Private Schools, & The Tuition-Grade Correlation

A letter in today’s Financial Times takes issue with a John Kay column from a week or so ago. In the original column Kay argued that the U.K. needs to follow the U.S. model and give more money to U.K. university students, and less to U.K. universities. The letter today, from geography professor John Agnew of UCLA, makes three points:

  1. Most U.S. universities in the US, irrespective of whether they are called “private” or “public”, receive comparable amounts of funding from private and public sources when research and curriculum-development grants and contracts are included. The nominally private Johns Hopkins University, for example, receives more federal money than any other university in the country.
  2. The relative ranking of private and public universities reflects the age and social networking potential of universities as much as or more than their educational quality. [Private universities are] a prime agent of social inequality in the US, not of social mobility, recruiting overwhelmingly from the children of those who attended them previously. It is the public sector that has provided the leg-up for the less affluent.
  3. Students at the private universities tend to see themselves as consumers who, having paid heavily to attend, want commensurate grades. Their public-sector counterparts are used to taking their lumps. They expect what they think they deserve for the work they have done.

These are all interesting (if arguable) points, and I would be curious what evidence Mr. Agnew would cite to support them. For example, if we are merely playing at ad hoc empiricism, I have taught at both public and non-public schools, and yet I have not seen the evidence of the tuition-grade correlation that he cites.