It’s silly season in the US: the start of the presidential campaigns. The earliest primaries are still five or six months off, but candidates are already competing to dominate the agenda and the polls. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, the best way to do that is to court publicity with conflictive utterances calculated to attract minorities. In a big field of candidates, you score more highly by galvanising a modest number of loonies than by being everybody’s second choice. So the presidential contenders outstrip each other. Immigrants? Wall them out or welcome them in. Healthcare? Expand or expunge. Iran? Bombard or befriend. Undocumented foreign workers? It looks like a choice between expulsion and exculpation. The economy? Pinch the poor or ravage the rich. Terrorists? Talk or – dare I say it? – trump.
On one subject, however, a remarkable degree of consensus has emerged in both the major parties: the cost of further and higher education is too high. Everyone agrees, moreover, that the present system perpetuates inequality: the rich get the advantages of superior education, even if they are dumb.
These deficiencies matter even more in the US than in the UK because in popular perception, only slightly exaggerated, “going to college” is Americans’ main means of social ascent and economic self-improvement. As the job ads say: “Ability to lift heavy weights and bachelor’s degree required.” Yet, for three main reasons, the poor are better served here than in most of the UK.
First, in the spirit of the land of the free, there are options to suit every pocket. The cheapest deals for a bachelor’s degree are at the armed forces academies, which provide genuine, all-round university education for free, or $80 a year for tuition at Haskell Indian Nations University. There are about 150 institutions that charge less than $3,000 a year. The average at publicly maintained universities, according to the federal Department of Education, is $7,716 (about £4,900); so over four years to graduation, the sticker price is about the same as three years at the cheapest place in England. In the US, however, you can do the first two years of your study at community college at a typical annual cost of a little over $3,000, bringing the overall average down to about $5,500. At the expensive end of the scale, if one reckons the UK’s magic £9,000 fee at $14,400, there are only a dozen public universities (out of more than 600) that charge that much. Institutions are so widely distributed, moreover, that about half the national undergraduate population limits other expenses by living at home.
Second, means-testing applies almost universally. It does not work perfectly. It drives up ticket prices, and many universities, especially in the maintained sector, have a poor record of distributing their funds. According to a recent survey reported in The Atlantic, in 2010‑11, only 3 per cent of institutions increased aid by as much as they increased fees. Nevertheless, in most places, means tests do bring costs within almost everybody’s reach. Many public universities have endowments of their own, which they can wield to broaden access: recently, for instance, the University of Texas has received a lot of attention for a scheme to credit freshmen who have done community college courses while at high school. Some universities guarantee places to community college graduates. In the past few years, Arizona State University (modestly endowed by US standards, with only $628 million) has increased its enrolment by nearly 50 per cent, to a total of more than 80,000 students, to generate income for more subsidies.
Finally, the existence of many rich, independent universities favours poor students. It favours rich students, too, as even a child who costs a plutocrat nearly $50,000 a year for tuition at Columbia University or the University of Chicago gets a hidden subsidy from the foundation in terms of plant, personnel and resources. But the best universities accommodate students who meet entrance standards, regardless of cost to the endowment. If a student cannot afford the fees, the university pays. Here at Notre Dame, for instance, where we enrol about 2,000 freshmen, the nominal cost of tuition this year will be nearly $48,000, but about three-quarters of our students get some relief, and we devote whatever is required (currently $120 million a year) to meet every demonstrated financial need. Scholarships tied not to income but to particular skills help: athletic prowess is the most over-represented talent in this connection – and while you can buy coaching for exams, the rich command less of an advantage in agility and dexterity.
Politicians’ suggestions for reducing overall costs have been unimpressive. Barack Obama has got little further than proposing controls on the rate of interest on student loans. Among presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton has achieved nothing except the subversion of her own credibility with a plan to add imaginary billions of federal funding to existing subsidies. Bernie Sanders, the self-professed democratic socialist who is leading her in many polls, wants to reclassify higher education as a public good instead of a marketable commodity – which is right but romantic. Republicans’ suggestions all focus on using market forces to bring prices down – which is unromantic and wrong. So far, no candidate has urged on disadvantaged electors the obvious source of consolation: thank God you don’t have to borrow £9,000 a year.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history, University of Notre Dame in the US.