High graduate debt state-side is rare and considered highly undesirable

Sir Peter Lampl reports on how US universities don’t want students leaving with big debts

I’m in the United States this week, visiting Ivy League universities to find out more about what they offer, preparing the ground for next year’s Sutton Trust US summer schools.

Here, the situation is very different. For one thing, one can’t help but be impressed by these magnificent universities and the quality of what is on offer. They certainly deserve their standing in the international league tables.

The American undergraduate has a much broader education than their British counterpart, typically spending two years taking a broad subject mix before majoring in one or possibly two subjects.  At Harvard an admissions officer told me that a distinguished former President said that when you graduate from Harvard, the objective is that you know a little bit about everything and a lot about one or two things. As someone who had to specialise much too early, as is the case with the English system, that strikes me as a pretty good principle.

But it is also on student funding that the differences between the US and the UK are starkest. American universities don’t want to see students starting life with significant debts.  This may surprise those who argued for raising the tuition fee to £9,000 for all in England thinking that we are just catching up with the Americans.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

An excerpt from the Princeton Financial Aid brochure puts it in perspective.  “Our no loan policy has made it possible for most students to graduate with little or no debt.  About 75% of our students graduate debt free.  Of the remaining 25% who choose to borrow, usually for additional expenses such as a laptop computer, the average total indebtedness at graduation is $5000.  For comparison, about 66% of college seniors in the United States graduated with loans in 2010, and they carried an average debt of $25,250.”

So the reality is that a third of Americans graduate with no debt and the two-thirds who do have loans to repay carried an average debt of $25,250 (£15,700) and that is for a four-year programme.  This contrasts sharply with the system in England where graduates will owe on average almost 3 times as much – $73,000 (£45,000) after only a 3 year course.

Americans find this hard to understand.  I remember talking to Lou Gerstner, former IBM chairman and CEO and now a major education philanthropist, about the plans to treble university fees in England. “What: you’re loading students from low and middle income households with debt? He asked, “What are you doing that for?  That’s a bad thing to do.” I now understand where he was coming from.  In the US, the newspapers complain about states raising tuition fees by 7% per year. People are astonished to hear that we just put ours up by 200% in one year.

Harvard, Yale and other Ivys have large endowment funds enabling them to provide needs blind admissions to students from anywhere in the world, with accommodation and tuition fees – worth $60,000[1] (£37,000) a year – free to those with family incomes below $65,000[2] (£40,000) a year.  All student support funds are means-tested.

Columbia, Brown,the University of Pennsylvania and many others pay the tuition and accommodation costs of all their less privileged students from the US and the costs of study for many less privileged overseas students.

Around seventy five per cent of US students go to public universities, which have big state subsidies, whereas we have cut the teaching grant in England by 80% so we are funding just one tenth of university teaching costs, effectively removing state funding for supporting undergraduates.

The truth is that when it comes to debt, we are a complete outlier amongst developed nations, drastically reducing state funding of universities when others are increasing theirs.

US universities want graduates to feel able to go into teaching or get involved in public service rather than head to Wall Street, without worrying about paying back a mountain of debt. They also want their graduates to feel able to go to graduate school, and indeed at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia which I visited, two thirds of its graduates go to grad school within five years of graduation, which is typical for leading US universities.

In England last week, we learnt how less privileged graduates are being put off studying for Masters degrees and doctorates, with a potential cost to their careers and our economy.  The Higher Education Commission report highlighted how postgraduate education in the UK is becoming increasingly the preserve of well-off students from overseas.

By contrast, Ivy League universities are on a hunt for the best talent in the world, and they don’t want their affordability to stand in their way. So they will fund those that can’t afford full fees in their studies, the vast majority from abroad as well as the US.   I support the Commission proposal for a state-backed loan scheme that should be pursued alongside other measures to support non-privileged postgraduate students.

The Sutton Trust has also commissioned research in this area by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, looking at what the effects of leaving university with large debts are on the ability to go to graduate school, buy a house, start a family and so on.

But we need to think again about the debts we are loading on our low and middle income graduates– and learn the lessons from America about how to fund our universities and our students.

A British Take on the American Dream

James Turner reflects on the experience of the first US Sutton Trust summer school

As well as contending with the early UCAS deadline and the stresses and strains of A levels, hundreds of British youngsters are currently navigating the US university application process – particularly those hoping to make the 1st November early decision deadline.

