CHOOSING THE RIGHT UNIVERSITY AN INSIDER'S GUIDE
ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON
icture this: its a grey October morning on the McGill campus. A resolutely grim sort of day, with rain clouds pouting overhead and a fine drizzle beginning to obscure the view up Mount Royal. A dark day, promising to grow darker. Lets face it: just the sort of day when you might be forgiven for hitting the alarm and rolling over—were you a student, that is. Were you a student, youd make a deal with the devil: sleep now, cram later.
But for the small group of teenagers huddled outside McGill’s Welcome Centre, rolling over was not in the cards. Here they are, standing in the damp: a bashful boy from Toronto, two gumsnapping girls from Chicago and a delicate creature from Connecticut, who bears more than a passing resemblance to actress Winona Ryder and stands a respectable distance from her perky parents and kid brother.
Together, these four 17-year-olds have just one thing in common: they’re all shopping for a university, and McGill has made their shortlist. Together, they listen as Julian Casal, a third-year Latin-American studies major from Argentina, makes his introductions. Jean-jacketed, tousled and undeniably cool, Casal has a passion for his subject, and a thick accent to match. He warms up his audience with a couple of jokes, and then begins to lead them, like ducks, through the campus, answering questions as he goes. “Does McGill have a strong theatre department?” asks the mother from Connecticut. “No,” says Casal. “In fact, I would say we have a terrible theatre department.” The teenagers titter. “My daughter’s a dancer,” the mother continues. “What about dance?” “We have a terrific music department,” offers Casai. “But we’re terrible in dance. Concordia, across town, is much stronger.”
The mother raises a well-plucked eyebrow, and the father nods meaningfully, bobbing his Yankees cap. Their daughter has already looked at Harvard, Yale and Columbia. Still, they’re interested. McGill has a good reputation, and it just might be a good, safe option for their daughter. Besides, she’s strong in the sciences.
The litde group moves on, past the Physical Sciences Library building, where Ernest Rutherford once did his research, long before he was a Nobel laureate. With gusto, Casal leads them into an exquisitely restored lecture theatre. He strides to the front and gestures at a litde jewel of a balcony. The mother is unimpressed. “How big are the classes?” she asks. “In first year, it’s not unusual to have hundreds,” says Casal. “Ouch!” says the mother. “Why didj/cw choose McGill?” “I came,” says Casai, “for the city, for the w large number of international students. And,” he shrugs, “for the I price. This is a terrific university.” The mother whispers to I Winona: “This afternoon, I think we should sit in on a class.” And they will, you can be certain. Maybe Joe Schwarcz’s “Why I Chemistry?” seminar, or a biology class with frog whiz David % Green. Or marine biology with Amanda Vincent, a world expert § on seahorses. But for the moment, as Green and Vincent head I to the basement of the Faculty Club for the Friday special, the family from Connecticut is heading down Sherbrooke Street, ready to digest the morning over lunch.
And so it begins, the shopping for a university. For me, this is the year that the professional became personal: after 10 years of overseeing the Macleans rankings of Canadian universities, I, too, have a son in his last year of high school, ready to make a choice. Which puts him smack-dab in the middle of a huge demographic blip. Two years ago, Canadian universities witnessed their largest one-year jump since 1991, and since then enrolment numbers have continued to rise. In fact, were about to witness the greatest growth in 30 years, as the babies of the baby boom generation— the echo boom—line up at their doors.
Ditto for the United States. Heck, even Tony Sopranos daughter is heading off. Meadow Soprano wanted to go to Berkeley, but Tony insisted on something closer to home: Georgetown, Columbia or NYU. And to help sway things in the right direction, Carmela Soprano asserted her maternal muscle, baking a ricotta pie for one of Georgetown’s well-connected alumni. As she says to Tony in bed: “The sad fact is, having good marks just isn’t enough these days.”
Whether you’re Carmela Soprano or the mother from Connecticut, a parent in Victoria, St. Johns or anywhere in between, university admission has become the new pillow talk, table talk and just-about-anywhere-else talk. The same well-educated parents who lined up to get their sons and daughters into the right nursery school have cottoned on to the fact that there just might not be enough spaces to go around.
