Higher Education

In spite of rising tuition, one country manages to shepherd poor kids into college

The policies that push universities into narrowing the higher-education wealth gap

Thank-you cards on the wall of Paul Richards’ office at the Calderstones School in Liverpool, some from students Richards helped to go to college.

LIVERPOOL, England — Covering much of one wall of Paul Richards’ office at the Calderstones School is an impressive collection of thank-you notes.

Many are from students Richards, in his role overseeing the equivalent of the American junior and senior grades of high school, has successfully prodded into college.

This is not as easy of a job as the pastoral campus in these comparatively affluent surroundings suggests, teeming as it is with earnest-looking youngsters in neat school uniforms.

A comprehensive, or the American equivalent of public, school, Calderstones takes students from inner-city Liverpool, whose neighborhoods a Church of England charity reports include five of the 10 poorest in the country. Thirty-seven percent come from families with low incomes.

Those once included a teenaged John Lennon, who named the band that would become the Beatles — the Quarrymen — after Quarry Bank High School, as the Calderstones School was called when he went here.

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 do, thanks to not only Richards and his faculty but also to an impressive and expensive amount of work by local universities that is helping to increase the ranks of low-income students heading on to higher education.

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 all but free.

Related: The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast

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.

Paul Richards, head of the equivalent of 11th and 12th grade at the Calderstones School in Liverpool.

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 American government, of course, 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.

Related: Government data single out schools where low-income students fare worst

Meanwhile, rather than narrowing, the socioeconomic divide in American higher education has been getting wider. Students from high-income families are eight times more likely to get bachelor’s degrees by the time they’re 24 than those from low-income families, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. That’s up from six times more likely in 1970.

Even the highest-income U.S. students with the lowest test scores get into better schools than the lowest-income students with the highest test scores, according to the advocacy group The Education Trust, thanks to problems that are similar on both sides of the Atlantic: poor advising, little knowledge of the system among parents who didn’t go to college themselves, high cost, and aversion to debt.

“Exactly the same thing would happen in this country except for the involvement of this office,” Ebdon said.

Here, instead, the gap has narrowed. Students from areas considered affluent are still 2.4 times more likely to apply to college than those from areas considered low-income — the measurement used by U.K. policymakers — according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. But that’s down from nearly four times as likely 10 years ago, and far smaller of a disparity in this country known for the historic class system depicted by Downton Abbey than in an America built on the principles of equality and opportunity.

Related: Visiting a country where it’s almost impossible to default on college debt

Many of the universities date from times when British society was, in fact, divided by wealth and birth, and some were set up with the noble mission of educating the children of the lower classes. “For advancement of learning and ennoblement of life,” reads the inscription chiseled into the side of the red-brick Victoria Building that was the original home of the University of Liverpool, for example.

Peter Doyle, the University of Liverpool’s manager for widening participation among youngsters under 16.

But the main reason that they’re doing this today is a practical one: They have to, as a condition of imposing the highest possible tuition.

An affable chemist who started at a comprehensive school himself, Ebdon is no pushover. Last year, 180 universities submitted so-called access plans in hopes of being allowed to charge the highest fees. Ebdon sent back 94 because he said the targets were too low and 20 because they didn’t commit to spending enough money on the effort. All were approved once adjustments had been made.

Not all of the results have been good. Some top universities have an even lower proportion of low-income students than they did 10 years ago, according to an analysis by the British Press Association; these include Oxford (10 percent) and Cambridge (10.2 percent), down from more than 12 percent each.

But others in the so-called Russell Group — the British counterpart to the Ivy League — have seen the percentages increase, and across the 24 Russell Group schools, an average of 21 percent of students are low-income, up from under 20 percent 10 years earlier. On some of these elite campuses, the proportion is as high as 37 percent. That compares to 15 percent at the most elite U.S. private universities and colleges, federal data show. And among all British universities, the percentage of students from low-income backgrounds has increased over the last 10 years to 33 percent from 28 percent.

Russell Group schools including the universities of Liverpool and Sheffield have huge staffs dedicated solely to recruiting students from low-income neighborhoods, keeping those numbers high and the government satisfied. At Liverpool, 17 people work in the Widening Participation Office; at Sheffield, 32.

They bombard students as young as nine years old with information about going to college, and with pens, bags, comic books, and, at Liverpool, with “Professor Fluffy,” a stuffed doll. Then they do something seemingly simple that has a surprising impact: bring them to the campus.

Related: Tangled process of applying for financial aid deepens college affordability crisis

“It takes down barriers,” said Peter Doyle, Liverpool’s manager for widening participation among youngsters under 16, whose office features “Professor Fluffy” sitting on a desk.  “We’ve got nine- and 10-year-olds who have been to the campus so many times already that we’ve heard of them giving directions.”

Andrea Rampton, a teacher who has brought her ninth-graders to see the University of Liverpool under a program to encourage them to go to college.

Doyle counted on his fingers the number of school groups that were visiting that week. Downstairs, in the crowded student union, one ninth-grade class from St. John Bosco, a Catholic school for girls, was having lunch.

“It becomes more of a reality to them, and it becomes a future they can see themselves in,” their teacher, Andrea Rampton, said above the din.

That was Tom Humphries’ moment of epiphany. “If you come from a family where people didn’t go to university, going to a university is a big unknown. You’re not really sure what it entails,” said Humphries, the first of his relatives to go to college, who is studying toward a master’s degree in neurology at the University of Sheffield.

