Excellence and Equity: UP’s Great Balancing Act (UPG)

by Admin |

Jo Florendo B. Lontoc


Since its establishment in 1908, the University of the Philippines has prided itself on being the "premiere State University," the "university of the people," and "the national university." All of these descriptions suggest a university in the service of what has become a nation of 85 million Filipinos and there is no doubt that over nearly a century, UP has provided the nation with quality leadership in the arts and sciences, the professions, business, and governance, as well as in social and political reform. UP has also grown into a system of seven constituent universities spread out over a dozen campuses around the archipelago, enrolling about 55,000 students and employing some 14,000 faculty members and non-teaching staff.


The high quality of a UP education, the reasonable expectation of professional success upon graduation, and the low tuition fees that UP students pay have made entry into UP a powerfully attractive but also a formidably competitive proposition for thousands of fresh young high school graduates and their parents every year. Every April, when the UPCAT results are released, the jubilation of qualifiers and their families is matched only by the grief, distress, and consternation of the many more who fail to make it.


Roughly speaking, only one out of every six applicants qualifies for UP. In 2004, 64,041 applicants took the UPCAT; of this number, 11,381 students qualified. While the passers' total may seem high, it includes some overbooking to account for a statistically predictable number of "no-shows" passers who for one reason or other don't actually enroll. Out of the 10,803 who qualified in 2003, only 7,082 enrolled, including 759 non-qualifiers who got in through such alternative means as athletic scholarships and certificate programs.


While it may hardly come as a surprise for a graduate of a barangay high school in, say, Romblon or Sultan Kudarat not to pass the UPCAT, many graduates of exclusive schools in Metro Manila including Ateneo, La Salle, and the Philippine Science High School feel dismayed and even outraged to miss the cut-off. It seems impossible at first glance for such thoroughbred students not to make it to UP, but as this article seeks to show many other factors come into play beyond the natural advantages of privilege.


Indeed, to some extent, UP's admissions policy has had to counterbalance these advantages a good school with adequate facilities and well-paid teachers, proper nutrition, computers, and the other amenities of modern living in consideration of the need to be more representative of the nation at large and of its disproportionately poor population. As UP Vice President for Public Affairs Jose Dalisay Jr. pointed out in a recent article, "Can we defend spending more than P4 billion of public money a year on educating the sons and daughters of the metropolitan elite? Can UP still lay claim to being a 'national university' if it does not, in some way, reflect the national configuration in its student body?"


Of course, admissions involves much more than representation, and no one seriously argues with the University's giving priority to academic excellence above all. But UP clearly also has a lot to do to dispel the impression that it has helped those who need help least a supreme irony for an institution dedicated to social justice and transformation.


UP's burden: leveling the playing field

The cold reality is that many students whom the University should serve simply are not as well prepared for college as their more fortunate peers. Being poor and underserved disqualifies them further from opportunities to improve their lot. But if a state university like UP does nothing for them, it will simply help perpetuate the rule of a well-entrenched elite in our society.


Researchers have identified forces that impair, even destroy, students' chances for higher education, and ultimately for higher standards of living. They claim that (1) the determining factors that really control access to higher education are rooted in the home and the school environment of children from infancy onward; and (2) that most of the real screening for higher education has all along been done by the accident of socio-economic origins and the early environment habitually characterizing particular groups and subcultures.


The kind of learning a poor child or one from the hinterlands gets will be very different from that enjoyed by an urban, middle-class child with access to cable television, computers, the Internet, and other forms of information technology. As family income increases and the closer to urban centers the family is, the more "variety and level of learning materials and services such as books, mass communication programs, travel, music programs, painting exhibits available to the child."


More sadly, experts say that people's origins affect their spirit and aspirations. In the Philippines, the poor have taken to seeing education largely as a means to get a job and move up economically, with excellence much less important than just getting by. Why enter UP when they can get their diplomas even more cheaply at lesser schools? In short, there is no real inculcation of the value of love of learning, or of knowing the best of all that is taught and thought in the world. The disadvantaged and minoritized student nurtures a tendency to efface himself or herself, to refuse to compete with others, especially those better off.


The University recognizes that it cannot simply reject this student and that it has a social obligation to reach out to those who need an extra lift. UP must also ask itself: In choosing students with the best scholastic aptitudes, is it not getting students who will thrive even without its help, who will do just as well in life and for their families by earning their degree in other universities? On the other hand, some have asked if what has been called "affirmative action" is tantamount to lowering or compromising academic standards, to expending scarce resources on entrants more likely to drop out.


