Quality and standards

7.19 USA institutions of higher education use a wide array of quantitative performance indicators to monitor their activities. Such indicators include: benchmarking against comparable institutions; unit costs; student-staff ratios; analysis of cohort progression and attrition; analysis of the ethnic, gender and social background of their students; and the outcomes of degree programmes in terms of the number of degrees awarded. There has been little development of qualitative performance indicators and little attention is paid to the quality of the teaching and learning process, although in many institutions student views on the adequacy of their tutoring are canvassed and publicised.

7.20 All universities and colleges are state licensed after accreditation by one of six regional boards which are recognised by, but have no connection with, government. They audit quality assurance arrangements and assess the appropriateness of resources and the general academic standards set and achieved. This is done on a 5-10 year cycle. These efforts are aimed at ensuring minimum threshold standards, but there is no attempt to ensure a ‘gold standard’ nor to ensure that what is promised in documentation is delivered to the students as an acceptable teaching and learning package. Accreditation of professional programmes by the appropriate professional bodies also occurs and seems to be rather more rigorous than institutional accreditation. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology system for accrediting engineering degrees, for instance, appears very similar to that employed by the Engineering Council in the UK. There was great faith throughout the USA in teachers and in their commitment and integrity. A survey of higher education institutions in New England revealed that institutions believe that regional accreditation has a more positive impact on standards than any other form of accreditation.

7.21 The team gained the impression, based on an inspection of syllabuses and examination papers, that the American high school diploma compares in standard with GCSE and the associate degree with GCE A-level and Advanced GNVQ, the bachelor’s degree with a UK pass degree or higher national diploma and the Master’s degree with a bachelor’s honours degree from a British university. Further evidence for this conclusion: Howard University in Washington, a university in which over 99 per cent of undergraduates are black, admits overseas applicants from the West Indies with five GCE O-level grades at A-C to the freshman year of their bachelor’s degree programme; Johns Hopkins, one of the most prestigious of the private universities, states in its prospectus that advanced placement is available for students entering with either International Baccalauréat or GCE A-level. The rider must be added, however, that an American education is very much more general than a UK education right up to bachelor’s level; it would hardly be reasonable, therefore, to expect the same standard to be reached in the major subject. It was also noted that, in the highest quality institutions, some individual modules taken by senior students compared well in level with UK final honours standard. A given student would take rather fewer of these more demanding modules than a UK student, however.

Funding and resources

7.22 In comparing the resources devoted to higher education in the USA with those in the UK, it is important to realise that the former is a much wealthier country, with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per head of population 50 per cent greater than that of the UK. Additionally, there is much greater direct contribution to the costs of higher education from the private citizens through tuition fees, gifts and endowments.

7.23 In 1994-95, the USA spent $201 billion (3 per cent of GDP) on higher education. The main sources of finance are shown in Table 7.5. About 60 per cent of funding for USA higher education institutions comes from non-governmental sources. The wider funding base of American higher education institutions has allowed them to make good the reduction in support from the public purse by, for example, increasing tuition fees. In this way, efforts to make higher education institutions more efficient and cost effective have been frustrated, except in cases where the state regulates and collects the tuition fee. The transfer of the burden of the burgeoning costs of higher education to private citizens has not gone unnoticed, and higher education institutions and state governments have recently come under increasing pressure, both from the federal government and private citizens, to control their costs.

7.24 As mentioned earlier, the team was particularly interested to find that the State of Florida used the state lottery to fund about 25 per cent of the recurrent expenditure of state higher education institutions. Additionally, the same state used a tax on utilities to fund its higher education building programmes.

7.25 An analysis of the educational and general expenditure of American higher education institutions in session 1992-93 is shown in Table 7.6. Nearly all of the research funds available to higher education institutions in 1994-95 were spent by the 200 or so institutions permitted to award doctorate degrees. There is recognition in the USA, particularly in the prestigious liberal arts colleges, that successful teaching at undergraduate level is valued by many and that doctoral programmes are not always necessary to underpin excellence. Section 8 discusses the relationship between teaching and research in US higher education institutions. The greater emphasis placed on teaching by public two-year colleges is also evident from the data of Table 7.6.

7.26 Recurrent expenditure per full-time equivalent student in USA institutions of higher education by control and type of institution is shown in Table 7.7. The financial attraction of the first two years of a bachelor’s degree being undertaken at a two-year college as opposed to a four-year college is evident from inspection of these data. For example, the average cost of a four-year bachelor’s degree programme taken at a public four-year institution is about $72,000. A similar programme, split between a two- and a four-year institution, would cost about $48,000.

