Take your time over CAO choices


Next Tuesday is the deadline for the receipt of completed CAO application forms. Some 63,000 students - teenage and mature - will sit the first Leaving Cert of the millennium in June and the next week is make-up-your-mind time for them.

Year after year students are advised about the importance of taking enough time to make the proper choices about third-level courses - with the emphasis on choices (plural). Yet this advice often falls on deaf ears, as students rush to fill in the form and get it off to the CAO, in time, at all costs.

But taking a bit extra time this week will save a lot of grief in the months and years to come. And it will go some way to minimising the risk of finding yourself at the end of your first six months in college miserable and dejected at making the wrong choice, as many students do.

Because choice is what this is all about. You do have choice, considerable choice, both in the range of courses available and in the manner in which you can achieve your preferred choice.

Pessimism about the chances of securing a college place is fashionable, but the reality is more cheering. Last year, the number of offers exceeded the number of CAO applicants by some 20,000. (This was possible as some students are made offers from both the certificates/diploma and the degree list.) Of course, some applicants did not receive any offer, but in all, some 83 per cent of the 65,000 applicants who applied for a college place through the CAO received an offer.

Figures from 1998 show that about 56 per cent of the young people in the college age group were studying at third level, and about half them whom were taking degree-level programmes. The points race has become less of a race to the finish than a test of choice and reasoning. The number of college places continues to increase, while we are already beginning to see a decline in the numbers of school-leavers. (However, the number of mature students, some with and some without formal education qualifications, opting to go to college is increasing and these students will take up some of the extra available places.)

But it is the choice of possible entry points to third-level education which makes getting a course of your choice more attainable. No longer do you have to opt only for the university course or courses you want in the hope that you will have sufficient points; instead you can choose the cert to diploma to degree route. The CAO cut-off points for cert/diploma and degree courses are a function of supply and demand and not an indication of the quality of the course or of your suitability for that course and the career to which it will lead. The cut-off for a particular course is determined by the number of applicants, the points levels of these applicants and the number of available places. This magic number, the cut-off point for a particular course, is simply the points attained by the last student offered a place on the course.

More than 70 courses in the CAO list in 1999 accepted all qualified applicants. In the case of many national certificate courses, the minimum requirement is five ordinary-level D3s, or 25 points. An analysis of the results of school candidates who sat the Leaving Certificate in 1997 showed that 91.5 per cent of candidates attained this points score.

At the other end of the scale, there is a relatively small number of courses, mostly professional, where the demand for places far exceeds the supply. The Commission on the Points System has recommended that there should be a regular review of places on these over-subscribed courses. The numbers in third-level education have increased rapidly over the last 30 years - from 21,000 full-time students in 1965 to more than 103,000 in 1997-98. The report of the Steering Committee on the Future of Higher Education (1995) estimated that the numbers in third-level education would increase to about 117,000 by 2003, although it now seems likely that figure will be reached before then, as some 116,000 full-time students now are enrolled in third-level education in the State.