Defying Gravity

February 11, 2010 - As Published in the Times of London Higher Education Supplement

Defying gravity: elite applications skyrocket as public bodies crash

Who would have expected that in the midst of America's Great Recession - when millions are without work, employment prospects remain grim and families continue to struggle simply to keep roofs over their heads - our nation's most selective, and on the face of it, expensive, universities are seeing applications skyrocket?

At my institution, the University of Pennsylvania, the application pool has risen by a record-breaking 17 per cent, with 26,700 candidates seeking one of 2,400 places in next autumn's freshman class. The universities of Harvard, Princeton, Brown and many others have experienced significant spikes, too.

Those who follow only the headlines about the increasingly high sticker price of an Ivy League education may have been led to believe that just the reverse would happen: as family incomes decrease, so would the inclination of high-school students to apply to these so-called "elite" institutions.

Understandably, students anxious about the volatile economic landscape are submitting more applications to more colleges than they have in the past. But why, in the depths of the downturn, have the US' most selective colleges become more sought after than ever before?

It is far too soon to know all the reasons for the rise, but three major trends in the landscape of higher education appear to be at work.

One is a change for the better: a sea change in the financial aid policies of the most selective private universities has made the best of higher education more attractive and affordable to families on low and middle incomes.

By offering financial aid packages that meet students' full needs without loans, universities such as Penn are making it possible for students to receive a world-class education without incurring a mountain of debt. No student with demonstrated need ever pays the full sticker price of a Penn education. A student from a typical family earning $90,000 (£56,670) a year, for example, pays no tuition or fees.

America's most selective universities have made serious financial commitments to increasing access for students from more modest backgrounds. For example, Penn's undergraduate aid budget increased by 20 per cent this year to $135.1 million, funded in large part by operating budget efficiencies and the generosity of alumni who avidly support our mission to increase access to the most talented students, regardless of their socio-economic status.

A second change that may be contributing to the rise in applications reflects a troubling reality in the American academy. The best public universities in the US have suffered enormous cuts in state funding, upon which they rely heavily. Dramatic funding cuts to the California state university system forced the University of California, Berkeley to raise tuition fees by 32 per cent in one year. Consequently, talented Californian students from middle-income families are likely to pay significantly more to attend a public university such as Berkeley than one of the highly selective private universities.

This is a national tragedy in the making, since the best private universities in the US simply do not have the capacity to enrol the hundreds of thousands of high-achieving, hard-working students who apply. Our nation - and the world - needs fully affordable public universities. As President Obama said in his recent State of the Union address, "no one should go broke because they choose to go to college".

The third and, we suspect, most important factor behind the steady rise in our applications is the value inherent in the broad, world-class liberal arts and science education that we provide. Our most outstanding universities are committed to preparing students for higher learning and civic leadership.

Whether they major in English or engineering, nursing or Near Eastern studies, physics or finance, philosophy or political science, our students graduate with a globally relevant education that is geared, above all, towards cultivating their capacity for creativity and innovation. By providing full financial aid to our students based on need, we can ensure that socio-economic diversity will combine with academic excellence to prepare students to choose satisfying careers and lead productive lives in these challenging times.

Despite our nation's economic troubles, which have seriously stressed the budgets of every university, US educators are dedicated to providing the best of higher education to those who seek it. Cross-national data strongly support President Obama's assertion that "in the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programmes is a world-class education".

For us, increasing access to higher education is a sacred trust, and broadly educating future leaders our most valued endeavour.

--Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania

See Penn News release (http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/current/latestnews/021210.html).