Tuition beggars in land of the free

August 4, 2000

I would not presume to advise on whether British universities should charge "top-up fees", but employing US models for UK problems betrays a lack of deep knowledge of the American situation.

* American state-funded institutions of higher learning are in the same position as UK universities in not being allowed to set their own tuition charges - this is normally done by the state commissioner of higher education, the state governor and legislature, or some combination of such authorities. The resulting tuition level is a highly politicised matter and, in the case of the major state research universities, it is set very low. In the past decade the rise in tuition fees at the these universities has lagged far below the cost of doing university business, resulting in a deterioration in the quality of research and teaching. Therefore Berkeley, Madison and Binghamton have deteriorated in their educational quality. Only state universities with large private endowments such as Austin, Urbana-Champaign and especially Ann Arbor have avoided this decline.

* The margin of student tuition fees in state research universities is in effect applied to reduce teaching loads to low levels across the board, whether or not an individual faculty member is doing significant research. At least 40 per cent of the faculty in such universities are drones getting an easy ride. Student tuition is providing the margin of support for these drones.

* Very well-endowed private universities such as Harvard and Princeton nominally charge very high tuition fees ($16,000 a year) but no more than a quarter of students are really paying these fees. Half are paying discounted fees - from 80 per cent of the nominal rate down to 20 per cent (disguised as student aid, merit scholarships and so on) - 25 per cent are paying very small or no tuition fees and at least 10 per cent are getting huge subsidies on top of free tuition. These are nearly always members of certain minority groups, usually blacks or Hispanics. The families who have to pay full or still high tuition costs are upper middle-class white families, half of them Jewish.

This situation can be justified or criticised, but its long-term social consequences are profound. Upper middle-class, often Jewish, families are paying the nominal draconian tuition rates for their scions, and in so doing are providing subsidies for the recruitment and training of a new segment of the elite drawn from black and Hispanic minorities.

Thereby these minorities lose the potential leadership of the rising generation, who are co-opted into the upper middle class. Some will applaud, some will condemn the politically conservative outcome of this complicated process - which is largely hidden from public view or debate.

n The most famous names in the private sector of American higher education - Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, Chicago and perhaps another ten institutions - have so much income from endowments and annual alumni giving that they can operate at very close to their current level of quality without charging tuition at all.

Tuition for these universities is therefore more a vehicle for screening the entrance to the study body and shaping its social makeup than a medium of paying for operational costs. Remember that these same elite universities get almost all of their science research and half of their humanities research paid by federal agencies and the big private foundations.

On the other hand, there are a number of good-quality private universities - led by New York, Brandeis and Boston - that draw 70 per cent of their income from tuition and could not operate without charging the same levels as Harvard, Princeton and so on.

If top-up fees are introduced in the UK, universities will in a few years be in the same position as these less fortunate universities. I call them tuition beggars, because they live from semester to semester only on the incoming wash of high student tuition. One prominent university in this category has over the past decade moved the start of its summer session back a whole month so that the fresh tuition flow from the summer session will come in earlier; otherwise it would have trouble covering salary costs each May and June.

It is useful for education reform commissions and panels of vice-chancellors in the UK to look at the American experience, but they need to study the US in all its diversity and complexity, not just in conversations over lunch at the Harvard and Princeton faculty clubs.

Norman F. Cantor

Hollywood, Florida

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