In the mid-'70s, economics Professor Edita Tan countered the prevailing idea that equity compromises excellence. In saying that "the ideas, values, organization of an ingrained elite are likely to be less rich and dynamic than those coming from the larger cross section of the population," the professor implied greater leaps in development with more representative participation in the University's make-up and in its work.


Tan's study also observed that "any university entrance regulation that is based on the score obtained in an entrance examination is liable to have a bias against students coming from poor families." This was why the high school average had to be factored in, which would later prove to be a better predictor of the student's performance in the University, in combination with the UPCAT subtests.


"The knack for answering examination questions (which were formulated by persons belonging to the professional urban class) can also be expected to vary by income and occupation of parents. It has been observed that verbal ability, which is needed in answering achievement tests, is more developed in children of the urban and more affluent class."


Professor Tan explained that verbal ability, which is needed in answering achievement tests, is more developed in children of the urban and more affluent class, is exercised more in richer families where there are more abundant things seen and used to communicate about. Informal learning was seen to be scarcer in poorer families.


UP Admissions Director Dr. Ly SyCip says that even the type of questionnaire itself poses an additional burden to some sectors. For example, answer sheets for computer assessment appear to scare people accustomed to the usual public-school-type mimeographed answer sheets. (Fortunately or otherwise the lotto ticket has in a way popularized the kind of answer sheet used in the UPCAT.)


These considerations have to be taken into account by UP's admissions system, including the UPCAT, which has followed a long evolutionary road toward greater democratization.


The story of the UP admissions system

Legally, the University's 95-year-old old Charter mandates UP not to deny admission to the University "by reason of age, sex, nationality, religious belief, or political affiliation." While there is no explicit mention of "economic or social status," the University has through the years recognized and adopted equity considerations as a mandate coming from its nature as a state university. The proposed new Charter explicitly states that "the University shall take affirmative steps to enhance the access of disadvantaged students to its programs and services."


However, the University's fundamental nature as an institution of higher learning set up to provide "advanced education" also binds it to ensuring high academic standards, including a student body of high intellectual caliber. Thus, its selection process, while ensuring adequate representation of the country's population, should put excellence above all other considerations.


In its earliest years, the University already had strict standards for applicants to its programs. It required evidence that the applicant had enough college preparation, meaning that he or she had had 14 to 18 units of the listed entrance subjects including evidence of having undertaken laboratory experiments. In cases where evidence could not be presented, an entrance examination was given. A University historian pointed out that the requirements "practically allowed only graduates with as much preparation acquired from private colleges."


By the 1920s, UP had already gained a reputation for excellence and was faced with larger student applications. Its scarce resources prompted it to adopt even stricter requirements for some colleges. In 1928, an entrance examination was administered where only the top passers qualified depending on the number of slots available.


At first glance, there appeared to be nothing discriminatory about the admissions system as it was believed then that merit, the ability to study, knew no class. But consciously or otherwise, the University took a step toward democratizing admission in the late '40s by automatically admitting the top-ranking high school graduates, ensuring that all types of high schools private and public, urban and rural could be represented. During this time, enrollment dropped due to the War. As a result, there were fewer applications than admission slots, which encouraged a more open admissions policy. The policy continued until 1960. Cutoffs were possible by pegging at varying levels the required fourth year high school grade average of the top ranking high school seniors.


Achievement, psychological, and intelligence tests began to be given to applicants in the late '50s, but only for guidance and research purposes, not as selective admission tools. It was in AY 1961-1962 when the UP Scholastic Aptitude Examination (SAE) was used to select candidates for admission to give a chance to students who did not qualify for automatic admission.


Through the years and despite the evolving selective admissions, the University noted a high delinquency rate (30%). To address this, studies were made, one of the findings of which was that the SAE was the least accurate single predictor of University performance. Dr. SyCip thinks that one-time tests only measure abilities at precisely just one point in time; on the other hand, ranking in high school is not an assurance that students are fit for University education. A combination of both tests and a measure of performance record over time would later be found to be the most reliable way of predicting University performance.


In 1967, the UPCAT (UP College Admissions Test) was born. This should not be mistaken for the UP College Admissions System being practiced today. Then, the UPCAT was used singly as a selection tool; the University Predicted Grade (UPG), which is computed using an equation that combines UPCAT scores with high school grades, had not yet been invented. From 1925 up to this period, UP's approach had been to use either secondary school performance (based on rank or grade in their fourth year) or test (such as UPCAT) scores.


