- Fair Access to Higher Education: Global Perspectives ed. by Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Daniel Sabbagh, and David Post
As higher education is traditionally considered the main channel of upward social intergenerational mobility (Holsinger & Jacob, 2008), it has undoubtedly given rise to great debate on who is accessing it, how they are accessing it, and whether this access is "fair." This book features ten articles that explore different global perspectives on access to higher education, and in a comprehensive introduction, the editors present the main question driving this work: What does "fairness" mean with respect to the distribution of access to higher education?
This book is organised in three sections. The first section includes two chapters that present research on university admission mechanisms: one from the United States and the other from the United Kingdom. In Chapter 1, Samson conducts a laboratory experiment to test whether demographic changes at The University of California affect individuals' evaluations of college applications. Students are asked to play the role of an admissions officer. The overarching question guiding the research is: Can a drop in relative group-position for whites in relation to other ethnic groups affect how whites (as the dominant demographic group) evaluate applicants in a meritocratic contest over scarce and desired educational opportunities? This experiment is developed at a time when the proportion of whites in the US population is declining and the landscape and meaning of diversity for US higher education admissions is changing. The research findings suggest there are reactions among dominant individuals within groups, that is white in-group favouritism, that go against the diversity universities promote.
In Chapter 2, Jones engages with the composition and language of "personal statements." These admissions essays for entrance into UK universities are analysed using Bourdieu's (2000) theories of field, habitus, and capital. "This study finds that nonacademic indicators, such as the personal statement, may disfavor young people from certain educational backgrounds" (p. 61). As such, this first section highlights important insights into the interplay of different sources of bias within higher education admission processes.
The second section of the book contains three case studies situated in Georgia, Denmark, and France that examine the influence and interplay of location, class, and ethnicity on achieving equitable and equal access to higher education. The first one is a mixed-methods study on rural disadvantage in Georgian higher education. With interviews from a sample of families and policy makers and data on the entire population of applicants from 2005 to 2009, Chankseliani seeks to illustrate the consequences of the state's equal treatment of applicants in the face of their unequal experiences and prior educational opportunities. "Rural disadvantage in the admissions process is linked with economic and cultural aspects of rural life" (p. 87). Chankseliani's research uncovers the existing tension between a biased definition of merit and efforts to expand [End Page 143] higher education. As such, this study illustrates that a higher education admissions model may strive to guarantee equality but be inequitable at the same time. As their educational system solely considers standardized tests scores instead of prior schooling opportunities (or the lack of them), rural students are left out.
The second case study offers an insight into how—and to what extent—Danish students' choice of program, educational strategies, attitudes and behaviours, and sense of belonging are influenced by social class. "From an international perspective, Denmark is an unusual case because of the relative lack of financial constraints on students" (p. 98). However, Thomsen, Munk, Eiberg-Madsen, and Hansen present a well-built, in-depth piece of qualitative research exposing students' perspectives, student life, and home resources as part of their choice of education. Their study found Danish students do not refer to their class-cultural background nor to a collective working-class identity as either an advantage or constraint. "The lack of identification with a working class or working-class culture may...