This Is Why Canadian Universities Don't Have College Admissions Scandals

A decade ago, Janice Aurini interviewed 41 upper-middle-class parents in Canada and asked whether they had a preference for where their children earned a university degree. One woman named Grace said her kid wanted to go to medical school, but she didn’t care where because it’s not as if the patients would care. Grace elaborated, “I don’t know anybody who goes to the doctor’s office and looks at what school they graduated from and what marks they got, right?” 

Another mother called Lily told Aurini that her oldest son went to the University of Toronto, but not because it’s often labeled one of the best universities in the world. Lily was more excited that he was able to live at their Toronto home for the first three years “so that we could feed him and what have you, and didn’t amount a lot of debt.”

“She didn’t even mention the ranking,” said Aurini, a sociology professor at Ontario’s University of Waterloo and the author of an upcoming study on steps that parents take to prepare their kids for college.

Alex Usher, president of the consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, received the same kind of responses when he did a similar survey of Canadian parents a couple of years ago. Usher lost track of how many times parents said something to the effect of “let ’em go to the local school, they’re all kinda good.”

“The basic assumption was there weren’t huge gaps in quality,” Usher told HuffPost. “Everybody knows the university down the street is not necessarily the best in the country, but it’s good, it does its job.”

This attitude runs counter to the common belief among upper-class parents in the U.S. that the pathway to the top isn’t through a good school ― it’s through the best school. But kids north of the border enjoy the same — or better — economic opportunities after college graduation as those in the U.S., without the cutthroat competition to score a place at the most elite campuses.

“The quality and social return between the sort of least prestigious university and the most prestigious university is much smaller in Canada,” Brendan Cantwell, a Michigan State University professor of educational policy, told HuffPost. Whereas in the U.S., he added, attendance at elite universities provides access to many of the top jobs, so the emphasis is on getting in.

This brutal competition for entrance to top colleges has long been a feature of the American education system with wealthy parents using their privilege to secure places for their children. Many pour money into their kids’ educations from a young age, hiring admissions prep counselors and making big-dollar donations just to get their offspring into elite preschools that are seen as early-stage pipelines for the Ivy League.

The recent college admissions scandal in the U.S. has thrown the ability of the richest to game the system into even sharper relief. Dozens of wealthy parents, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were indicted in March for allegedly taking part in an illegal scheme to scam their kids’ way into top tier schools such as Yale and Stanford through bribes, fake athletics scholarships and test cheating. The illegal activity exploited weak points in the admissions process at the most elite universities in the U.S.

But in Canada, a different system plays out.

The country’s higher education system comprises mostly public universities that use a far more streamlined admissions process, and students don’t receive an admission boost because they’re good at tennis or their parents are alumni. “It’s not the same game [in Canada],” said Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford in the U.K. “There’s certainly less scamming ― in fact, there may not be much at all. Donations don’t get you into the University of Toronto, and certainly, backdoor routes like sports and so on are not very important.” 

Canadian universities largely admit students based on their transcripts and grade point averages. If your grades at a Canadian high school pass the bar set by the university, then you’re in, without any need for letters of recommendation or essays at most schools. There is no Canadian equivalent of the SAT and ACT. 

“What’s really different about our system versus the American system is that there is almost a uniformity of post-secondary experience,” said Fiona Deller, director of research and policy at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, an independent advisory agency.

“Our process is — I believe for many reasons ― not perfect, but it’s very simple,” Deller told HuffPost. “It’s just, you know, grade point average, and that’s kind of it.” 

And while elite American universities try to enhance their prestige by boasting of single-digit acceptance rates, the top Canadian schools end up letting inmany more applicants while maintaining their elite status. The University of Toronto and McGill University, arguably Canada’s top two, are ranked higher than most colleges in the U.S., including a couple of Ivy League schools. They’re also huge: Toronto and McGill combined educate about as many students as the entire Ivy League. 

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