Purchasing Spots at Top British Universities

On Monday, the Guardian reported a British government proposal to add newly created spaces at Britain’s most competitive public universities for wealthy students who could afford to pay a different rate of tuition. Under current policies, the government sets a quota of the number of spots British public institutions can offer. Under the proposal, wealthy students, paying the equivalent of tuition now charged to international students, would be able to qualify for “off quota” slots unavailable to those who couldn’t pay the new, very high levels of tuition.

The new policy is being justified as a way of raising additional revenue for British universities—revenue that could then be used, ostensibly, to provide more scholarships to low-income students, thereby promoting social mobility. But, the Guardian noted, “the proposals are likely to be criticized as a means for the wealthiest to ‘buy places’ at a time when the government is to cut 10,000 publicly funded places.”

In reserving a set of seats for the wealthiest students, the British have proposed going beyond what American public universities explicitly do. Even public institutions that employ need-conscious admissions do not set aside a certain number of spaces exclusively for those who can pay extra-high levels of tuition, above and beyond the stated tuition level.

But there are a couple of back door ways that American public institutions can do something close. Out-of-state students pay substantially more than in-state students, on the sensible theory that out-of-state residents have not contributed taxes to support the university in the way that in-state residents have. But admitting more out-of-state students can also generate a lot more revenue, and places like U.C. Berkeley has been criticized for doubling the proportion of out-of-state students, many of whom are wealthy enough to pay full freight.

Likewise, many public institutions—from the University of Virginia to the University of Wisconsin—provide legacy preferences, which also tend to benefit very wealthy students. The set-aside is not as explicit as the British are now proposing, but Daniel Golden has written that many universities appear to have an “informal quota” for legacy applicants.

Interestingly, the British were among those who led the way in abolishing legacy preferences at institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge in the 1960s. According to an article by Steve Shadowen in the George Mason University Civil Rights Law Journal, the British Labor Party worked to eliminate preferences for the children of alumni and for the children of “gentlemen,” and succeeded in doing so with the argument that “entry to universities should depend on merit alone.” Oddly, the British, who still have remnants of an aristocracy, have been far ahead of our own democratic republic in eliminating preferences based on lineage in college admissions.

Now, however, the British proposal for explicit set-asides for the wealthy represents a large step backward. In its bald declaration that wealth would be a principal qualification for new much-sought-after seats at the nation’s top universities, the proposed policy might even make cash-hungry American universities blush.

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