In 1970, the University Council approved a resolution to the effect that starting AY 1971-1972, "the admission of undergraduate freshman applicants will be based on a combination of the three-year high school average and College Admissions Test scores." This made entrance to the University significantly more difficult, even as the new process continued to be refined through annual studies and evaluations. These studies found that a student's high school performance should be given more weight than 20 per cent of the student's admission score. (The existing formula amounted to 80 per cent UPCAT subtest scores and 20 per cent high school weighted combined rating.)


Then in 1976, Mathematics Professor Romeo L. Manlapaz (now retired but a consultant to the University for admissions policies) came up with a system factoring in the actual predictive ability (regression weights) of the high school grades and the UPCAT scores. Using a technique called "multiple regression analysis," Manlapaz arrived at an equation which integrated the high school grades and the UPCAT scores in a formula to come up with the UPG or University Predicted Grade (See formula).


The UPCAT scores amounted to about 60% of the UPG; the HSWA made up about 40%. The UPG formula remains in effect. However, much more remains to be improved on the equity side of the matter.
The late 1960s and the early 1970s will be remembered in history as a tempestuous period of political ferment in the Philippines, known as the First Quarter Storm. The call for social justice was particularly loud in intellectual circles, especially at the University of the Philippines, where the most radical ideas circulated.


University constituents began calling for more democracy in the admission of students to allow for greater representation of the poor. They had become increasingly dissatisfied with what they perceived to be the gentrification of the University.


The number of applications to UP had actually been rising, because of the University's attempt to reach out all over the country to high school graduates from various sectors by establishing 28 regional test centers. However, despite this increase in applications, not much ground was gained in terms of democratizing actual access of the poor to the University.


Some time after Professor Manlapaz came up with the UPG, he brought up the point in one of his statistical papers that the UPCAT had a socio-economic bias; that is, it had a tendency to favor students from rich families; those from private schools or Metro Manila; and those whose parents were college graduates, professionals, or executives.


An era of democratization

The University renewed its focus "to make its studentry more representative of the nation's population." A comprehensive program was drafted, which involved the piloting of a democratized admissions policy. Named the Experimental Democratization Sample (XDS), 94 freshmen constituted a first batch in AY 1977-1978 allowed into the College of Arts and Sciences in Diliman based on the following criteria: (1) a family income lower than P8,000; (2) an UPCAT score slightly below the Diliman cut-off [2.48 but better than 2.780]; and (3) as much as possible, at least one representative from each province. Each XDS student was given financial assistance to cover tuition, books, transportation, board and lodging, and learning and psycho-social assistance to help him or her adjust to the rigors of university life.


The first batch did as well as the regular freshmen, with a general weighted average of 2.39, and with four achieving scholar status. The second group of 166 performed as well as the first group, and the third group of 78 performed better, with one student achieving scholar status and 11 becoming college scholars. In the five years that the XDS was implemented, it was learned, for one, that "the academic performance of a student from a lower socioeconomic class can be better than that of a student from a higher socioeconomic class with comparable UPCAT scores, provided the former satisfied certain minimum UPCAT requirements and is given learning assistance in English." Thus concluded the Program Development Staff formed under the UP President in its 1977 report entitled "Democratization of Admissions."


However, the same report noted that "if the University implements the Democratization of Admission Policy even to its fullest extent, the number of students to be admitted additionally from the lower socioeconomic classes will be insignificant." This implied that democratization "[had] already been incorporated in the UPCAT" in a way that had already achieved the goal of XDS. XDS students were also sometimes looked down upon because of the circumstances of their entry into the University.


But other measures of democratization were implemented, such as allowing for more regional and cultural community representation. Campuses were allowed to set aside up to 30 percent of their quota to be filled up with top-ranking examinees from cultural minority groups and high schools (in Luzon and Metro Manila) which were not yet represented in the top 70 percent, and from depressed regions (in the Visayas, Mindanao, and the Cordilleras), provided their UPCAT scores were not lower than the campus cut-off score by 0.15. The top 70 percent were of course chosen based strictly on their UPG ranking.


In 1993, the University Registrar of UP Diliman noted sustained efforts to have a broader range of applicants. For instance, UP sent out UPCAT teams to various parts of Mindanao to inform high school students about the University, its academic as well as its financial assistance programs, and to invite them to take the UPCAT. UP College Baguio faculty members visited areas in the Cordilleras to do the same.


Also in 1993, testing centers increased to 42, and the number of applicants rose from 28,000 in 1988 to 45,000. Aside from this, some cultural biases of the subtests were reduced by providing both Filipino and English versions of the UPCAT, so applicants could give the UPCAT their best shot.


