Social Inequality, Score Ladders, and College Choice in Taiwan’s Expanded Higher Education

Written by Ruo-Fan Liu.

Image credits: aa070-20110701a by Yu Chih-Wei/Flickr, license by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you travel to Taiwan in February or July, you will probably hear people talk about their children’s exam scores in MRT stations, coffee shops, and traditional markets. These days, high schoolers are busy applying for colleges, sustaining admissions from selective universities, and hoping that what happens at this stage in their life will set themselves apart from peers in the future. Since the Taiwanese Government expanded higher education and diversified admission channels for different kinds of students, this process has become more complex, and admission rules are continually changing. Recently, I have been trying to understand whether the transformation from exam-based admissions to multi-channel admissions has eliminated existing inequality between the privileged and the underprivileged in admission competitions. I have seen how both the privileged and the disadvantaged try to game a system that is designed to have rigid rules and, in theory, allows little room for the privileged to gain the upper hand unfairly. 

Lands of Opportunities or Paths to Reproduction? 

Last year, I followed 42 Taiwanese high schoolers who were navigating college admissions.  I grouped the students into middle-class and working-class based on whether one of their parents has a college degree.While scholars argue that students fail to seek opportunities due to the ignorance of possibilities, I found something more like the opposite. I saw how students struggled to eliminate future possibilities among given options; how they were anxious about the college selection results, and how they dealt with forks in the road when original plans became impossible. The issue was not ignorance per se, but that a range of different groups were trying to decide for students what options were available. During my visit to a rural high school, school counsellors “customized” college tracks for low-ability teens and student-athletes that dissuade them from more academic majors. At the same time, lower-tier university recruiters advertised admissions as opportunities for stable careers by providing several scholarships with a lower standard of course-loading. In contrast, teachers in gifted programs encouraged students to “move up” even if their scores had not reached the threshold. Elite universities sought students in gifted classes at an early stage and assisted them in navigating early admissions selections. I witnessed how adults conveyed possibilities to teens when teens had not even decided their career goals. Teachers, parents, and college recruiters regularly referred to quantified indicators such as scores, admission thresholds, and the rankings to tell students where they placed, what kind of person they would be in the future, and what careers were available for them to dream of based on scores.  

Taking Advantages of Transparent Rules: Family and School Involvement Vary According to Social Class.

As I helped students package application materials and prepared mock oral exams, I witnessed how teachers, parents, peers, and college recruiters tried to intervene in students’ college decisions. I found that middle-class and working-class parents were both deeply involved in trying to secure admissions, but forms of involvements varied. For example, a working-class mother communicated with her daughter about colleges via the LINE app, whereas a middle-class mother accompanied her son to every musical competition. The key difference was in whether they took advantage of the transparency of the system to seek coordination from others. Given explicit rules and selection phases, middle-class parents can decide when to prepare and accumulate which type of academic records, as well as seek help in varied admissions selection phases. However, working-class parents often accompany students, offering emotional support rather than crucial assistance before the admission selection. It is not that working-class parents were not trying or did not want to help their children; it is that they could not provide the same help that middle class-parents did.

Through comparing forms and types of adult involvements, one can observe how different types of support were translated into different kinds of advantages in the college entrance system. To secure admission advantages, two actions are especially crucial. First, to read admission rules carefully and prepare the whole process in advance. Second, to coordinate the division of labour between multiple people based on the understanding of the admission rules. It is not involvement per se, but the timing of involvement that matters more to secure admission advantages. 

A Manifesto for Public Stratification.

As a Taiwanese scholar who has studied our own country in Western academia, I have always had to justify Taiwan’s significance. In the case of admission systems, the multi-channel nature of Taiwan’s system, as well as the general transparency of information, has led to a unique issue I call “public stratification.” Transparency increases recognition of the game and puts responsibilities on individuals for undesirable outcomes. In a system where admission rules and selection phases are explicit, people believe that everyone has an opportunity because the routes to college are well mapped out. This foreknowledge and seeming openness, however, conceals the problem of inequality because some rules are clearly in favour of the middle class. 

At the time of writing this, August 7th is about to arrive. On that day, the college placement committee will assign every student a college slot. Many high schools will announce the number of high school graduates who obtained admissions from Ivy Leagues. Reporters will find high-scoring students and interview them about how they earned high scores. Parents will become annoyed after being asked “which colleges do your kids attend?” over and over. Cram schools will advertise their students’ high grades and good placements in colleges. All of these moments reveal what I term “public stratification”. This is a process by which status is attached to “lower” and “higher” college tracks, and social strata are reinforced through reference to scoring ladders, rankings, and hierarchies of institutions. 

Ruo-Fan Liu is a PhD candidate from the Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her research focuses on cultural reproduction in higher education, mixed methods, and life courses. She was trained as an ethnographer and has conducted digital and traditional ethnographies. Before coming to Madison, she was an author, a public commentator, and a Fulbrighter. 

Over this year, I have been reflecting on my personal experience of studying in the US and Taiwan. I ask myself, as a Taiwanese scholar, “Is equal opportunity a myth or a truth in Taiwan?” If we want to fulfil the goal of equity, then which systems do we want? Do we want a system that allows people to dream unrealistically and remain undetermined in their young ages, or a system that tells everyone how ambitious you could dream based on scores and merits?” 

This article is part of a special edition on higher education and inequality in Taiwan.

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