Education: Old man's burden

Britain may balk at the idea of students paying fees but in America the willingness of parents to pay them is the key to quality, says Peter Smith
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The Independent Online
Given that British students may eventually be taking out loans to pay for their tuition as well as their living costs, I have to ask: "Don't British students have parents these days?" The question arises spontaneously because I both know and admire the high level of undergraduate education available to gifted young people in the United States, and because I know that that high quality could not be maintained, or access for all qualified applicants provided, if two basic principles were not firmly in place. One principle commits parents to accepting, to the extent that they can, the responsibility of paying their children's undergraduate fees; the other commits the universities and colleges to providing financial aid to those who demonstrate the need for it.

Universities decide the extent to which parents are able to pay based upon very detailed information supplied to the institution by any parent who seeks its help. A dozen years ago, when my son was headed to Vassar College, my assumption was that his middle class parents' income was sufficiently small to qualify for some assistance from Vassar's financial aid funds; but I was not taking into account his being an only child, or the appraised value of the house we almost owned. And I was conveniently forgetting that our income was comfortably above the national average. The college's calculations (all of the top-tier institutions work with roughly similar formulae) told us that we would have to find all the money it would take to see Morgan through his undergraduate years (four of them in the US) and thus I took out the second largest loan of my lifetime - from one of the corporations which specialise in helping middle class families meet their educational bills, on reasonable terms.

Vassar is a private institution, making decisions about the fees it charges without any kind of government intervention, and the fees are substantial. But, like all other great private seats of learning enjoying tax-exempt charitable status, it is governed by a board of trustees whose principal concern is ensuring that it makes a contribution to the well-being of society as a whole. Thus a balance must be struck between meeting the costs of running an excellent college and the need to ensure that its fees are not beyond the reach of people of lesser means. Although I would have been glad to receive some help, the fact is that, when the painful moment came, I had no difficulty in deciding that Vassar's annual tuition fee (in 1985 it was the equivalent of pounds 5,590), was a sound investment; indeed, I don't think I've ever made a better one. (In the current year, incidentally, the Vassar tuition fee is pounds 12,260, and comparable institutions will be charging amounts more or less in that ball-park. In spite of strenuous efforts by their administrations, virtually all the major universities' and colleges' undergraduate tuition fees have increased at a rate greater than inflation for many years now, such is the peculiar mix of their principal expenditures. Room and board fees, which currently can be anywhere from pounds 3,000 to pounds 4,500 a year, have not increased as fast.)

The question that will spring to the minds of British parents, of course, is "Would you have felt the same way, Mr Smith, if the fees had been charged by a university already supported by your income taxes?" My answer is certainly "Yes". In fact, it is not a hypothetical question for American parents - tuition charges are levied by the public (state-funded) universities as well. If the University of Vermont had been my son's first choice among the places he applied to and was accepted by, I would have had to find pounds 1,576 in 1985 (pounds 3,960 in the current year) and would have been glad to do so, in spite of the fact that the combination of state income tax and sales tax I was already paying in Vermont is one of the largest such burdens in the US.

The law of supply and demand applies in the public sector too. If my son had enrolled at the University of Vermont as a resident of a state other than Vermont, I would have had to spend pounds 2,800 in 1985 (pounds 9,896 in 1996). Because UVM is relatively small and in a beautiful location, as well as a university with a good percentage of high quality departments, it can charge the highest out-of-state fees levied by any of the 50 state universities. In the current year, the ratio of in-state students to out- of-staters is 1:1.46, but the ratio within the fee income they generate is 1:2.73.

At Vassar in the most recent complete financial year, tuition income (all for undergraduate instruction) was by far the largest segment of the income pie-chart, at 54 per cent; the undergraduate tuition income fraction at the University of Vermont, though lower, at 34.4 per cent, was nevertheless the largest single source of income and more than twice the size of the Vermont legislature's subvention. To set alongside those figures are the ratios between tuition income and financial aid expenditure: at UVM for each dollar of tuition received roughly 22 cents was used to make it possible for the less well off to get a BA; at Vassar it was 37.5 cents. The result of these expenditures is that at Vassar 60 per cent of all students receive some kind of financial aid; at UVM the percentage is 65.

All of the best US institutions do their utmost to ensure that the applicants they most want to admit will be able to enrol, regardless of their financial situation. Combinations of outright grants, work-study earnings, and manageable levels of low-interest borrowing open the door to all-comers; the old tradition of "working your way through college" is still in place to some extent, supplemented nowadays by a sophisticated system of direct support. But the high tuition fees - easily paid by the wealthy (Rupert Murdoch's daughter was at Vassar at the same time as my son - our status as Vassar parents must be the only circumstance in which we were put in the same income bracket!), and paid with some struggle, but gladly, by the less well off - along with the results of vigorous fund-raising, importantly from their alumni, make the quality of the education at the best of the American colleges and universities as good as any in the worldn

The author is a graduate of Birmingham and Durham who has spent the past 30 years in America, on the staffs of the University of California, Dartmouth College, and Columbia University - at the last as Dean of the School of the Arts from 1987 to 1995.