The Ivy League is touted as a model for the UK. But, despite their outreach initiatives and generous scholarships, Paul Lewis contends that US universities are as prone to hereditary elitism as Oxbridge
Four years ago, frustrated at Cambridge University's lack of dynamism in reaching out to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students at King's College took matters into their own hands. On a shoestring budget, six of us hired a minibus and visited several schools in the North East that rarely, if ever, sent students to Oxbridge.
Such recruitment initiatives were so rare that we attracted nationwide attention - a rusting minibus packed with left-wing students was regarded as the cutting edge of Oxbridge outreach work.
It's hardly surprising, then, that the Government gradually began to pin its hopes on Oxford and Cambridge emulating their US counterparts in admissions and recruitment practices. "In America, Ivy League universities scout for talent in some of the country's most disadvantaged schools," said Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Higher Education at the time. "Why don't our best universities track down the best potential brains?"
According to the Office for Fair Access, the key to admissions success at top universities is a model combining high fees, reinvested in big bursaries, with ambitious outreach initiatives - a mini version of the Ivy League system.
Needless to say, Ivy League universities would pass Offa's access agreements with flying colours. Two-thirds of Harvard University undergraduates, for example, have some form of financial assistance. On average, recipients get $24,500 (£12,700), but this can be up to $39,000. For some students, scholarships don't simply reduce the huge costs, they completely cover them. Under a package announced by Harvard this year, parents earning less than $40,000 will no longer pay towards their child's degree. But generosity comes at a price: next year, Harvard will spend nearly $100 million on scholarship aid.
Leading UK universities also provide generous aid packages to those who need them - Cambridge, for example, distributes some £1.5 million-worth of bursaries annually. Under the new access regime, top UK universities are likely to grant their poorer students bursaries comparable to those offered by the most generous of the Ivy League. However, the perception persists that top institutions in the US and the UK are unaffordable. A study published last year found that students and families from all economic backgrounds in the US, but particularly those from low-income groups, "substantially overestimate" how much they will have to pay for a university degree.
The major difference between the Ivy League and Oxbridge is their response to these exaggerated public perceptions of cost.
Oxford and Cambridge have long complained privately that the independence of their colleges makes coordinated admissions work virtually impossible.
But they are slowly beginning to undertake more outreach programmes. This usually involves large conferences, glossy prospectuses, open days and school visits. The more innovative ideas tend to be student driven.
One such successful scheme, popular in Oxford and Cambridge, sees students return home in the holidays to speak to local state schools. Yet funding for these schemes is so scarce that some students have had to resort to private sponsorship to make them happen.
Ivy League universities, by contrast, spend thousands of dollars per successful applicant on recruitment. Harvard delivers 80,000 letters a year to targeted low-income and minority students with high-performing academic backgrounds. Letters are often followed by personal phone calls. The result is tangible: 90 per cent of Harvard's minority students were directly contacted by phone.
"Recruitment is key to everything we do," explains Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of Harvard admissions. "We fly to 140 cities a year." Harvard's outreach operation is a phenomenal undertaking. Representatives will typically fly into a city in the early evening, meet with local parents and potential applicants that night and hold sessions for college advisers and teachers in the morning; they then move on to the next city in the afternoon.
"We always find time to meet with alumni during these visits," McGrath Lewis adds. "They're our eyes and ears on the ground." The same applies to other Ivy League universities: alumni help seek out top applicants, act as useful contacts for applicants and even do the interviewing. On the face of it, all this seems a reasonable system for ministers to want Oxbridge to replicate. Fees are high - but so are scholarships. Outreach initiatives are big-budget professional outfits that stop at nothing in pursuit of talented youngsters. And forget eccentric old dons whimsically interviewing trembling applicants - in the Ivy League, applicants are chosen by committee.
Yet, despite these efforts, the Ivy League remains disproportionately rich and white. At America's most selective universities, 3 per cent of students come from the country's poorest 25 per cent of families. Black students are similarly absent - in recent years, Harvard's black population hasn't increased significantly despite the millions of dollars spent.
But at least Ivy League universities are unrelenting in their search for underrepresented applicants, their advocates proclaim - at least they try.
But scratch the surface and you'll find that the universities are less meritocratic than their efforts imply. The problem is that fees alone don't fund professional recruitment machines and generous scholarships - alumni do.
In the US, alumni give more than $6 billion a year to higher education; for the Ivy League this means endowments have blossomed into multibillion-dollar fortunes - $22.6 billion in Harvard's case. In the words of McGrath Lewis: "We wouldn't want to be in a position to have to say to alumni, 'We've paid no attention to the significant assistance you've given us'." Nearly all Ivy League institutions offer some degree of advantage to applicants whose parent or grandparent is an alumnus.
The extent to which admissions committees privilege so-called legacy students is difficult to ascertain. Harvard claims it merely means that, all things being equal, the tie will go to the son or daughter of an alumnus. At Princeton University, legacy status is "taken into consideration". At Brown University, where admissions became "needs-blind" only last year, legacy status is "one of many factors" but still "a positive thing".
The results are more revealing than the rhetoric: success rates for children of alumni are often several times higher than for non-legacy applicants. The success rate for acceptances for the offspring of alumni at Princeton, for example, is 35 per cent, compared with 11 per cent of general applicants, but even this isn't enough for some. "They complain that more of their children aren't admitted," one Princeton official says.
One insider involved in Ivy League outreach work suggests to me that Harvard overcomes complaints from rich alumni by granting their offspring deferred entry via an infamous "Z-list". Harvard insists this is "not a legacy list", although a 2002 survey revealed that 72 per cent of Z-list students were found to be legacies, compared with some 13 per cent in the wider student body. "I know nine Z-list students," a Harvard undergraduate says. "All have very rich fathers who went to Harvard."
Legacy advantages have come under increasing criticism in recent years, particularly as most top private universities refuse to grant minority students the same benefits they offer legacy students. Democrat vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, for example, called legacy preferences "a birthright out of 18th-century British aristocracy, not 21st-century American democracy".
An unfortunate necessity or not, legacy privileges rely heavily on the kind of "old school tie" network, the very culture of hereditary elitism Offa wants Oxbridge to abandon.
Clearly, the Ivy League pays an admissions price for the donated dollars that fund ambitious scholarships and recruitment machines. British ministers might do well to return to their own aspiration-inspiring slogan - "Aim higher".
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