Sitting in circles in the Victoria College quad during my first couple of weeks of school, conversational ice breakers all followed a familiar pattern. Questions about names, residences, and learning streams would inevitably be followed by one question that always brought a jolt to the conversation: “What program of study (POSt) are you going for?”
At U of T, getting into your dream school is no guarantee that you will get to study your dream major. In fact, our university’s POSt system often means that getting over the hurdle of university acceptance — usually the most climactic event of someone’s adolescent life — is only half the battle. After being accepted, students have to wait until at least the end of first year to see if they will be allowed to study what they actually want.
How POSt is supposed to work
The main thinking behind the POSt system is that it gives students more time to think about the subjects they want to pursue. The main problem is that, when it’s time for them to decide, those choices are often not even available to them because of the competitive admissions process.
Applications for different programs vary immensely in their difficulty. In some programs, particularly those in the humanities, anyone can enter, but many others only accept a small percentage of applicants. This effectively forces first-years to scramble for unrealistically high minimum grades in a stressed-out haze to have a chance at getting into these programs.
This stressful competition could be avoided. Our school simply lets in so many first-year students that it is too full for students to have much choice in what programs they get to study.
U of T cannot educate everyone in the world who wants to learn here. The school has to sift out applicants at some stage. But instead of rejecting people during general admissions, U of T takes their first-year tuition — and a whole year of their lives — before deciding who is allowed to study what they want.
How itʼs breaking students
Sophia Witterick-Laskin, a second-year life sciences student, told me about how the POSt system left her spending her first year feeling “really, really stressed.”
“I felt from a lot of the people around me… if we didn’t get into those programs it was gonna be a waste of a degree,” Witterick-Laskin said.
Even though the POSt system eventually did let her into her dream program, she still cannot forgive it for her horrible first-year experience. She admitted that, during first-year, “we [students] met the prerequisites we wanted to… but we met nobody, because we spent all of our time doing schoolwork.”
Witterick-Laskin continued, “We were too stressed to work, to go do fun stuff, and to join clubs and to join extracurriculars.” The painful system even led her to start looking into transfer applications during her first year.
Perhaps the worst effect of the system is how, instead of welcoming first-years and supporting them in settling into university, U of T often breaks them down. Armando Rojas, a second-year computer science specialist and psychology major, spoke to me about uninformed first-years being told they are not guaranteed the ability to study computer science. “It kind of hits you like a truck,” he said.
His first year, which he spent trying to get into the computer science, math, and statistics (CMS) program at UTSC, was especially stressful. Upon entrance, his cohort of students were met with a harsh qualification process for the program. “Instead of having a set GPA, like all of the previous years, we had kind of like a battle royale kind of thing where only the top 200 out of the 400 [would get] admitted to CMS that year,” Rojas said.
It is also unfair to have such a momentous assessment be based on first-year grades, since the first year of university is inherently harder on some students than others. International students, on top of figuring out how to get to classes, have to figure out a new country. Also, students from high schools that did not prepare them as well for university start out academically behind and have to deal with POSt evaluations before they have the chance to catch up.
How we can break the system down
The main goal behind the POSt system is admirable. Choosing what subject to pursue is important; it has ramifications for roughly the next three years of students’ lives and often launches the trajectory of entire careers. But this theoretical benefit of giving students more time to choose programs is making people rip their hair out in practice. If U of T wants to realize the theoretical benefits of the POSt system, the school needs to make two fundamental changes.
First, our university accepts too many students in the general admissions stage for it to allow students flexibility in what programs they get to pursue once they are in. U of T lets in a massive herd of first-years by dangling in front of them the carrot of the major they want. But once they take the bait and enter — and have given the school a whole year of their life and a monstrous amount of tuition money — they are often blocked from actually getting to study what they want to study.
A university spokesperson emailed me about the computer science department, which only accepts 51 per cent of applicants through the POSt system. “The volume of applications continues to exceed the capacity of what the department is able to offer… As such, Computer Science will continue to offer limited-enrolment programs,” they wrote.
The university should take into account how many students departments are able to teach and then accept a smaller number accordingly, so there is flexibility for students to change majors once in school.
The second change U of T needs to make is to ensure departments are more adaptive to trends in student interests. The people paying to be here should not have to change what they learn based on what the university has room to teach. Rather, the university should change what it has room to teach based on what students want to learn.
If there are increased rates of students accepted into U of T wanting to learn computer science or psychology, those departments should be given the resources to expand the number of students they are able to take in. With the recent innovations forced by the shift to online learning, now is a great time to figure out creative solutions to expand faculties and allow students to study what they want.
At the core of this issue, there are two fundamental ways that our university can choose to act: mission-serving or self-serving. If it actually lived up to its stated mission of education, it would prioritize students’ ability to study what they are most passionate about. Instead, U of T seems to be perfectly fine with our hallways being full of miserable, stressed out, tuition-paying zombies studying their second-choice subjects.
The POSt system’s goal of giving students more time to decide their majors deserves to be realized. To achieve that, our school needs to tighten up general admissions and make departments more responsive to what students want.
Maeve Ellis is a first-year social sciences student at Victoria College.