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America’s needs blind system

Thirty eight of America’s top private universities including Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Brown follow “needs-blind” admissions policies. This means that they don’t take into account the ability of students to pay tuition-cum-residence fees prior to admitting them. Tuition fees of students admitted on merit are determined after admission when students are means tested. For instance Harvard University applies a “need” formula, and commits to ensuring that an admitted student’s full financial need (as determined by the formula) is covered by various types of financial aid including scholarship. Thus no meritorious student who qualifies for admission, is denied an education because of inability to pay. Harvard and the other 37 universities are able to offer handsome subsidies to meritorious students who cannot afford full tuition fees, because they have accumulated massive corpuses by way of alumni, industry and philanthropic donations. Harvard University boasts the largest endowment corpus of any education institution worldwide: $34 billion followed by Yale University ($22.5 billion) and Stanford University ($17.2 million).

Even public higher education institutions in the US guarantee financially disadvantaged students aid packages comprising grants, student loans and/or fee waivers. Writing in Financing Higher Education — Cost-sharing in International Perspective (Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, 2006), educationist D. Bruce Johnstone says that in the US higher education system “the principle of expanding higher educational opportunity and accessibility is being met, among other ways, with means-tested financial assistance and/or with governmentally guaranteed and generally available student loans”.

According to Johnstone, the American model of financing higher education has succeeded because of three enduring beliefs and traditions:

• A belief in the very appropriateness of tuition: i.e that parents and/or students should contribute to the instructional costs of higher education, at least to the limit of their abilities, even in publicly funded colleges and universities.

• The tradition of revealing incomes and assets honestly, in response to tax laws or institutional requests for documentation to prove financial need for obtaining student assistance.

• A tradition of philanthropic giving to higher education, which can build up scholarship corpuses in colleges and universities, public as well as private.

“It is because of these traditions (together with the nearly $56 billion dollars in students aid and loans, most of it ‘need sensitive’) that the US, in the face of very high costs of education, both public and private, can still hold to the claim that access to higher education, to the limits of a student’s ability and interest, need not be precluded by family financial status. Elsewhere in the absence of these traditions and of public policies to maintain accessibility, there is reason to believe that higher education will become increasingly unattainable to all but the affluent,” writes Johnstone.

The National Knowledge Commission has recommended that publicly-funded universities and aided colleges in India should follow the American model of higher education. To this end it has proposed the establishment of a well-funded National Scholarship Scheme offering scholarships and long-term loans to economically underprivileged students enrolled in higher education institutions.

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