Will extra-curricular admission requirements improve low SES access to the ANU?

The Australian National University has announced some big changes to the way it admits domestic school-leaver students.

Although there a few hints in their public statements, it’s not really clear to me why they are doing this. Despite the current anti-ATAR bandwagon, my view is that generally using ATAR-based admissions sets a high benchmark  that alternatives need to meet or exceed.

At the ANU end of the student market, one benefit of ATAR, of identifying students at high risk of failure and attrition, is not highly relevant. With a floor ATAR of 80 for most students the risk of not completing is low.

What ATAR is used for in the more selective institutions is as a fair and efficient way of rationing places in high-demand courses. ATAR is meaningfully linked to the course; it is an academic measure for an academic project. Prerequisite subjects, and performance in those subjects, are good rationing tools.  Specialised aptitude tests are also a relevant way of choosing between otherwise similar applicants.

The main new academic requirement under the ANU plan is that from 2022 all students will need Year 12 maths as well as English to be admitted. That might be designed to encourage more students to do maths, but in practice it will limit the pool of applicants.  It’s hard to see how maths is essential for must humanities or writing-based subjects.

The main new information that ANU applicants will have to provide is information on their extra-curricular activities. VC Brian Schmidt seems to think that this is an access measure:

“… life pans out differently for some students. Some have to work to support themselves, or care for their family or face other challenges. These are all important life skills and we will consider these factors alongside ATAR marks.”

But it is one thing to take extra information into account for borderline low-ATAR applicants, another to require this information from all applicants. In general, high SES applicants do much better on these kinds of requirements than potential applicants with low SES backgrounds.

Non-academic admission requirements are common in US universities, but that reflects a different conception of higher education. The US higher education system was in its origins heavily influenced by religious colleges which saw their task as fostering character and virtue, not just as conveying content. In secularised form, that still influences US colleges today.

The ANU is perhaps leaning in that direction by encouraging living on campus. They are interested in higher education’s role in socialisation. But the risk here is that adding extra-curricular activities to admissions limits options for some potential applicants, and is pointless extra tick-a-box form filling in for everyone else. A strength of the ATAR-based admission system is that it minimises administration costs for both students and universities.

Early offers have been spreading since the demand driven system was introduced, but the ANU brings the dates forward to applications in March and offers in August. For ANU aspirants, that effectively makes Year 11 another major stress point, because that will be the  basis of their original application. Their place won’t be confirmed until they do well enough in Year 12 assessment.

I expect many students thinking about ANU will want to keep their options open, so they will still have to work hard to ensure that their ATAR is competitive elsewhere.  Accepting an ANU offer does not preclude taking another offer later.

For most school leavers, the current tertiary admission centre system serves them well. There is one low-cost application that can maximise their chance of getting into their first-preference course and minimise their risk of missing out entirely.  Having to apply to different universities at different times with different information requirements isn’t likely to be an improvement.

I’ll be interested to read more from the ANU about why they have made these reforms. But on what I have seen so far their costs are more obvious than their benefits.

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