Certainly not in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario, the three provinces expecting the largest growth. Ontario, which is about to eliminate the fifth year of high school, will produce a double class of university-bound students in 2003—aka “the double cohort.” Meanwhile, those regions with flat or declining demand are chasing those out-of-province students with all their might, counting on the double cohort to save their bacon. Right now, university access is a hot-button topic across Canada. “When parents ask me if their son or daughter will get into university, I say yes,” says Jo-Anne Brady, registrar at Queen’s in Kingston, Ont. “But will they get into the university of their choice? That’s a hard one.”
And it is. Predicting the echo boom was not rocket science. The wild card is participation: increasingly, students believe they can’t afford not to go to university. As a result, it’s getting tougher to get into the university of choice, the program of choice, the residence of choice—or residence at all. Despite the concerns about cost, about quality, about the sagging economy, enrolment is high, running as much as five times stronger than population growth. “Students are smart,” says Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. “They know the economy will bounce back and be humming by the time they get out of school.” Martin acknowledges that second-year MBAs are nervous, and he empathizes: he graduated from Harvard Business School in 1981, “one of the worst years in the past 50 to have graduated from business school. But this is a great time to be going into school.”
This fall, actual enrolments at Ontario universities were running way ahead of projections. And the same was true across the country: the University of British Columbia accepted its largest first-year intake ever, going up by more than 26 per cent; Dalhousie’s first-year intake was up by almost 20 per cent. But intake tells only a small part of the story. Universities are not about to expand to fill the ever-growing demand—certainly not without massive new funding.
What really tells the tale is the surge in applications. Faced with a more competitive landscape, many students are hedging their bets. Let’s look at McGill. Of the 15,700 applications received for 4,000 first-year places, there was a growth of 29 per cent from Ontario high-school students, 24 per cent from Americans, 16 per cent from the rest of Canada and 13 per cent from overseas. But McGill’s intake in all undergraduate faculties rose less than two per cent. Fewer than one in five applicants to their computer engineering program received an offer. And according to registrar Robin Geller, McGill has no plans to significantly increase the undergraduate class. “No doubt,” she says, “getting in is only going to get tougher.” Actually, many Canadians—students and parents—are playing catch-up with that mother from Connecticut. Coming as she does from a culture that has made a tradition of the college visit, she is wellschooled in doing her homework. To be
fair, her homework was assigned years ago. After all, hers is the land of the SAT, where students will sit and re-sit standardized tests until they get them right, or closer to right. A land where New York City’s Katherine Cohen, an independent college counsellor and founder of Ivy Wise, is currendy charging $43,493 for her “platinum package,” helping high-school students get into their university of choice. This year, Cohen signed on her youngest client ever, a seventh grader.
But for Canadian parents, deep concerns about access, quality and cost are relatively new. Most grew up believing that while their country may not have had the Harvards or Yales, nor did it have the Pineapple U’s. Confident of that fact, most did their undergraduate degrees close to home: over the past 20 years, fewer than nine per cent left their own region. “Canadians will apply, sight unseen,” says Kevin Thornhill, manager of McGill’s Welcome Centre. “But Americans come back two, even three times. First, for checking out the physical layout and course choices. When they have an offer, they’ll come back, and they may even ask about graduate studies. Their primary question is: ‘What do you have here that makes me want to choose McGill?’ ”
What many Canadian students and parents want right now is a primer on university admissions, the first chapter of which would cut straight to the hottest topic: grades. Is Carmela Soprano right? Are good marks no longer enough? Do universities adjust marks from specific high schools? Do registrars have little black books, with lists of their favourites? Bam! Your 76 just became 80?
Let’s take Queen’s, whose first-year students have an average entering grade of 87.5 per cent in this year’s ranking, with 99.8 per cent arriving with 75 per cent or higher. Are good marks enough to get you into Queen’s? Well, that depends on the program. If Meadow Soprano had applied to the elite Queen’s commerce program, Carmela is right: good marks would not have been enough. If she had been one of the 2,667 who applied for one of the 210 spots, she would have needed a strong A average, as well as a stellar supplementary
application, showcasing her extracurricular breadth and depth. With 80 to 85 per cent, she needed blockbuster extracurriculars. A strong B? Forget about it. A bachelor of science in engineering program, going toe-to-toe with 3,579 applicants for 600 spots? With 80 to 85 per cent, and an enviable e-quotient, shed be in.