The majority of these will be in fee-paying schools where applications to the US are becoming more common – along with dedicated advisers to help guide students through the morass.

But at least fifty of these young people won’t be from our top private schools. They are from state schools and low and middle income homes and are participants in the Sutton Trust’s first ever US summer school and advice programme, run in partnership with Fulbright.  They were recruited last winter from a pool of 700 applicants, and have enjoyed a programme centred on an unforgettable week in Yale in July.

I was lucky enough to accompany the students and witness their reactions as they saw not only Yale, but Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Trinity and Wesleyan too.  Their enjoyment and inspiration more than repaid the long hours which went into to developing the programme and numerous logistical headaches – I can testify that there is little more stressful than shepherding dozens of teenagers down a bustling Fifth Avenue.

From those heady summer days the students have really had to buckle down and put in some serious work.  In addition to the common application form, most US universities also require students to complete a supplement, which includes at least a couple of essays. Added to that, students need to prepare for the SAT or ACT admissions tests – and most colleges also want a couple of subject tests to boot. And then the youngsters need to start considering which of the hundreds of US universities are the right fit for them.

There’s also an interesting need to re-orientate from a British perspective. There is no room for English reserve in the three teacher references American universities require, for example – if the student is amongst the best a teacher has taught in their career, this needs to spelt out. And US universities are looking much more widely than academic achievement and who is going to get the best degree – they are also interested in extra-curriculars, leadership and, above all, context, context, context.   An application focussed solely on a love of physics is unlikely to cut the mustard.

The prize is certainly worth the effort, though. The fact that 50 of the 64 students we took to the US in the summer are still in the game is testament to that.  As our chairman has pointed out, if any of our students are lucky enough to get into one of the six institutions which offer a full ride to international students, everything will be free – tuition, living costs, travel. No debts on graduation and a qualification that sets you apart from the pack. Plus there are a couple of hundred of other US universities which offer generous aid, 50 or 75 percent of costs, to British students.

The programme is a classic Sutton Trust initiative, founded on the belief that if a great opportunity exists, it is fundamentally unfair – not to mention a shameful waste of talent – if it is being accessed only by a narrow section of society. Last year, 80% of the 4,500 Brits who chose the US for undergraduate study were from private schools. We need to expose US admissions staff to the great pool of talent in British schools beyond the usual suspects.

So, our US programme will expand in 2013, at Yale and elsewhere, acting as a beacon to other state school students harbouring an American dream.

Meanwhile, I am full of admiration for this year’s studentship.  The very best of luck to them all.

Making the Pupil Premium go Further

Conor Ryan asks whether the Government is making the most of the pupil premium.

Most schools face standstill budgets, or real terms cuts.  But some of the school budget is growing, and will grow further. The pupil premium, worth £600 this year, rises to £900 next year and could reach £1200 per pupil by 2015. The challenge for schools is how to use that money where it will have most impact – and there is a case for incentivising effective practice.

The pupil premium was part of both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestos. It had two important roles: firstly, to narrow the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and their classmates, and secondly, to encourage successful schools to take more disadvantaged pupils.

Previous governments have provided extra resources for such pupils through extra funding to local authorities with high levels of poverty. Nevertheless, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that pre-premium extra funding in the system attached to deprived pupils amounts to £2000 in primary schools and £3000 in secondary schools. And that has had variable impact.

But this is the first grant paid to schools for each disadvantaged pupil, regardless of where the school is located. The Government decided against ring-fencing the premium, relying instead on schools publishing details of spending on their websites and extra league table measures.

But there is mounting evidence that the premium is not being used as intended (nor is there any evidence that is changing admissions behaviour). Ofsted reported last month that often schools did not disaggregate the pupil premium from their main budget, and said that the funding was often used to maintain or enhance existing provision.

The National Foundation for Education Research, in a survey of 1700 teachers in 1200 English schools for the Sutton Trust earlier this year, showed that little of the pupil premium allocation for 2012-13 – a sum worth £1.25 billion in total – was likely to be spent on activities proven to be the best bets for boosting attainment. Many would spend it on staff rather than improving teaching.

But there is evidence of the most cost effective approaches to improving standards. Researchers at Durham University assessed 21 different interventions for both impact on attainment and relative cost and helped the Sutton Trust to create a toolkit which a growing number of schools are using priorities for the premium. The toolkit will be updated and expanded by our sister organisation, the Education Endowment Foundation, in 2013.

The Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit shows that there are three strategies that schools can undertake with a high impact at relatively low cost. Using evidence from here and abroad, they calculate that each of these strategies can provide the equivalent of between six and nine months extra learning, at a cost of around £170 per pupil.

The single most effective strategy is improved pupil feedback, which should be an important part of a school’s drive to boost the quality of teaching and learning. Other low cost proven methods include teaching pupils to learn effectively and peer tutoring, where young people help each other to learn.

Of course, a growing number of schools are already turning to the Toolkit for ideas, and a new version will be online early next year. However, there is surely a case for the Government to help give proven ideas a further boost.

As the size of the pupil premium pot grows, why not use some of it to match fund schools’ spending on proven strategies? It is not as if the Government is opposed to ring-fencing any of the premium; Nick Clegg has used it to fund summer catch-up schools.

So, why not have a pot which schools where schools could double a proportion of their premium provided they spent it on a menu of proven activities? With a little extra incentive, ministers might find that the pupil premium went a lot further.

Debunking the Myths Around School Choice

Lee Elliot Major on the difference a school really makes to academic grades

“Stop looking around at everyone!” I  am back at school and being scolded again. But not by a teacher. It is my better-half who is telling me off, as I crank my neck around to see who else is present in the packed school hall. We are sitting among rows of similarly anxious parents and fidgety children waiting for the head-teacher to deliver her ‘pitch’. Then, ten minutes later, we are swept off by a Year 9 pupil on a dizzying tour of colourful corridors, computer labs, and crowded classrooms.

Like hundreds of thousands of parents up and down the country, the start of this academic season signals the search for the right secondary school for one of our children.

In North London, this is a particularly tortuous time. Guilt-ridden liberal-minded middle-class types are at pains to justify their decision to abandon the state system for private schools elsewhere. And those who have committed to the local Comp have been transformed into evangelical zealots. There is no end in sight for England’s ancient education divide.

But what is shocking to me is that otherwise highly intelligent, sensible, well-balanced parents appear to be making school decisions based on hearsay, second-hand rumours, and, probably most damaging of all, some basic education myths and misunderstandings.

Probably the single biggest myth is that a child’s academic grades are mostly determined by the school they attend. If school A has 100% of children with 5 GCSEs including English and maths, and school B has only 50% meeting this benchmark, then school A must be twice as good as school B, right?

Well, actually no. One of the few unassailable findings of education research over the last five decades is the ’80-20 rule’: roughly 80% of the variation in children’s school results is due to individual and family characteristics outside the school gates, with the remaining 20% due to what actually happens during school.

You can do the maths in terms of final GCSE grades, and it produces a surprising result. The impact of an average pupil going to the very best performing school in the country rather than the worst performing school would be an improvement in his or her results by one GCSE grade, say from a C and to a B for each GCSE taken.

There are important rejoinders to this finding. Some schools can and do have a bigger impact than others – as shown by markedly different academic results despite very similar intakes of children. Parents would do well to look at the wealth of Government data now available for individual schools, showing progress for different groups of pupils. Even a cursory look will prompt some challenging questions for teachers. And inspection reports can provide useful context alongside these figures.

It is also true that in an increasingly competitive education race, one extra grade at GCSE can make the critical difference. It can determine, for example, whether you get into a selective sixth form.

But this doesn’t detract from the overwhelming message that if you are a child from a secure and supportive background, then you will do well academically at most schools. That puts the whole question of school choice into a completely different perspective.

In fact probably the best question parents can ask is how a school is addressing the variation in teaching quality across a school. There is no public data available on this. But education research tells us that the biggest differences in results is within schools not between them. We also know that teacher quality is the key driver – not class size, not school type, not uniform, certainly not school buildings.

This is one of the major messages of the Sutton Trust-EEF teaching and learning toolkit, a guide to the most cost-effective approaches for improving attainment in schools. Originally commissioned by the Sutton Trust, the toolkit is now being developed by the Education Endowment Foundation – and should be compulsory reading for every parent.

There are of course many things apart from academic results to consider when thinking about a school. But if you simply want to know what the school’s average GCSE grades will be in 5 years time, then just look around you at who else is present during the school’s open day. The answer is staring you in the face.