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Why Are More Poor Kids Going to College in the U.K.?


Like him, some will never get much further in their educations. “Certainly on the road to failure …; hopeless,” one of Lennon’s teachers wrote in an end-of-term report, widely reported much later by the British tabloids. And while he was narrowly accepted into art school, he dropped out before he finished.

But a growing number of low-income students do end up moving on successfully to higher education, thanks to not only Richards and his faculty but also to an impressive and expensive amount of work by local universities. That’s something to which many colleges and universities in the United States devote far fewer resources, and at which they have been much less successful.

What’s even more noteworthy is that British universities have managed to increase the proportion of their students who are low-income during a period in which tuition was imposed and rapidly increased after previously being essentially free. And while the progress is uneven and vulnerable to still more changes ahead — including a shift next year from grants to loans for students’ living expenses — how they have succeeded shows it can be done, and offers some examples of exactly how.

“It’s almost counterintuitive. Since the higher level of fees have come in, we’ve seen the highest proportion ever of low-income students in higher education,” said Les Ebdon, a former university vice-chancellor, or president, who now holds the singularly British title of national director of fair access to higher education.

Universities here have been allowed by the government since 2004 to set varying levels of tuition — at first, up to £3,000 per year, or $4,236, a maximum that has since grown to £9,000, or $12,708. Students repay the money later as a portion of their earnings once they reach an income of £21,000, or just under $30,000.

But to get permission to impose the highest fees, they have to set and meet goals approved by Ebdon’s office for enrolling more low-income, racial and ethnic minority, and first-generation students. This rule, which was put in place to mollify political opposition at the same time that the varying tuition was approved, costs the universities millions, but the expense is more than offset by the additional revenues that come from higher fees. “There’s an economic imperative for them to do this,” Ebdon said in the library-quiet headquarters of the Office for Fair Access in London’s Chancery Lane legal district.

The Victoria Building at the University of Liverpool (Wikimedia)

The American government, by contrast, does not regulate tuition, and has no such leverage over universities and colleges. Other than spending billions on financial aid, all it can do to encourage more socioeconomic diversity on campuses is goad and cajole them, as it did in a recent release of statistics that singled out which schools do the best and worst job of recruiting and graduating the lowest-income students.