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Facts of the matter: The unfair advantage in college admissions

Words by Bea Rabe and Gian Morrondoz

People mistake college education as a “great equalizer” for society. Time and again, policies in making public tertiary education truly “public” reinforces our ideal of higher education: to minimize the gaps between the richest and poorest Filipinos. However, the value of college education has increased, and that value reaches those at the top—and we finally have the data for it. 

In the recent faculty publication of the UP School of Economics (UPSE), Dr. Sarah Lynne Daway-Ducanes, Dr. Elena Pernia, and Mr. Vincent Jerald Ramos dissect college admissions and the inequalities it lays bare in their article, “On the ‘income advantage’ in course choices and admissions: Evidence from the University of the Philippines”. The paper discusses the accessibility of college education in developing countries like the Philippines, while using admissions data from UP.

Prior to the pandemic, the admission process were straightforward but never fully contextualized. Acceptance is not solely determined by the performance in the college admissions test (known as the UPCAT), but it is through the UPG, which combines 60% of the UPCAT scores and 40% of the standardized weighted average of high school grades.

However, to make the UP studentry “more representative of the nation’s population”, as written in the university’s website, “socio-economic and geographic considerations are factored in the selection of campus qualifiers.” The article sheds light into other significant factors that affect admission into UP: sex, high school region and type (be it specialized, private, or public).

A matter of facts

The free tuition law is spread across various state universities and colleges (SUCs). Receiving around 100,000 annual applications in its recent years, UP is arguably one of the most sought-after institutions of higher education in the country. However, towering piles of applications and a low acceptance rate of 15-19% was never a sign of prestige, but a system that needs reforming.

Regardless of the institution being locally labelled as a home to the “scholars of the masses”, the numbers say otherwise. According to the study, around 56-66% of the total number of applicants admitted to the university system spring from the top three income classifications, while only 17-23% of the accepted applicants are those who come from the bottom income classification. This also manifested during the admissions process during the academic year 2017, when more than 99% of the UPCAT passers were graduates from private schools. 

This stark contrast holds true as the paper depicts that relative to the highest income class, if your household earns P0 to P7465 per annum, you are 13% less likely to pass UP. Consequently, if your family earns P365,746 to P535,838 per annum relative to the highest income class, you are only 5% less likely to pass. 

Moreover, applicants that come from the second top income classification only have a 2% lower probability of being admitted to their first-choice course; as opposed to the 5% lower probability of those coming from the lowest income class. It is also important to note that of those admitted to their first-choice courses, around 59-64% are from the top three highest income classes, while around 17-21% come from the lowest four income classifications.

These statistics hardly come as a surprise because you need to afford good preparation to do well in the exams, and this demands resources not immediately available to many. It is no wonder that a great volume of the applicants come from the NCR, CALABARZON, and from Central Luzon, as opposed to underserved regions in the country. Hence, UP’s countermeasure: factoring in the high school average and the school’s standing to cancel out these (dis)advantages, “which would later prove to be a better predictor of the students’ performance in the university, in combination with the UPCAT subtests.” 

However, when looking at the study, the applicant’s secondary education is too strong a determining factor. It shows that applicants with better high school performances have a 6% higher probability of ending up in their first-choice cluster. This is underlined for those who come from public science high schools, who have a 15% higher likelihood in being admitted to the system and 8% more likely to be accepted in their first-choice cluster than those who come from private schools. 

These determinants were further pronounced when universities decided to not hold any entrance exams for prospective students in 2021.

Even after all these counter-measures, Indigenous people (IP) and those from cultural minorities are still underrepresented. They only make up 1.8% of the population of UP despite accounting for 20% of the population, and the attacks on their schools by the NTF-ELCAC still continue. In 2020 they closed 75 lumad schools, and state forces still continue to block the operations of  these schools, going so far as to attack teachers and kidnap and harass students.

‘The years that matter’

The students’ fates were sealed even before they applied. 

Administering college entrance exams online was out of the question, not just for UP but for other universities as well. Academic institutions had to accommodate thousands of students, all while making sure that the exam’s integrity was still intact and the playing field was leveled. So SUCs resorted to assessing the applicants through their high school performance. 

Grades were suddenly the main basis for admission, blindsiding many highschool students hoping to get into their dream school. The last batch of applicants for UP only had their grades for the last four years to speak for their ability. By the time UP announced its new method of admission, its results were already out of their hands. 

Holistic and well-roundedness were now the basis for admission to the institution. A limited study using data from the City University of New York and public colleges in Kentucky found that combining both high school GPA and an admissions test could predict a student’s performance as a freshman more accurately, but it also showed a large gap in performance in tests for low-income and high-income students. The study also highlighted the advantage of preparation that only higher income students could afford.

Multiple studies have shown the advantage of higher household income in grades and college admissions. The problem goes beyond whether a test or a grades basis is the path for a more inclusive education, since the inclusion of both would not be equitable for everyone involved. Moreso during the pandemic, where the gap between rich and the poor have only widened, and the capital required to pursue an education in the Philippines has only increased with the current set up.

The study of the income advantage in UP only studied pre-K12 batches, and the study from the City University of New York only studied schools in America, but ultimately, the results of their studies show the inequality in college. The inequalities aren’t just in UP’s admission system, or its acceptance rate, but across the entire educational system.

Inequalities go beyond college; a study from 2019 showed that  ninety percent of Filipino fifth graders are unable to read. This alone prevents students from entering secondary education, much less college. The worse conditions of blended learning could only lead to an even wider gap and greater losses for all students as long schools remain closed and budgets for education continue to dwindle in favor of corruption riddled military enrichment programs

“Higher” Education

There have been federal policies in place to “maintain” UP’s efforts in making its education more accessible. The Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP) was established in 1989, wherein students from upper income households would pay tuition fees, while those who come from the poorest income groups were exempt from paying tuition and even received subsidies. This was replaced by the Socialized Tuition System (STS) in 2014, which “[sped] up the process of [the] tuition bracket applications, adjust income brackets, and increase the monthly allowance of poor students”.

The Free Tuition Law—which was signed into law in August 2017— largely helped students obtain a degree, but those who have the capability to even take the admission tests are only part of the 10% of our student population. Everyone should be able to go to the college they want. The studies show that exams gatekeep students from quality education. Why? Because there are limited slots. The new method of admission is no different. 100,000 students wanted to go to UP but only 13% were admitted. The issue isn’t whether there should be a test or not, but why can’t we give our citizens the education they deserve.

These efforts in making our colleges and universities more accessible will remain to be mere subsidies to the richest students until we address the inequality that goes much deeper. The solution is not just democratizing access to college education, but working towards true public and quality education—where excellence is never at the expense of equity. [P]

UPLB Perspective is the official student publication of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, established in 1973. It is the first campus publication established under Martial Law in the Philippines.

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