Lowering the Bar: Queen's Lowers Admission Standards to Boost Aboriginal Attendance

April 2004

Queen's University, the country's most competitive undergraduate institution, is setting up a controversial separate application stream for First Nations students.

Less than 1% of the 8,000 undergraduates at theKingston university identify themselves as Indian, Inuit or Metis. To boost this dismal aboriginal attendance rate, Queen's will waive the 85% cut-off mark for 10 aboriginal applicants to its undergraduate arts and science degree, starting with applications this fall.

The move is already being criticized by students, particularly minority students who fear they will be perceived as having benefited from affirmative action.

"This puts a cloud over the whole admissions process," says Kasra Nejatian, a 21-year-old Iranian-born commerce student, and president of the Queen's Progressive Conservative Club. "It doesn't matter how noble the goals are, it's racism in its purest form."

Mr. Nejatian says there are other ways the university can help aboriginal students get into Queen's, such as offering tutoring to aboriginal high school students or sending Queen's professors to nearby native communities to act as mentors and career advisors.

"Admissions should be based on merit alone," he says. Most schools already reserve places for aboriginal applicants to medical, nursing and law programs, at the request of governments that hope the measures will encourage graduates to return to their communities and provide badly needed services.

The new Queen's undergraduate policy, for example, is modelled on the aboriginal applications procedure at Queen's medical school. Aboriginal students who want the special consideration will have to ask for it in a letter. They will need documents demonstrating their native heritage, as well as support from a band or community leader.

Some schools are more specific in their admissions criteria: Dalhousie Law School gives special con-sideration to Mi'kmaq and black people born and raised inNova Scotia.

Others, such as theUniversity of Windsor and theUniversity of Toronto, accept a small number of adult students who may not have graduated from high school, providing them with a year of intense remedial instruction before they pursue a university degree.

The Queen's program will target high school graduates who are academically qualified, but do not quite have the marks to secure a spot in the regular, highly competitive admissions process, says Christine Overall, the associate dean of Queen's faculty of arts and science, and co-chair of the school's Aboriginal Council. "The kind of mark you need to get into Queen's is different from the kind of marks you need to succeed at Queen's," says Dr. Overall.

She dismisses claims the policy will stigmatize aboriginals, as well as other minority students. The choice for aboriginal students to identify their race is voluntary, she says, and many will continue to apply as regular applicants. "They are not going to be going around with a sign saying, “I was admitted through the alternative process.”

"It's a recognition of the special responsibility that we have to aboriginal people, given that aboriginal people are the first people of this country," says Dr. Overall.

The use of alternative admissions processes was recommended in a 2002 report commissioned by the Council of Ministers of Education to improve aboriginal post-secondary participation rates in Canada, which have lagged behind the United States and Australia.

By 2001, about 8% of non-reserve aboriginals aged 25 to 34 had completed university, up from 5% in 1996, Statistics Canada says.

The new policy will bring Queen's in line with most universities in Western Canada, where the re-quirements for aboriginal applicants are considerably lower than the cut-off marks for students in the general applicant pool.

The University of British Columbia and theUniversity of Alberta, for example, admit aboriginal students who graduate high school with an overall average of 67%, provided students provide documents proving their aboriginal heritage. For other students, UBC requires marks of at least 82% to enter its arts program. At U of A, students must have an average of 72%.

Richard Vedan, director of UBC's First Nations House of Learning and a professor of social work, defends the admissions model, noting that a young aboriginal male has a 3% chance of completing post-secondary studies, compared with a 70% chance of ending up in a correctional institution.

"There is a direct link between quality of life, quality of health, socio-economic standing and your level of education," says Dr. Vedan. "If more aboriginal people are afforded an educational opportunity, there will be improvements in each of those areas."

But the more generous admissions policies have not always had the desired effect, in part because not enough aboriginal students are applying. "OurCollege of Engineering would be delighted to mentor aboriginal students, but they seldom get many students who are interested," says Marnie McNiven, manager of admissions at the University of Saskatchewan.

'The situation is similar at theUniversity of Alberta inEdmonton, where the university would like aboriginals to make up 5% of the undergraduate student body. So far, aboriginal enrolment is about 3%, or 800 students.

Aboriginal attendance at UBC is also low, at only about 1%, though university officials say the real number is probably a bit higher, as self-identification is voluntary.

So many awards and scholarships created for aboriginal students were going unclaimed that UBC created a new recruitment tool two years ago: The Musqueam Soccer tournament for aboriginal families. Last June, the tournament attracted more than 600 participants.

"It gets people to come out and see a university campus first hand, and university becomes part of their vocabulary," says Dr. Vedan. "We hope to see some of those returns over the next decade."

The aim of the program is to get children thinking about university at a young age, as a motivation to stay in high school. Almost half drop out before obtaining their secondary school diploma, according to StatsCan, although the numbers are slowly improving.

He says aboriginal youth tend to be skeptical about universities, and fearful they will be assimilated if they live away from their families. "There is a good deal of cynicism and suspicion. People remember that in the 1920s, if you got an education, it was at the cost of losing your culture," said Dr. Vedan, who designs curriculum materials for aboriginal students.

Of all the provinces,Manitoba seems to have the most effective approach: For $8.5-million,Manitoba enrolls 1,284 hand-picked students in a network of "Access" programs at the province's three universities and two community colleges. The program accepts adults, some of whom did not graduate from high school, and prepares them for careers in social work, nursing, business administration, engineering and medicine. The students get remedial instruction; they attend school through the summer and receive instruction from professors specializing in adult education.

"It's been tremendously successful," says Louise Gordon, executive director of the Manitoba Council on post-secondary education. "Most aboriginal engineers in this country are Access grads. Most aboriginal doctors in this country are Access grads."