For the handful of elite programs that require supplementary applications, extracurriculars are key. “We have seen commerce not offer admission to a student who was above the automatic range,” says registrar Brady, “a student who has done nothing but grab a snack after school and head up to their bedroom to do homework.” The same would hold true for any number of programs at Canadian universities. As George Granger, registrar at McMaster, says of his university’s highly competitive bachelor of health sciences, kinesiology, engineering or arts and science programs: “Marks alone can keep you out of the running, but marks alone can’t get you in.”
Still, for most programs, marks alone are all that count: it’s a simple case of supply and demand. Reviewing each and every file, as is done at elite American schools,
demands huge resources. This year, McMaster processed 24,000 applications for 3,700 first-year places. Queen’s processed 22,000 for 2,938 spots.
So, once the marks had been through the computers, what was the cut-off for the first round of admissions in the liberal arts program at Queen’s? Eighty-two per cent. But they might look at extracurricular: Brady is allowed to accept up to 20 per cent of the incoming class using supplementary information. In arts and science, that information is not mandatory, but it is solicited. For entry into arts—not science, she stresses—she and her team looked as far down as those with 78 per cent. “If the student sacrificed a couple of points because they volunteered at a shelter and joined the rowing team, that’s the student we want,” says Brady. “We want good people whom we turn into great people.” Does she have a secret list of high schools, ones she believes turn out better students? “We all have schools that we know are good,” she says. “But good schools change, and they may change faster than we know. Yes, school goes into the mix. At the margins, it matters more.”
Given the pecking order, it’s no wonder that a growing number of smart students have been chasing commerce, engineering and computer science programs. In the past decade, despite the fact that Canada has a huge proportion of undergrads in the arts and sciences, enrolment has plummeted in a number of core disciplines, including history, English, economics, political science, physics and math. Guidance counsellors report an increasing bias against the liberal arts option, with parents seeing it as a second-class choice, without a clear connection to career. Credentialling—aka “hire education”—has become an issue of prime importance, and so has academic pedigree. But Rotman’s Martin is circumspect: “The reason why so many people go into commerce or engineering is because elite students seek signals of elitism. Those programs are demonstrably hard to get into, and that’s a bad reason to choose them. Other things being equal, I’d prefer a student arrive at business school with a liberal arts background, which is the best background to become an integrative thinker.”
If Johnny earns a history degree, will he end up living in the family basement, serving caramel macchiatos for the rest of his life? Of course not. If Johnny wants to earn a history degree, he will have groomed some eminently transferrable skills, to use the lingo of the marketplace—critical thinking being just one. The only thing wrong with a liberal arts degree is how poorly its value has been communicated to the public. Yes, in recent years, numerous groups of CEOs have championed the liberal arts, and that’s helpful. And many academics, most notably Robert Allen at UBC, have done a masterly job of connecting the dots between a liberal arts degree and prosperity. But until parents and students absorb the message, it’s an uphill battle.
Of course, the public has had a bit of a wake-up call on how quickly the job market can shift, beginning last May when iiber-employer Nortel rescinded a number of summer job offers. And since then, the changes—both economic and otherwise— have been profound. It’s hard to tell how the events of Sept. 11, as well as the economic downturn, will affect how parents and students evaluate educational choices.
Perhaps there will be a renewed appreciation of learning for learning’s sake. Perhaps we have all become more alert to the privilege of having options. Few experi-
enees are as rich or transformative as the undergrad years. Seldom does adult life offer such a wealth of opportunity. “People spend a lot of energy thinking about their education,” says McGill’s Geller, “and that’s healthy. But I think it’s entirely possible for someone to go to a great university and get nothing out of it. And the reverse is true. People should obsess more on what they accomplish while they’re there —extracurricular activities, interaction with other students. And for those who can afford it, living away from home can make a significant difference.”
