What British universities can learn from across the pond

Stevie Hertz 21 January 2016

Congressman Reed’s proposals discuss a perpetual issue at private American universities: that, despite their extreme wealth, they still seem to charge a crippling amount in tuition. Harvard currently has an endowment of over $36 billion, equivalent to the GDP of several small countries. Yet despite this,they continue to price tuition at over $45,000 a year (£31,000).

Discussing the ridiculous tuition at American private universities is not original, but it can produce insights that are not often considered in British discussions.

When I toured Ivy League colleges as a prospective student in 2013, each university’s representative, in almost identical speeches, were eager to enforce the idea that – despite the staggering figures – you would “only pay what you could afford,” for both your tuition and your living costs.

Financial aid was calculated with a terrifying form that went far beyond what your family earned, to how they spent it, right down to individual hair cuts. But the universities swore that this enabled them to understand your circumstances and offer the most reasonable amount of financial aid.

Princeton attests that all students can graduate without debt. Yale said that for families with an income under $100,000, tuition and room and board would cost 10%, less than £7000 a year. Almost everyone at these top institutions receives some form of aid – more than 70% of Harvard students.

Support provided went beyond the normal or even necessary: Yale paid for flights home for foreign students, Brown a trip to Rome for those studying beginner’s Italian. One small liberal arts college even offered a fund for parties, so students could attend, regardless of their economic situation.

While these examples seem extreme, British universities ought to gain an understanding of financial aid far more sophisticated than that of the Student Loans Company.

By showing a ‘ticket price’ of the highest amount, private American universities have allowed themselves to create tailor-made tuition based on what each student can afford, and also letting them to maintain the lifestyle of their peers while they are there.

Obviously, this is only tenable for outstandingly rich universities (reflected in the debt students from the vast majority of US universities graduate with). But for those institutions that can, such as the one in which we sit, a real financial aid package is an outstanding equaliser