Stepping foot onto a campus “just completely gets rid of lots of myths and unknowns instantly,” he said. “You’ve only got to be there five minutes before you realize, ‘Yeah, I can hack this.’”

Sheffield and Liverpool also both deploy some of their own students to help high school prospects prepare for entrance examinations, and offer the most promising hopefuls the chance to win “alternative admission” by completing college-level projects that also qualify them for scholarships.

The people who do this work in the U.K. say that there is also huge value in simply exposing youngsters in primary and secondary schools to college students. That’s because some of them have no one in their families with higher educations.

“You speak to a middle-class family and they know doctors, they know lawyers, they know engineers. But in disadvantaged groups, they don’t,” said James Busson, who is in charge of outreach at the University of Sheffield. “I’ve spoken to a couple of students who have said that, without these programs, many would not have even considered universities.”

Among those have been students from the Calderstones School, which has partnerships with the University of Liverpool and other colleges to help its students imagine themselves going on to higher education.

“Quite often they don’t know what they want to do,” said Richards, head of the higher grades there, who was himself the first in his family to go to college. Meeting college students and visiting the campuses “opens some of the students’ eyes,” he said, on his way along the soccer pitch to teach a class. “The Liverpool campus is open and part of the city, but not many of the students would have ever been unless you took them.” Shadowing enrolled college students helps, too, said Richards. The result, he said: “I’m seeing more and more students having another look.”

Related: Candidate’s comment reopens controversy over whether college is worth the cost

Of 115 Calderstones graduates last year, 80, or about 70 percent, went on to college. Thirty of those went to Russell Group schools. In the United States, about half of low-income high school graduates go to a two- or four-year college, the U.S. Department of Education reports.

Rehab Jaffer, daughter of a Yemeni-born newsagent, who is studying law at the University of Liverpool thanks to an aggressive program to recruit students from nontraditional backgrounds.

Rehab Jaffer came this way to the University of Liverpool. The self-assured daughter of a Yemeni-born newsagent, she’d seen the hardscrabble jobs her parents held and resolved to go to college to study law. “Every time I had an argument, people would say that I should be a lawyer,” she said, her colorful headscarf seeming even more exotic in the high-ceilinged 19th-century dining hall of the Victoria Building.

She knew her parents would never be able to afford to send her, though.

“They would have tried to save up every penny. But I don’t think they could have afforded to pay,” she said.

Jaffer completed a college-level project while in high school, and she won admission and a scholarship. And now she mentors younger kids like her.

“I feel like I’ve met every teenager in the city,” she said. “They’re being pushed to go to university by all of us now.”

Stuart Moss went from foster care to the University of Liverpool, where he is studying toward a master’s degree in mathematics.

Across the street in the campus pub, Stuart Moss recounts how, as a foster child, he was resigned to a job in the trades. “I knew I was good at academic work, but I didn’t think I was Oxford or Cambridge material, so I didn’t put the extra work in,” he said.

Then he met some University of Liverpool students, and completed that college-level project, securing for himself admission and a discount on tuition.

“I didn’t decide to go to university till the university invited me,” said Moss, who now is on his way to a master’s degree in mathematics.

He, too, now goes out to local schools to encourage other students to consider college.

“I meet students who were me,” he said slowly. “I think about the way I felt. It’s soul-crushing. If these programs hadn’t reached out to me, I probably wouldn’t have gone to university.”

Related: Colleges offer microgrants to help low-income students pay bills that can derail them

Providing those kinds of role models is essential, said Busson, at Sheffield.

Rehab Jaffer, daughter of a Yemeni-born newsagent, who is studying law at the University of Liverpool thanks to an aggressive program to recruit students from nontraditional backgrounds.

“The more people from disadvantaged backgrounds go to university, the more will go to university in the future,” he said. “Behavior breeds behavior.”

The system isn’t perfect. Students will be required beginning next year to take out loans to pay for living expenses that are now covered by government grants, a shift critics say will discourage low-income applicants. Already, statistics suggest the progress in increasing the proportion of low-income students may be leveling off.

There’s also still antipathy toward universities among some low-income families, said Ebdon, who left his own working-class village to attend the Russell Group Imperial College London.

“Every time I went back from Imperial and had a moan in the pub, as people in this country do, people would say, ‘You’re silly. Higher education is not for the likes of us.’”

Yet the results of it are tangible. Men in the U.K. aged 25 to 34 with college or university degrees earn 47 percent more and women 63 percent more than their counterparts without them, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In January, Prime Minister David Cameron turned up the heat on elite universities including his alma mater, Oxford, saying they were not doing enough to increase their proportions of students who are low-income and nonwhite. Cameron blamed “ingrained, institutional and insidious” attitudes, and said: “I worry that the university I was so proud to attend is not doing enough to attract talent from across our country.”

As in the United States, the universities responded in part by blaming primary and secondary schools for poorly preparing and advising low-income and first-generation students.

Now the government has set a goal of doubling the enrollment, by 2020, of students from low-income neighborhoods, and is pressing the universities to work even more closely with the schools those students attend. It also plans to do something similar to what the Obama administration has tried: embarrass universities into doing a better job by publishing data to expose the ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds of applicants versus who they actually admit.

“Some of our most excellent ancient universities would be able to fill many times over with what a person at one of those universities referred to as ‘the thick rich,’” said Ebdon. But he said, “If we don’t pursue excellence wherever it’s found in this country, we won’t be able to compete.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education… See Archive