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President Weighs in on Higher Ed Funding

"Many leading US institutions have deep British roots, but transatlantic differences in funding and purpose have become clearer as the debate over top-up fees develops. The possible eventual removal of the cap on the proposed £3,000 variable fee, or even the full-blown privatisation of the universities, introduces an unambiguous convergence. Inevitably, tuition fees at Britain's elite institutions will reflect their national-and international-standing."

If some of the terminology in that paragraph is obscure to the American reader, the topic, higher education financing, is less so. An editor of the Times [of London] Higher Education Supplement recently asked Dartmouth president James Wright to weigh in with an opinion article on a hotly debated funding issue. Thus the phrases "top-up fees" and "£3,000 variable fee" appeared in the Jan. 30 piece.

"There are suggestions that some British institutions might emulate the eight universities that comprise the US Ivy League, which epitomises the high-quality, high-tuition paradigm," Wright wrote.

That paradigm, he said, demands the proper balance between tuition and financial aid. "Almost half the students at Dartmouth receive some form of financial aid, funded either by the institution or by the federal government. Indeed, Dartmouth is one of the few US universities that admits students without taking into account their ability to pay.

"Over the past 20 years, we have seen a steady decline in the proportion paid by the federal government and an increase in the institutional portion," he said. "In 2003, Dartmouth provided $36 million in direct grants to students ... Our financial aid programme allows Dartmouth to remain accessible to a broad range of students. Thirty-two per cent of our students are from ethnic minorities, 7 per cent are international students and 15 per cent are the first in their families to attend college. Thus, rather than providing a superb education to an elite few, Dartmouth opens the possibilities of education to hundreds of students from modest backgrounds, who bring new perspectives to the college."

The chain of events that led to the publication of the article began last November, when Wright met with editors at the Times and the Financial Times during a trip to meet with Dartmouth alumni and students in London and Paris. Much of the discussion focused on the increasingly difficult financial straits of U.K. institutions and the proposal to charge significant fees to British university students for the first time.

"Talented faculty, small classes, close student-faculty interaction, and the latest equipment and facilities mean that an Ivy League education is expensive," the president wrote. "Institutions such as Dartmouth fund their programmes through a combination of tuition fees, philanthropy and research dollars. As tuition fees at leading institutions near $35,000 (£19,000) a year, remaining accessible is a priority...

"Alumni generosity makes this possible. Tuition fees account for almost 40 per cent of the annual operating budget, philanthropy provides another 40 per cent. Generations of alumni have given endowed funds or have given annually to the operating budget. The Ivy League offers academic excellence and access and enables its students to invest in an education that will serve them as individuals and the society that depends on them for leadership. By preparing students for lives of learning, our institutions provide value for our students and for our society."

- By William Walker

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Last Updated: 5/30/08