Friday, 23 September 2011

Comparing English and American HE

I’ve posted before about the Education Trust’s survey of US Universities that found only a tiny number of institutions with low fees, decent graduation rates, and above-average proportions of poor students. In this post I’ve excerpted a key graph from that report, and produced a companion graph of English universities by cost, graduation rate and proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups. The data definitions don’t tally up precisely (for which see below), but this provides, I think, three really powerful and interesting messages.

 The US (Education Trust data)

England (HESA and OFFA data)

Firstly, diversity in English HE is very tightly constrained. Admittedly I’ve left out HE in FE and private providers for lack of data, but both are pretty small. I do include many small and specialist HEIs. The English providers occupy only a tiny fraction of the landscape that the Americans cover – if both the cost scales were comparable, then the English institutions would sit in a very tight phalanx indeed, in the top-right quadrant of the American landscape.

Secondly, England’s second and third-tier institutions are of astonishingly high quality. Whilst American and English elite institutions may be pretty similar (the English tending to be cheaper, of course), the bulk of unfashionable institutions are in completely different places. Many public and private institutions in the States have graduation rates well below 50%. Not one English HEI does.

Thirdly, England’s second and third tier institutions are (from 2012) astonishingly expensive: much more expensive than the average US public institution. Of course the student loan systems are very different so the English institutions may, in practice, be just as accessible. This is true in theory, but whether it is true in practice remains to be seen, I think.

1. The cost scales for England and America are different, as the US graph uses a log scale. The English values are too close together for this to make any sense at all. I think that the US ‘cost of attendance’ is tuition plus fees – usually billed separately in America, but all covered under the single OFFA-regulated fee in England. However not being an expert on US practice, I may be wrong about this.
2. The costs for English institutions are average costs calculated by OFFA. Costs for low-income students would hopefully be lower because they would hopefully get more of the OFFA-countable support. However I don’t have the data to hand to demonstrate this.
3. The graduation rate for the US institutions is after 6 years, and for English after 15. Obviously this makes the English data more favourable, but in practice very few students graduate in years 7-15 so the difference in methodology certainly does not explain the huge variance in graduation rates. I have excluded those English students who transfer to another institution or successfully achieve a lower award as I believe these are excluded from the US graduation rate calculation.
4. US Pell grant data and English NS_SEC classifications are obviously not directly comparable. In both graphs there’s a tendency for the biggest bubbles (i.e. highest concentrations of poor people) to be at the left hand (low graduation) end, but that will hardly be news to anyone.

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