Take Chris Jackman of Corner Brook, Nfld., who first spied Queen’s University on a family vacation several years ago. Last spring, Jackman was in the middle of a rehearsal for his high-school play when his mother dashed in with a letter that Purolator had delivered minutes before: he had won a Chancellor’s Scholarship to Queen’s, worth $26,000 over four years. “Newfoundland is beautiful,” says Jackman, who wants to go into medicine. “But you get to a point where you want to see something else.”
Now a first-year biology major ensconced with his floor mates at Victoria Hall, Jackman is taking electives in drama and philosophy, and already has a part in The Turn of the Screw, an opera produced and directed by students. “I’m learning how to take advantage of all that’s here,” says the 18-year-old. Any disadvantages? His “astounding” phone bills from calling his girlfriend back home, and the messy mound between his desk and his bed. Such as? “Oh, books, newspapers, cups. Urn, shoes, cards from home. Magazines, stale food. Oh, and pieces of my Mardi Gras Halloween costume. The problem is: there’s no one to tell me to clean it up. At night, I just run and take a flying leap, and hope I hit the bed.”
Katie McEwen travelled even farther for university. The 18-year-old from Nelson, B.C., had never been east of Calgary when she arrived at University of King’s College in Halifax, which is associated with Dalhousie, this fall. McEwen is in the respected Foundation Year Program (aka FYP), exploring the whole of Western civilization in one integrated curriculum. McEwen likes the closeness of King’s, a place where students regularly wear their bathrobes or pyjamas to class. Having taken a part-time job with campus secu-
rity, she is also starting a climbing club. “King’s is a little bubble world, with its upside and its downside,” says McEwen, who is sharing a room in Alexandra Hall, a women’s residence. The downside? “If a woman stays overnight in the guy’s residence, she has to walk back through the quad where everyone can see her. They call it the Walk of Shame.’ ”
Jackman and McEwen are the lucky ones, immersed as they are in residence life. At Queen’s, where every first-year student is guaranteed a place in residence, Brady describes the pattern: “You live in residence for a year, make your friends for life and then move off campus.” But increasingly, as the enrolment numbers go through the roof, administrators are tearing their hair out, trying to accommodate the bulge. Last year, McGill gave up on guaranteed residence and moved to a lottery system. This fall, UBC—which promises on-campus housing to any firstyear student from outside the Lower Mainland—was forced to convert the temporary bedrooms, accommodating three and four to a room at a 25-per-cent discount. Meanwhile, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., kept its promise of providing on-campus housing to all first-year students, investing close to $1 million in reconfiguring two-person residence rooms to three-person alternatives. Again, as the mother from Connecticut
While Canada is about to witness the largest university enrolment in 30 years, faculty renewal is minimal
lounge in the Totem Park residence into
would say: “Ouch.” If the first question is access, the second question is: access to what? Again, take the example of the popular UBC, where finding classroom space was a huge issue. According to Brian Sullivan, vice-president of students: “We had to do a lot of juggling, creating more evening spots and an earlier start to classes.
