The American Way of Education

Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, 1909-1933, by John Singer Sargent.
Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, 1909-1933, by John Singer Sargent.

In America, media coverage of higher education is horrendous. Journalists and commentators refuse to address social-class bias in university admissions. In Britain, there is some awareness of that issue, but coverage is still deficient. And when British media-makers discuss American higher education, the result is often bizarre. They are able to see class bias in their native Britain, but unable to see it in America.

A couple years ago, I wrote this piece criticizing the rosy portrayals of elite American colleges by British journalists and activists. I argued that Britons’ false image of the Ivy League is an advantage for the prime minister, David Cameron, and other right-wingers who want to raise tuition fees and privatize UK higher education.

I submitted this piece to the London Review of Books. I never received a reply, but the issue has not gone away. So here it is.

The American Way of Education

As the Cameron government and private interests remake British higher education, they are aided by the American Ivy League’s commanding position in international rankings. In order to compete, the argument goes, British universities must emulate their most prestigious American counterparts, which happen to be private establishments that charge high tuition. Howard Hotson (LRB, 19 May 2011) and others have pointed out the fallacies of that approach, but the Ivy example retains wide appeal in the UK.

One reason for that appeal is British progressives’ habit of making elite US universities seem more socially inclusive than they are. When Oxford and Cambridge come under fire—as well they should—for low enrolment of working-class and poor students, critics of those institutions often claim that the Ivy League is more egalitarian. The tactic is familiar (‘Why can’t you be more like your American cousins?’), but foolish. It denies the unequal nature of private university education in the US, and paves the way for American-style inequality in Britain.

In April 2011, for instance, the Guardian published an article praising racial and social diversity at Harvard.[i] The writer, Jeevan Vasagar, cited Harvard’s announcement that record numbers of African-American and Hispanic applicants had obtained places in the university’s incoming class.

Racial diversity is one thing; social diversity is another. Regarding the latter, Vasagar wrote:

Harvard also appears to do better than elite universities here on a key indicator of encouraging poorer students. In 2008-09 the proportion of students on federal Pell grants at Harvard was 15%.

By contrast, data collated by the Sutton Trust charity indicates the percentages of pupils eligible for free school meals at leading English universities range from 0.8% at Oxford and Cambridge to 5.3% at King’s College, London.

In a study last year, the Sutton Trust noted ‘that the American Ivy League may be enrolling higher proportions of low income students.’

The Guardian’s claim about the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at Harvard also appeared in the report by the Sutton Trust, an organization dedicated to ‘promoting social mobility through education.’[ii] For his part, Vasagar closed by drawing a connection between the Ivy League’s private institutional wealth and access for disadvantaged students.

The Ivy League also benefits from greater wealth from their lavish endowments than England’s universities. More than 60% of the students admitted to Harvard this year will receive need-based scholarships averaging more than $40,000.

On that evidence, the Ivy League looks much more socially inclusive than Oxbridge. Fifteen percent is certainly a better showing than 0.8 percent, and think of all those low-income students enjoying generous scholarships made possible by Harvard’s overflowing coffers. However, that cheery depiction of social equality is misleading on every point.

Let’s start with the discussion of Pell Grants, a form of federal aid to university students with financial need. Not all those who receive Pell Grants are ‘poorer students’: eligibility for the program extends well into the middle class. The US government awarded Pell funds to tens of thousands of applicants with family incomes in excess of $60,000 in 2008-09.[iii] In 2009, median household income in America was just $49,777.[iv] Conversely, the Sutton Trust’s figures on access at English universities were based on a cohort of students in which only 12% received free school meals.[v]

So the Guardian and the Sutton Trust compared Harvard’s enrolment of students from the bottom 50-60% of the US income scale to Oxbridge’s enrolment of the poorest 12% of English students. It is difficult to imagine less useful points of reference. The Sutton Trust’s report did note that ‘Pell Grants are awarded to families with higher household income than those qualifying for [free school meals] in England,’[vi] but no similar clarification appears in the Guardian’s article. Either way, it is impossible to know how many (or how few) Pell students at Harvard have family incomes comparable to those of participants in the free-meals program.

The Sutton Trust and the Guardian distorted the comparison further by exaggerating Harvard’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients. The Trust’s source (and probably the Guardian’s) for the 15% figure is a report in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. That report is in error. A study by the Chronicle of Higher Education placed Harvard’s percentage of Pell students at 6.5% in 2008-09.[vii] In a letter to the Chronicle, Harvard admissions officials acknowledged that the 6.5% figure was correct, though they argued it was misleading.[viii] They stated that, had the Chronicle not counted students from the university’s extension program, the percentage of Pell beneficiaries at Harvard would have been approximately double the figure published in the report. (The Pell program is reserved for students on a degree course, and few extension students at Harvard are.)

