Unconditional offers are bad for higher education

There is a widely held misconception that American universities routinely make unconditional offers, as if this makes it an acceptable thing to do in the United Kingdom.
The two university systems are very different and have developed application approaches which reflect their unique qualities.

The new trend in the UK, where some 40,000 unconditional offers have been made in the current cycle of UCAS – the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service – is bad for UK higher education, bad for education per se and bad for students.
The United States is renowned for its liberal arts approach. An American university will encourage undergraduates to undertake a wide range of studies and experiences to help them identify what they are really interested in, before specialising. University life will be all-encompassing, with students expected to be involved in college life and play an active part in clubs, societies and campus-based activities.
In the UK, university life is immediately focused around subject expertise and career knowledge, with extra-curricular activities as a healthy extra. The emphasis is on developing industry-leading skills right from the start, and courses often support knowledge and skills acquisition with an occupation or industry needs in mind.

The application system reflects this. Centrally administered through UCAS, its main measurement criteria are exam results and subject knowledge.

American universities take a more holistic view of applicants, looking at many more qualities as part of the application process. They look at Grade Point Average across a student’s academic career; participation in sports and club activities, for example; and also have teacher references and a student statement. Every American university will vary slightly in its approach, but this general range of measures will be used by them all.
Students receive a letter saying they are accepted – the offer is conditional, based on successfully completing the final set of school exams. This acceptance letter may be where the misconception has developed, wrongly suggesting that it is like an unconditional offer through UCAS in the UK. The two are fundamentally different.
Differences in the two systems

An American university will want to see the final transcript of a student’s last term at school. Some universities make it very clear that if the student doesn’t get the standard required they’ll get an academic probation in their first term; or the institution may revoke the decision to offer a place.

Students are aware that they need to continue to do well. There can’t be a large drop in grades. Going from an A to a B may not cause a problem, but an A to a C might do. This is an incentive for students to keep working and doing their best in final school exams, plus American universities build in other incentives too.
Good exam results in any of the well-respected exam systems like the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme or IBDP, Advanced Placement or AP, or A levels can lead to exemptions from whole courses, even whole years of study.
An example might be if a student achieves a six or seven in English in their higher level IBDP (equivalent to an A or A* in A level) and then won’t need to take English composition in the first year at university. Some of our students will secure a full year of credit, taking them from a four- to a three-year course. Harvard offers no such credits, it should be noted.
At present there are no such incentives at universities in England. An unconditional offer through UCAS is just that. The place is secure, based on the results of exams taken a few years ago, and a prediction from your school of what exam results you are likely to achieve in a few months’ time.
The principle of this worries me. It’s becoming more and more common, but is it ethical? Is it right for most students? I certainly don’t think it’s right for our teachers or educators.
Getting the right fit

Passing exams is an important – indeed essential – life skill. Students need to develop skills to take tests. They will face tests of one sort or another in higher education and then throughout their working lives.
Part of the programme of education is developing these skills and students should be taking exams and taking them seriously. By offering unconditional offers you undermine that programme.
Unconditional offers are often bad for the student too. The unconditional offer may be for a university which isn’t the right fit for the student. We know that courses vary enormously. We know that universities themselves are hugely different.

As a professional student and careers counsellor, why would I ever advise a student to take a place on a course that isn’t quite right for them? The guiding principle to choosing a university place is always about the fit.

Of course, I accept that there are times when unconditional offers are useful. Last year, for example, one of our students took a place through an unconditional offer. He had offers in architecture and he decided to take the unconditional offer to a university which wasn’t his original first choice, but he was still interested in that school of architecture. From a counselling perspective it is not what we would advise, but for him it was right as it took away the worry of his final exams.
In a few cases the unconditional offer may be genuinely helpful. Overall, though, it isn’t.
British universities should not be mistaken into thinking that they are adopting the American approach. There is a much better system of checks and balances involved in applying to American universities.

For the sake of all those involved in education, UK universities should take this on board and stop making thousands of unconditional offers.
Dr Ryan Hinchey is coordinator of college counselling and college/university counsellor at ACS Cobham International School, Surrey, United Kingdom.