7.27 The institutions visited, both public and private, were extremely well accommodated and resourced and many were based on extremely large and attractively landscaped campuses. Extensive sports and other student communal provision were the norm and the campus experience for the American higher education student is one to be envied. Although attractively housed, the provision of equipment at the institutions visited was no more extensive and up-to-date than that found in comparable British institutions.

Tuition fees
7.28 A significant source of income for USA higher education institutions is the tuition fee paid by students (Table 7.5). In private institutions these account for 41 per cent of income and in public institutions 18 per cent. In a sector which spends over $200 billion per annum, about $54 billion is contributed directly by students. Table 7.8 shows the average undergraduate in-state tuition fee and room and board rates for public and private two-year and four-year colleges in 1994-95. Such averages do, of course, mask wide variations in costs. At some of the more prestigious institutions, like Harvard University, the annual cost of tuition, room and board is approaching $30,000. Furthermore, students who study outside their own state at a public institution may have to pay about $5,000 dollars additional tuition above that shown in Table 7.8. Many students borrow to pay their fees and it is not unusual for students, on completion of their studies to have debt burdens in excess of $30,000. A report by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities issued in 1995 states that 32 per cent of college freshmen based their choice of college on tuition fee levels and/or financial aid offers.

7.29 In spite of the high cost of higher education, demand continues to grow. The reason is that higher education benefits the individual in terms of increased earning power throughout their working life, as the data of Table 7.9 illustrate.

7.30 In recent years, tuition fees have risen considerably faster than the rate of inflation. In part, this is due to the increasing cost of providing higher education. However, tuition fees have also risen substantially to compensate for the reduction in government expenditure on higher education. To alleviate the financial burden on poorer students a complex range of student aid and loan arrangements have been introduced. These are discussed below.

Student aid
7.31 A variety of grants, loans and employment opportunities are available for students to help them meet the costs of their higher education. About 60 per cent of full-time and 33 per cent of part-time undergraduate students receive aid.

7.32 Both the federal and state governments have developed a variety of such aid packages. For example, New York State has eight different aid programmes targeted at specific groups. These supplement the eight or so federal aid programmes which are also available. The more prestigious private universities which have large endowment income provide scholarships and other forms of financial aid to deserving and needy cases.

7.33 Federal funds for student financial assistance amounted to $27.2 billion in 1995, of which $6.9 billion went to the banks to subsidise student loans made by the banks. The federal government has recently introduced its own student loan scheme, which is simpler to administer than that operated by the banks and, it is claimed, has much lower administrative costs. Government financed loans are also available to parents to help pay for their children’s higher education.

7.34 A number of states, such as Florida and Virginia, have introduced what are known as ‘pre-paid’ programmes. The Florida programme allows parents to pay for the costs of college tuition and board at a guaranteed fixed rate using either a single payment or monthly payment plan commencing at birth. For example a single payment of $12,309 would pay for four years of tuition at the state university ($5,785) and four years of board ($6,524). Alternatively, a monthly payment plan, which concludes on the child’s enrolment in higher education, would require a monthly payment of $102 for tuition and board. A five-year instalment plan, which is also available, would require 55 monthly payments of $264 from birth. More than 375,000 places have already been brought for Florida’s children since the scheme was introduced nine years ago. Cheaper schemes are also available for community college study, or two years of community college study followed by two years at the state university.

7.35 Although part-time employment opportunities for students are plentiful in America’s many restaurants and fast-food outlets, colleges take positive steps through the student aid office to put students in touch with a range of likely employers. Additionally, they create jobs within the higher education institution which are suitable for students. Examples include work in libraries, administration or kitchens as well as more academically demanding tasks such as tutoring freshman and those needing remedial help with their studies.

7.36 In many cases, less privileged students with dire financial needs spend more time working than they do studying. The consequence is that a four-year bachelor’s degree programme can become extended to six or eight years.

7.37 Faculty staff at the universities visited were usually qualified to doctoral level and at the community colleges to, at least masters, level. Tenure is normally held by about two thirds of academic staff and is normally granted after a probationary period of not less than five years. Staff salaries are based on a two-semester year (between eight to ten months) and these can be supplemented during the third semester either by undertaking private work, additional teaching, or research activities. The average salaries of full-time staff in higher education institutions in 1993-4 were:

7.38 However, salary levels varied widely in the institutions visited. Some professors in distinguished institutions received double the average salary.

7.39 Staff-student ratios of about 1:20 for two-year and 1:12 for four-year colleges were the norm for the institutions visited. However, these are misleadingly high in some four-year institutions where a great deal of the undergraduate teaching is done by graduate assistants and other non-faculty staff who are not included in the calculations. Most institutions visited indicated that the numbers of part-time teachers are on the increase. Teaching loads of 10 hours per week for university staff and 15 hours per week for two-year college staff are common.