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The influence of household income on graduate and professional school acceptances

The “Operation Varsity Blues” FBI investigation, also known as the 2019 college admissions scandal, highlighted the role that wealth can play in post-secondary admissions. However, in most cases, those with high household incomes do not have to rely on bribery, lying and cheating to get into prestigious programs – post-secondary and graduate admissions already favor the wealthy. In fact, a 2012 study of four Canadian medical schools found that 57.6% of students came from families with an annual household income of over $100,000, a proportion approximately five times greater than in the general population.

The most obvious reason for this disparity is that the application process for the majority of graduate and professional programs is incredibly expensive. For example, those applying to medical school must pay hundreds of dollars for examinations such as the MCAT and CASPer, in addition to the associated preparation courses, textbooks, and tutoring. Furthermore, students are often required to travel across the country for medical school interviews; the costs associated with transportation, lodging, and other travel accommodations can add up to thousands of dollars. Even before the application process, wealthier students have the privilege of taking prestigious unpaid internships and travelling across the world on global volunteering projects. Ultimately, those with higher household incomes are able to use the many resources available to them to distinguish their applications. 

The process of becoming a competitive applicant is also time-consuming. Not only do students have to spend hours every day studying for their courses and partaking in extracurricular activities, but applicants must spend months studying for examinations such as the LSAT and MCAT. In many cases, students from high socioeconomic backgrounds do not have to work to make ends meet, nor do they have to take care of sick or young dependants; instead, they are able to spend valuable time refining and perfecting their applications. 

Furthermore, the application process favours students from urban areas. Volunteer opportunities, extracurricular activities, LSAT and MCAT preparation courses, and a variety of other opportunities are generally easier to access in urban areas. Although the causes of these disparities are mainly based on population density and demand, accessibility also reflects household income as rural Canadians tend to have lower average incomes than their urban counterparts - in 2000, average weekly earnings for rural workers ranged from $680 to $760 compared to over $900 per week for urban workers. The conjunction between geographic and economic barriers in rural areas ultimately prevents many Canadian students from accessing lucrative opportunities - an issue that could be improved by making services such as preparation courses and tutoring more accessible remotely.

Students from high socioeconomic backgrounds also have social advantages. First, they tend to have more access to role models in academics, law, and medicine, and these role models, through their actions, values, and behaviour, play a crucial role in motivating students and helping them reach their potential. They can also offer an introduction to previously unconsidered career options and provide students with someone to aspire to be. Further, students from high-income families often receive more family and social encouragement to pursue medical education, compared to those from working-class families. Encouragement empowers students to pursue their ambitions, including applying for and enrolling in graduate and professional programs. 

Increasing diversity in graduate and professional programs benefits not only students but also the communities they come from. For example, medical students from underprivileged or rural communities are more likely to practice in communities similar to the ones they hail from, increasing the availability of and access to healthcare in underserved populations. Low-income students provide a unique perspective that can be applied both in the classroom and beyond. They can bring their life experiences to their peers as well as their future colleagues, clients, and patients, helping increase empathy and compassion in their respective fields. 

Financial barriers are generally addressed through scholarships and grants following acceptance to and enrollment in graduate and professional programs. However, in order to truly tackle economic obstacles, solutions must aid underrepresented students before and during the application process. For example, mentorship programs led by professors, lawyers, and physicians targeting socioeconomically disadvantaged communities may introduce students to these careers and motivate them to consider graduate and professional degrees. Likewise, programs providing tutoring and career assistance to underserved communities can help hardworking but underprivileged students make their applications more competitive. Nevertheless, to create systemic change and ensure accessibility for all students, we need to reassess graduate and professional admissions processes.