That may be true, but it is beside the point. Many American universities operate extension programs, without causing the percentage of Pell Grant recipients on campus to fall into single digits. The Chronicle’s report listed the 50 wealthiest universities in America. Harvard ranked first in wealth, but 49th in enrolling Pell scholars. At eleven institutions on the list, Pell Grant students made up less than 10% of total enrolment. Ten of those institutions are private, including four of the eight Ivy League universities. At the other end of the scale, the state-supported University of California at Los Angeles had the highest proportion of Pell Grant recipients: 30.7%.[ix]

What about Harvard’s announcement that over 60% of its incoming students in 2011 obtained need-based scholarships valued at over $40,000 (a statistic that Jeevan Vasagar linked to the wealth of Ivy League universities)? The numbers look impressive, but Vasagar should have mentioned the annual cost of attending Harvard, which officials at that institution placed at $52,652 for the 2011-12 academic year.[x] The most salient point about Harvard’s press release is that nearly 40% of the new students had no need for the university’s scholarships.

The Guardian’s readers could be forgiven for concluding that America’s leading private universities are far superior to Oxbridge in terms of access, but such a conclusion is baseless. For its part, the Sutton Trust continues to treat the Ivy League as a model of social inclusion. In February, the Trust published this statement on its web site: ‘Harvard’s modern view of the role of the university enables it and other elite [American] universities to maintain the highest academic standards, but also to ensure that clever students from less privileged backgrounds get a chance.’[xi]

Other UK commentators fall readily into the same trap. During the Laura Spence affair in 2000, the mirage of Ivy League social equality made another British appearance. Spence, a student from a Tyne and Wear comprehensive, obtained an offer of admission and scholarship aid from Harvard, despite being rejected by Magdalen College, Oxford. Her applications became the focus of national controversy when Gordon Brown attributed her Magdalen rejection to ‘an old establishment interview system.’[xii]

The headmaster of Spence’s school, Dr Paul Kelley, coupled his criticism of Oxford with warm praise for Harvard. According to the BBC, Kelley ‘admired the way Harvard University handled its admissions, which involved a panel of 20 people considering a candidate’s qualifications, test and interview results “blind”—without knowing who the candidate was or where they were from.’[xiii]

Whether that paraphrase reflects Kelley’s understanding or the BBC’s, the reader is invited to believe that Harvard officials scrupulously prevent applicants’ social backgrounds from bearing on admissions decisions. That belief could not be farther from the truth. Like most top American universities, Harvard grants enormous preferences to ‘legacies,’ children of wealthy graduates.

In his 2006 book, The Price of Admission, Daniel Golden of the Wall Street Journal detailed numerous cases in which Harvard granted admission to legacies with records decidedly inferior to those of other successful applicants. ‘A conservative conclusion would be that the university welcomes [i.e., admits] well over half of applicants from the families of its biggest donors,’ he wrote.[xiv] At the time Golden’s book was published, Harvard’s overall admission rate was 9.3%. Today, it is 5.9%.[xv] Who says there is no aristocracy of birth in the USA?

America’s top private universities are riddled with class privilege. It is understandable that conservatives would laud such establishments, but self-defeating for opponents of social exclusion to do so. If Ivy League practices are adopted in the UK, they will only worsen educational disparities. When critics of Oxbridge portray the Ivy League as a beacon of equality, they give the attack on British universities the cover of American myth.

[i] Jeevan Vasagar, ‘Harvard admits record numbers of African-American and Latino students,’ 12 April 2011 (

[ii] ‘Responding to the new landscape for university access,’ the Sutton Trust (no author specified), 22 December 2010, p. 16 (; ‘About Us,’ a statement from the Sutton Trust web site (

[iii] ‘2008-2009 Federal Pell Grant End-Of-Year Report,’ Table 15, U.S. Department of Education (

[iv] ‘Historical Income Tables: Households’, Table H-8, U.S. Department of Education (

[v] ‘Responding to the new landscape for university access,’ p. 5, note 3.

[vi] Ibid., p. 16.

[vii] ‘Students With Pell Grants at Colleges With the 50 Largest Endowments,’ a data table accompanying the article by Beckie Supiano and Andrea Fuller, ‘Elite Colleges Fail to Gain More Students on Pell Grants,’ the Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 March 2011 ( Note: the data table showing percentages of Pell Grant students at individual universities is behind a subscription wall, but I have a copy.

[viii] William R. Fitzsimmons and Sarah C. Donahue, ‘Harvard’s Extension School Enrollment Affects Pell Statistics,’ a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 April 2011. Fitzsimmons is Harvard’s dean of admissions and Donahue is the university’s director of financial aid. I also checked to ensure that the letter to the Chronicle was authentic, and received an e-mail from a Harvard official stating that it was.

[ix] ‘Students with Pell Grants at Colleges with the 50 Largest Endowments.’

[x] ‘Harvard at a glance,’ summary posted on the Harvard University web site (

[xi] ‘Let’s put British youngster [sic] in the Ivy League,’ the Sutton Trust (no author specified), 27 February 2012


[xii] ‘Chancellor attacks Oxford admissions,’ BBC online (no author specified), 26 May 2000, (

[xiii] ‘Head “delighted” with admissions debate,’ BBC online (no author specified), 26 May 2000 (

[xiv] Daniel Golden, The Price of Admission: how America’s ruling class buys its way into elite colleges—and who gets left outside the gates (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), p. 26.

[xv] ‘The Class of 2010 is the most diverse in Harvard history,’ Harvard Gazette (no author specified), 30 March 2006 (; ‘A Brief Profile of the Admitted Class of 2016,’ Harvard College Office of Admissions web site (no author specified: