergenerational inequality across society. The opportunity for upward mobility has proven to be crucial for personal well-being, social harmony, and social stability. Research has also demonstrated that intergenerational mobility is higher among individuals with a college degree than those with lower levels of educational qualifications.

Entering into tertiary education has often been considered as the first step for low-income students to improve their upward mobility. Although going to university doesn’t guarantee a successful career or a giant leap towards greater opportunities, it is at least a potential path which can help economically disadvantaged groups move up the income spectrum.

Graduate students attend the Columbia University Commencement ceremony in New York, the United States, May 22, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

Compared with higher-income families, students from poor and minority backgrounds are usually less well-prepared to apply for college admission. Reducing the barriers to accessing higher education for students from underprivileged families is crucial to narrowing the gap in society. Therefore, equality in admissions is vital to enhancing social mobility by providing educational opportunities to students from different backgrounds.

Most people thus expect universities to promote equal opportunities for anyone with the capability and motivation to succeed. In response, many tertiary institutions offer scholarships and different types of financial aid for economically disadvantaged students to pay the hefty college fees. This gives talented students the time and resources to study despite their family background or financial circumstances.

On the other hand, to tackle ethnic inequalities in college education in the United States, affirmative action admissions policies, a somewhat controversial method for expanding educational opportunities, are applied to students who are from ethnic or racial minority groups. The use of affirmative action in college admissions aims to help ensure greater diversity, in which special consideration is given to women, racial minorities, and members of other historically excluded groups.

It has been found that minority students have benefited the most from the policy after earning a professional degree, which in turn generates higher income in the long-run. However, “reverse discrimination” may occur as some students are disproportionately rejected in the admission process. Last year, some Asian-American students filed a lawsuit against Harvard University, which alleged the school had used a higher admission standard for Asian-American applicants than students of other races by an “illegal racial quota system.” Although Harvard denied its practices are discriminatory, the case has fueled debate over the policy that traditionally benefits African-American and Latino students.

While ensuring equality in admission for ethnic minority groups in the West, gender inequality might be one of the biggest issues facing higher education in Asia today. Take Japan as an example. Women in Japan are traditionally seen by some institutions as more likely than men to abandon their career once they have children. A government investigation in 2018 found that at least ten medical schools in the country manipulated admission scores of female students, in a bid to ensure that more men became qualified doctors.

According to official findings, Tokyo Medical University was the first college that began altering test scores to exclude female entrants in 2010 or even earlier. Female doctors make up a smaller share of the profession in Japan than in many other countries. Less than a quarter of the country’s doctors were women in 2016, according to data by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. This was much lower than the average of 46% in 2015 among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Women constituted over 70% of doctors in Latvia and Estonia, while the ratio in U.K., Germany and other European countries was greater than 40%. Before the discriminatory test practice was allegedly introduced in Japan, the female student participation in medicine was about 40% in 2010.

Nobody should be treated differently because of their race, gender or socio-economic class. Addressing equality in college admission is essential to promoting equal opportunities and fairness in times of growing economic inequality. An inclusive higher education system, in which every applicant is treated equally without discrimination, ensures fair access to students from historically marginalized backgrounds. This can ultimately narrow the income gap in society as it affects opportunities and outcomes of an individual, which can potentially improve socio-economic mobility in subsequent generations.

Despite the recent controversies on the methods adopted in admitting students to higher education, the governments and universities should continue to play an active role to review them and ensure a broader access policy to help under-represented students from minority backgrounds and underprivileged communities to improve their overall social mobility. Social inclusion policies should be encouraged in colleges to recruit talented students from historically excluded groups, including women and racial minorities.


Mathew Wong is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the Education University of Hong Kong.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of China Focus.