Invest in education and it will pay you all back

January 30, 2004

Adopting the Ivy League model could be a challenge to UK universities, students and society, says James Wright

Many leading US institutions have deep British roots, but transatlantic differences in funding and purpose have become clearer as the debate over top-up fees develops. The possible eventual removal of the cap on the proposed £3,000 variable fee, or even the full-blown privatisation of the universities, introduces an unambiguous convergence.

Inevitably, tuition fees at Britain's elite institutions will reflect their national - and international - standing.

There are suggestions that some British institutions might emulate the eight universities that comprise the US Ivy League, which epitomises the high-quality, high-tuition paradigm.

The US system of higher education includes well over 3,000 institutions, both public and private, that range from leading research universities to vocational colleges. These institutions are funded in different ways, including state and federal support, private philanthropy, research funds and tuition fees.

Dartmouth College, founded in 1769 by a charter from King George III and the financial support of William Legge, the second earl of Dartmouth, is a private institution and an Ivy League member. Through the 19th century, a Dartmouth education, like that of other US institutions, involved transmitting to students the received wisdom of the day. In the 20th century, influenced by German research universities, the emphasis shifted towards discovery and the creation of new knowledge but, in our case, with a commitment to undergraduate liberal arts. This means an education that is less concerned with training students in a particular area and more with exposing them to a wide range of fields and with teaching them to think critically.

As Ernest Martin Hopkins, the 11th president of Dartmouth, put it, the primary concern of liberal arts "is not with what (students) shall do but with what (students) shall be". Graduation requirements ensure that students take a range of courses from the sciences to the humanities, but there is no one programme of study. Students must concentrate 30 per cent of their courses in an elected field of study. By enrolling a diverse group of students, we create an environment that encourages students to learn from each other. Many go on to graduate school and to more specialised education.

Talented faculty, small classes, close student-faculty interaction, and the latest equipment and facilities mean that an Ivy League education is expensive. Institutions such as Dartmouth fund their programmes through a combination of tuition fees, philanthropy and research dollars. As tuition fees at leading institutions near $35,000 (£19,000) a year, remaining accessible is a priority. For example, Dartmouth was chartered to provide an education to Native American students and others. This is an obligation we take seriously, and we have broadened our mandate to include the whole range of the population.

While the education is undeniably expensive, almost half the students at Dartmouth receive some form of financial aid, funded either by the institution or by the federal government. Indeed, Dartmouth is one of the few US universities that admits students without taking into account their ability to pay. Over the past 20 years, we have seen a steady decline in the proportion paid by the federal government and an increase in the institutional portion. In 2003, Dartmouth provided $36 million in direct grants to students. Students also work and borrow to help fund their own education. The average student graduates $17,000 in debt. Our financial aid programme allows Dartmouth to remain accessible to a broad range of students. Thirty-two per cent of our students are from ethnic minorities, 7 per cent are international students and 15 per cent are the first in their families to attend college. Thus, rather than providing a superb education to an elite few, Dartmouth opens the possibilities of education to hundreds of students from modest backgrounds, who bring new perspectives to the college.

Alumni generosity makes this possible. Tuition fees account for almost 40 per cent of the annual operating budget, philanthropy provides another 40 per cent. Generations of alumni have given endowed funds or have given annually to the operating budget.

The Ivy League offers academic excellence and access and enables its students to invest in an education that will serve them as individuals and the society that depends on them for leadership. By preparing students for lives of learning, our institutions provide value for our students and for our society.

James Wright is president of Dartmouth College.

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