Are university admissions policies thwarting student choices and building a disinterested future workforce in Cameroon?

In many universities, applicants fail to receive any of their program choices. The concern is that students will be disinterested in their adopted course of study and their careers.
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Dr. Etta Mercy Aki moderates a focus group with students at the University of Buea. Photo Credit: Etta Mercy Aki

We all love the ability to make choices, but sometimes we do not always get what we want. This phenomenon is common in Cameroonian universities where students are asked to provide three options for their intended program of study. However, some students do not receive admission to any of the programs they propose, and instead, for the most part, the students are pushed to study educational sciences.

Educational sciences programs train teachers, administrators, and school counselors who are charged with the responsibility of preparing students. It is important to have committed teachers and education leaders that ably instruct students and prepare them to contribute to economic development and productive activities. If school leaders begin careers without embracing the choice of being a teacher, administrator, or school counselor, it is possible that the energy, attention, and professionalism required to educate the youth will be wanting, with potential consequences for student success and the society at large. In short, there will be a cascade of disinterest from school leaders to students.

It is quite common that those who pursue education majors do so through no choice of their own. There are many reasons for this. Educators often underperform their peers in income obtainment. Moreover, school leaders frequently suffer early burnout from the increased demand for performance without the requisite support. This has led to the continuous decline in people choosing educational disciplines. Are university admissions policies thwarting student choices and building a disinterested workforce for tomorrow’s schools? I examine how mismatched university students react to their unintended course of study and career trajectory. What makes some students embrace the given course of study while other students enter the educational field disengaged at the outset?

Understanding educational persistence

For students who embrace their adopted program, we call this educational or academic persistence. Educational persistence refers to the intensity (i.e., amount of instruction) and the duration of engagement (i.e., amount of time as an active participant in a program) (Comings et al. 2007). Within this framework, we can think about students’ regular attendance at course meetings, participation in an educational setting, and completion of program requirements.

In a higher education setting, educational persistence is observed when a student consistently maintains their status in a program of study. There are several factors that influence persistence including institutional factors and student attributes and attitudes, such as students’ self-determination, self-efficacy, and assessment of expectancy-value.

Beyond these factors, emotional factors can be important in shaping educational persistence. Roland et al. (2016) indicate that striking moments and life events may impact the persistence of students. This is particularly relevant considering that the failure to succeed in an admissions process may be internalized by a student as a traumatic event.

The sorting process in higher education admission

On a general level, higher education institutions enable some students to attain educational opportunities. Higher education is marked by barriers and inequities attributed to age, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic class that provide educational opportunities to some and not others (Gegel et al., 2015). In higher educational institutions across the world, the belief that higher education is evening the playing field is not realized in practice. Instead, higher education often reinforces and sometimes exacerbates inequities. Sorting students in the admissions process deepens inequalities that result in opportunities for some and not others (Domina et al. 2017).

In Cameroon, there are two main criteria that guide the decision of admission: (1) the number of points earned on subject-based exams, and (2) the type of subjects passed at the General Certificate of Examinations Advanced Level (G.C.E A/L). All students must pass the G.C.E A/L (English section) to be eligible for participation in any higher education institution in Cameroon. In addition, university candidates must achieve pass marks for a minimum of two subjects (with a maximum of five subjects). Each subject is graded using a letter grade scale that is equivalent to a number of points (e.g., A=5 points; B=4 points). The cumulative number of subjects taken on the exam, as well as the cumulative number of points shape admission decisions.

Success on the entrance exam is correlated with the applicant’s ability to obtain admission in at least one of their selected top three programs of study. Related to these admissions metrics, students are often not selected into their preferred programs of study for failing to meet the academic requirements, incomplete application components, and the competitiveness of admission (e.g., too many applicants for too few admissions openings).

When no match is made, applicants are almost hardly rejected. Instead, applicants are offered another program of study. An official on the admission board at the University of Buea revealed that the approach to placement helps keep young secondary school graduates “off the streets.” Another sentiment shared was that educational opportunities may encourage prospective students to avoid other potentially harmful pursuits, including engaging in violence and conflict. Beyond these stated reasons is likely a financial motivation since accepting more fee-paying students will improve the budgetary situation of the university. What is often not weighed is the psychological effect that unexpected and undesired admissions result will have on the student. This is pronounced when students are placed in “unwanted” programs.

Being selected in “unwanted” programs

In the course of the research, I spoke to second-year students Brave, Ella, and Shiloh (pseudonyms for student participants) at the University of Buea. All three students went unmatched with their choices on their application and were offered admission into an entirely different program. In the focus group discussion, the students shared a number of important observations about their experiences. In all cases, the students failed a key subject on the high school national exam (G.C.E Advanced Level) that was a requirement for admission into their preferred university programs.

Even more concerning was the suggestion by the students that they were unaware of the entrance exam requirements and other requirements for their intended field of study. It raises the issue of how well students are guided and mentored as they pursue university. But, despite not meeting the requirements of their chosen programs, the university offered the students admission to programs in education.

The reaction of the students was telling. Most students shared how the decision to pursue a program in education was difficult. The students knew that pursuing education would mean receiving training to be a teacher, although the students had no prior passion for education sciences nor teaching.

Why do students persist with “unwanted” programs?

Given the result of the admission process for the students, it is possible that students could reject the offer altogether. But, the decision-making process is not straightforward especially when students’ socio-economic status is considered.

For instance, Brave lives with his mother and did menial jobs such as digging boreholes after completing high school to enable him to continue with his studies to the university level. He had stopped schooling for two years and was not ready to forgo another year out of school, so with the advice of his mother, he decided to enroll in the “unwanted” program. When Brave attempted to apply and enroll in an alternative higher educational institution, the fee was too high and he could not afford it.

Similarly, Shiloh expressed how financial difficulties made it difficult for her to enroll in another institution and move from her current location as she expressed:

“Financial issues, my dad is not very strong and I could not leave Buea.”

Ella felt that she had alternatives financially, but decided to pursue the education program despite the mismatched program acceptance.

Apart from students’ financial constraints, students hoped that they would have the ability to change their program in the course of their study. Despite this hope, the students in the focus group shared that stringent university procedures and policies made this difficult. In all cases, the students abandoned their efforts of transferring to another program within the University of Buea.

Finally, students’ end-of-first-semester results in the first year were equally a motivating factor to persist in their adopted programs. This finding is in line with previous research findings. When asked about their future plans, such as persisting in the same programs at postgraduate levels, the answer was emphatically no. The suggestion is that students are persisting in some cases, but without enthusiasm.

It is evident that explaining persistence for students in such circumstances is a complex, multifaceted, and individualized decision. There is a need to further explore the changes in students’ decisions over time and the factors that influence these changes, as well as the relationship between the course study and long-term career outcomes.

Future explorations

For a more in-depth understanding of students’ experience and the prevalence of “unwanted” programs amongst university students, I plan to carry out a mixed-method study that will be predominantly quantitative. The research will weigh institutional, individual, and psychological factors that shape persistence. Consequently, a mixed-method design will allow for in-depth responses, as well as the large-scale collection of data from universities in Cameroon.

I will employ multilevel modeling using students and institution factors to reveal what influences students’ decisions to persist. The inclusion of larger samples beyond Cameroon will establish baseline effects of program choices on educational persistence. Findings may reveal students’ lived experiences and key effects that will inform admission policies, as well as guidance and counseling services on issues related to program choices and student preparation for university study.

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