For years now, the University of B.C. has been one of the toughest post-secondary institutions in the country in which to gain admittance.
Typically, student hopefuls have had to have grade point averages in the low 90s for science and engineering and the mid-to-high 80s for everything else. For the most part, the school has treated its high academic threshold as a badge of honour.
But a strict meritocratic entry system can have its drawbacks, as the school has discovered. As undergraduate admission standards have shot ever further skyward, the student body has been something of an intellectual – and some would say cultural – monolith.
Yes, the students are unquestionably bright, but many are nerdy, high achievers consumed with one thing: marks. Consequently, the student body has become increasingly uni-dimensional, dominated by brainiacs void of any curiosity about all that university life can be.
So starting next fall, UBC will convert to a broad-based admissions system, one in which marks will still be important but a prospective undergrad's back story will be considered as well. The school is hoping it will end up attracting more well-rounded applicants, ones whose marks may not be off the charts but who possess other attributes that portend important qualities such as leadership.
UBC will be the first major university in Canada to incorporate non-academic criteria fully into its application process.
"We've known for years that high-school GPAs are a powerful predictor and will continue to be," explains James Ridge, UBC's associate vice-president and registrar. "But I think the overall concern is that we were looking at such a narrow aspect of who that student is, how they performed in four or five courses.
"We were increasingly realizing we were missing elements of that student's experience and accomplishments. Even the challenges they face can be powerful predictors of the future roles they may fill."
Besides submitting their grades, students applying for 2012-13 admittance to UBC are filling out a five-question survey that, among other things, asks them to share personal experiences that have shaped their lives. (UBC refused to provide the questions to me.)
A student who may have grades in the 70s but who has been helping a single mother raise two other siblings by working odd jobs might now be accepted to the school where they would not have in the past when only their GPA mattered.
"That kind of story puts their academic accomplishments in a hugely important context," Mr. Ridge says. "It tells us about their commitment, time-management skills, perseverance, important information that we had no way of collecting, let alone evaluating, before."
He says how much weight the school gives the questionnaires will likely vary by faculty. Science and engineering will likely still place more significance on marks – maybe 60-40. With the rest, it could balance out at about 50-50.
UBC's Sauder School of Business has been using a broad-based admissions system since 2004, after receiving complaints from the business community that their graduates often lacked vital leadership and interpersonal skills. Since they changed their admissions policy, those complaints have dropped off dramatically. Meantime, it's helped attract students who want to get involved in extra-curricular activities, such as student government.
One thing the university insists is not afoot here is any attempt to change its cultural demographic. More than 40 per cent of the student body is of Asian descent, a fact that has created much discussion and unquestionably some resentment in the greater community.
Many believe Asian students are largely responsible for driving up the GPA admission bar at UBC. Their strong presence on campus has also helped perpetuate what many insist is a false stereotype – that Asian students (and their parents) are focused on success and grades to the exclusion of everything else.
"I couldn't say more forcefully that this is not what this change is about," Mr. Ridge says. "It's inconceivable to me that a university would use its admissions instruments to gerrymander their demographics or the ethnicity of their student population."
Still, he says the school will be watching to see whether the new policy has any "adverse demographic effects or unintended consequences" on the makeup of the undergrad population.
We won't know for a few years what impact the new policy has had. Still, the move seems progressive and one that will lead to a much richer and diverse student body.
In the end that can only be a good thing.