The birth of the Office of Admissions, EEAS

In 1994, the Office of Admissions was formed to handle admissions activities for the entire system. This was brought about by the fact that admissions had thus far been handled by the registrar of UP Diliman, even when it was a system-wide effort. A team formed under then Registrar Amelia Guevara studied the creation of the office. It included Dr. Guevara, Vice President for Finance Erlinda Echanis, and Chancellor Emerlinda Roman.


Under the auspices of the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs, then under Dr. Olivia Caoili, the Office of Admissions headed by Dr. Elizabeth Ventura buckled down to work by forming another team to evaluate the profile of UP students, run various scenarios, make hypothetical changes in the parameters for admission, and see possible changes in the students' composition. The study team was composed of then Budget Director Honesto Nuqui, computer science engineer Prof. Evangel Quiwa, Admissions Director Ventura, Dean Lisa Bersales of the Statistical Center, and Esperanza Ibanez, who had worked for admissions since 1958. It appeared that despite previous attempts at democratization, the composition of the students had not significantly changed.


The current Excellence-Equity Admissions System was arrived at after this scenario was run and found to be most ideal. The team using databases that harked back to the studies of Dr. Manlapaz had by then already undergone changes in membership, with new Statistical Center Dean Ana Maria Tabunda coming in. In 1997, the University Council of UP Diliman approved the EEAS and set it for implementation in 1998.


Thus, the EEAS evolved with its origins reaching back to the birth of the University itself.


At its most basic, the EEAS involves the use of a palugit of .05 in the UPGs of applicants coming from public barangay, public vocational, and public general high schools, excluding those administered by state universities and colleges and science high schools. This means that if one comes from a disadvantaged high school, his or her UPG gets an automatic .05 upgrade, resulting in the Effective Predicted Grade or EPG. The giving of a palugit is based on studies that confirm the high school type as the best indicator of an applicant's socio-economic standing (as opposed to stated income which is given to inaccurate reporting). A palugit of the same amount is also given to applicants who are legitimate members of cultural minorities. An applicant can be given a palugit only once.

Seventy percent of the admission slots is reserved for students with the best UPGs (or EPGs when applicable), palugit and all. The remaining slots are then to be filled by the next best students coming from under-represented geographical areas. If there are still slots available, then the next best performing applicants can have them regardless of geographical area. (For an illustration of the EEAS, see A Tale of Two Applicants)


Qualification means acceptance to the University System, but not yet to the programs applied for.


Constituency changing

The EEAS did not disappoint its visionaries, in that its results mirrored the projections produced by the pre-EEAS simulations. "The qualifying rate for public high schools improved through the years while that of private schools declined; qualifiers from the NCR have fallen; and qualifying is no longer biased toward income groups." reported the EEAS review team headed by current Vice President for Academic Affairs Maria Serena I. Diokno to the UP Diliman University Council early 2003.


Comparing 1997 and 2003 admission figures, while only 2,500 students from underprivileged high schools qualified in 1997, 4,266 made it in 2003. This constitutes an improvement in their qualifying rate from 16.8 percent to 22.2 percent.





Figures also show that in 1997, the general trend was, the higher the reported income of students, the better their qualifying rate, with the qualifying rate of those with P80,000 or lower annual family income standing at 15 percent and those reporting P501,000 to P1 million and P1 million to P2 million each accounting for 25 percent. By 2003, the qualifying rates of all income brackets had generally evened out, ranging from 16 to 18 percent.


Studies were also made on the performance of students admitted through the new admissions system. In summary, a study conducted across four years on the first EEAS batch indicates that "excellence" students do get better grades in the first two years. But by the fourth year, the difference between excellence and equity students is negligible. (See The EEAS Impact: Helping Students Make It)


Challenges ahead

However, the work of democratization is far from over. New situations within and beyond of the control of the university are constantly emerging, such as changes in the grading system of the public education system, new studies suggesting other socio-economic surrogates, the language problem in the subtests, limited analyses of student performance, the issue of gender equality, and many others. Old formulas have to be re-evaluated, and predictive abilities of tests updated.


The University recognizes that statistical systems are not perfect, and that the best argument it can rely on in defense of its current policy is the fact that each formula has been the result of several decades of studies, trials, evaluations, and lessons.


Of course, changes will continue to be entertained and accommodated if found reasonable and necessary. A new study is being undertaken by a special committee of the University Council of UP Diliman to look into further possibilities for improving the EEAS. The debates surrounding excellence-equity issues are often impassioned, but also instructive, as they cover not only technical and statistical but also philosophical and pedagogical considerations. This is entirely in keeping with the mission of the University as the nation's intellectual fountainhead in the spirit of critical inquiry, of academic excellence and leadership, and of commitment and service to the Filipino people.


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