Many faculty were asked to increase numbers in courses. If a professor had a cut-off of 60 students, we asked them to go to 75. While nothing violates fire regulations, things are crowded.” No kidding. Across Canada, the stu-
dent numbers are rocketing ahead, and the faculty numbers are dismal. It’s one thing to be in a classroom of 500, but what if you’re in the overflow room, where there’s a video? Not so long ago, there were 532,000 university students enrolled in Canada, with 36,400 faculty to teach them. That was 1990. But this fall, there are a further 93,000 students in the system, with 1,900 fewer faculty. And what’s going to happen over the next 10
years, when another 125,000 undergrads arrive at the doorstep? Herb O’Heron, senior analyst at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, says: “We’ve seen virtually no faculty renewal. How many more students can we stuff into our institutions without hiring faculty to teach them?” Over the past two years, Waterloo Uni-
versity in Ontario made significant increases to its incoming classes, but the faculty numbers remained constant. “If one person goes on sabbatical, the entire area goes untaught,” says Mark Schaan, 22, a fourth-year political science student who hopes to head to Oxford for graduate studies. “This year, our international development profis on sabbatical. Because I’m in fourth year, I’ll never get an opportunity to take this again. Next year, it will be ethnic conflicts—a huge emerging subject—and political theory. Considering what shakes our world now, that Und of disruption seems an even bigger crime.” Robert Silverman, dean of arts and sci-
ence at Queen’s, reports that the studentfaculty ratio has shifted dramatically. Now, like many universities, Queen’s is facing cuts. In each of the next three years, it must Source: Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. trim four per cent from its operating budget. Says Silverman: “That just means we can plan for disaster.” Geoffrey Smith, professor of history, says a key issue is the inability to properly fund teaching assistants. For decades, TAs, as they’re known, have been key to the tutorial system at Queen’s. “Students have easier multiplechoice exams, fewer writing assignments, less course contact and less chance to see both professors and teaching assistants. In many departments, TAs are limited to five hours a week. Will a TA teach or merely mark? The latter is generally the answer, in case the hours run out in midterm.” What does it mean when resources are this stretched? Alex Field, a third-year student at Simon Fraser in Burnaby, B.C., has lived the consequences. Field is supposed to be in his third year of a fouryear computer science degree, but he is still undeclared. Why? He, like many others, has found it virtually impossible to get into computing science 275, a second-year course that he must take before he declares his major. Faculty advisers have cited a shortage of physical space and computers. Meanwhile, the university has been sending him letters, warning that he is late in declaring a major. He must now make an appointment to speak to the dean of arts and explain. His father, James, is furious: “My son has spent two years at SFU and is not able to proceed.” Even Kathryn Aberle, head of media and public relations at SFU, acknowledges there’s a problem. “Virtually all of the lower-division computing science courses have more students applying than seats available. Two or three times as many is not unusual. The university has lost students because of this.”
Without significant reinvestment in faculty and resources, there are going to be many parents as angry as James Field. Last year, at a double-cohort meeting at a Toronto high school, a parent stood up and asked: “Has Queen’s been warned that they will have to double the positions in their commerce program?” The answer is: Queen’s has no intention of doubling the spaces in any program, commerce or otherwise. And the rubber will really hit the road when these same students try to get into law school or medical school. “Are the spaces going to double?” asks Ken Snowdon, vice-president, policy and analysis,
A MESSAGE IN THE RANKINGS
What’s the good news for students? The spending on scholarships has soared. The bad news? Faculty numbers are down and-no surprise-so are the number of first-year classes taught by tenured faculty.
with the Council of Ontario Universities. “I don’t think so. The message that has yet to be absorbed is: this isn’t a one-year wonder. These students are going to be in the system for many years to come.”
As Northrop Frye once wrote, “The routines of teaching, lab work, essay marking and the like are quiet and undramatic. Breathing air and drinking water are quiet too: it is only when we run short of them that things get dramatic.” And believe me, we are running short. And yes, things are going to get dramatic, largely because my generation was lucky enough to be well educated, and we all want the same for our sons and daughters. How can they be in-
spired, sitting in the overflow room with the video monitor? How can they learn to think, ticking off the answers in a multiple-choice exam?
Life, as someone once said, must be lived forward but understood backwards. This year, with the professional becoming personal as I watch my own son look at universities, I find myself peering in the rearview mirror at my own undergraduate years. What I can see most clearly is one brilliant history professor who challenged me to think—and a series of what looked like wrong turns.
Let’s call them detours. I remember heading to the library stacks to research a term paper on Shakespeare, and ending up in the periodical room, reading back issues of The Atlantic—a guilty pleasure that evolved into a career. Even more vividly, I remember months of planning a week-long arts festival, a multifaceted extravaganza, and compromising my marks in the process.
These are the things I remember, the things that shaped me. And this is what I will tell my son as he makes his university shortlist. It matters not a whit to me whether you take physics or film, computers or architecture. Take one, two, three, or all of the above. Just choose a school that fits. Find a brilliant professor who will challenge you. And most of all, take all the detours because at least one will lead you straight ahead, on to the future.
With John DeMont in Halifax, Sue Ferguson and Laura Janeshewski in Toronto