Why British students are opting for American universities

Harvard? Princeton? Yale? More and more British students are choosing to study in the US - and for some the cost can be minimal. Karen Gold and Sarah Cassidy report
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The Independent Online

The news that more students from the United Kingdom are applying to study at top American universities surprises Brits who think that British education is superior and less costly than that in the US.

Sydney Engle, 18, chose to study at the Ivy League Princeton University in New Jersey because she wanted to keep her options open. She couldn't decide what to study, chemistry or classics. In the UK, she had to choose. In the US she could delay her choice.

"The advantage of the US system is that you don't declare your major until the end of the second year and even then you can take additional subjects," she says. "I am enrolled in honours chemistry, as well as in a maths, philosophy and Latin course - about invective, slander and insult in Latin literature. It's fantastic."

However, for Sydney, studying at Princeton has proved much more expensive than the UK - her first year has cost $48,000 for room, board and tuition. That is because her parents are deemed well off enough to afford it.

But a little known fact is that many British families would qualify for help from American universities because relatively the British are less well off than Americans. If the family income - after assessment for tax, medical expenses, the cost of elderly dependent relatives - is below $60,000 (£32,000), the student's contribution to fees and accommodation, including an annual flight back home, will be precisely zero.

Students with a family income of £37,425 (the point at which British households are considered poor enough to qualify for grants) will be expected to pay only a few hundred pounds towards their education. Even a net family income of $120,000 (£64,000) still qualifies the student for some financial aid. So it is hardly surprising that, as the impact of English tuition fees begins to bite, the eyes of some schools, families and potential students in the UK turn across the Atlantic - and at the same time, the eyes of some American universities turn to us.

"We felt our student body had under-representation from schools in the UK," explains Janet Irons, senior admissions officer at Harvard, which has been most prominently in the news in recent weeks for transatlantic recruitment. "So we decided to do a little more outreach".

Harvard sees itself as a global university, attracting the best and brightest from across the world. It also wants to extend the socio-economic spread of its intake beyond affluent America. So in the past four years, it has instituted a "needs blind" recruitment policy. That means once a student is accepted on academic grounds, the university will pay whatever it takes to get the student there.

"If you are British, you are poor in relation to American incomes," says Paul Kelley, headteacher of Monkseaton Community High School in North Tyneside, which hit the headlines a few years ago when its pupil Laura Spence failed to gain a place to read medicine at Oxford, only to be offered a full scholarship to Harvard. "British salaries are low compared with American ones. So for a British teacher, for a nurse, for people earning £50,000, it costs less to go to an American university than it does to stay here."

Harvard's plans to tell English sixth-formers, schools and parents these attractive financial facts include identifying and visiting potentially receptive and previously uncontacted English schools, particularly state schools, over the next three to five years, says Giovanna Vitelli, one of a network of Harvard alumni working as volunteers on recruitment in the UK.

She names grammar schools, comprehensives which regularly send pupils to Oxbridge, and schools that teach the International Baccalaureate - as three groups ripe for US interest. A focus group of British students at Harvard is currently helping to write Brit-friendly marketing materials: no more cheerleaders in Powerpoint presentations, for example. At Princeton - where last year British applications rose by 65 per cent, and the admittedly small number of successful acceptances more than trebled - and Yale, similar moves are taking place.

Also carrying this message to UK schools is the educational advisory service of the Fulbright Commission. This service has always run an annual day fair in London, at which around 100 American universities set out their stalls to schools, students and parents. Not all offer deals as generous as Harvard, but many offer scholarships to top-flight sporting, musical and academic talents.

This year, responding to demand, the advisory service ran not one fair but two - one in Scotland - and still had to add an extra seminar next month to meet interest from Brits who missed both of them. This year's London fair drew 4,700 visitors, compared with 900 in 2002. During the same period, visits to the service's website rose from 200,000 to 700,000.

In alternate years, the Fulbright Education Advisory Service also goes on the road to UK schools and careers advisers, explaining the American university system and promoting interest in it. This year should have been a stay-home one. But the service had so many requests for extra visits, that it put on an alternative tour, venturing into places like Liverpool and the Peak District that it has never visited before.

So which schools are showing this new interest, and how? Some independent schools have always had strong US links owing to their international pupils, like Millfield in Somerset, or Wellington in Berkshire, and the ability of their intake to afford the $45,000 a year that a top US university education costs.

Pupils at Imberhorne comprehensive school in East Grinstead are not in that league: yet two of them reached the Harvard shortlist last year, with the encouragement of teacher David Randall, himself a Harvard graduate. Now assistant head of another West Sussex comprehensive, Thomas Bennett Community College in Crawley, he has become a focus of US interest, hosting Princeton's Janet Rapelye and the Fulbright Education Advisory Service at gatherings of county schools.

In Bristol, the deputy head of Bristol Grammar School, Robert Gullifer foresees a similar role. This autumn he visited Harvard, where two former pupils are now undergraduates, to discuss fostering UK admissions. Possible plans include the school becoming a regional centre for SATS, one of the American university entrance exams, and hosting US higher education fairs for local schools, on the same model as the Oxbridge fairs that the school currently runs. "My job is to educate students about the choices on offer," he says. "If we're going to do it for our own youngsters, we may as well do it for a wider audience too".

When the choices are considered, say proponents of a global higher education market, the different systems can be mined for students. The UK university system, with its intense, high-level, three-year subject specialisation, suits narrowly-focused 18-year-olds. But the US liberal arts system, with its insistence that students mix maths, science, languages and arts for at least the first half of its four-year degrees, suits others, less decided or with wider interests.

"There are students to whom you say 'Your profile would really fit the US', explains Paul Kelley. Sydney Engle is one of these. Another is Chevy Beh, 21, who is in his third year studying economics and Asian studies at the University of Virginia. "I chose to study in the US because I prefer the American higher education system to the British one," he says. "I think it is more broad. I wanted to study in the US because it's a more open environment. It's not like in the UK where they would tell me that as an economics student I must take these classes at these times.

"I am doing economics but have taken classes in accounting, financial maths, humanities, social sciences and languages."

Britain's loss is America's gain: a point emphatically made by UK admissions officers anxious about US universities offering financial incentives to British talent. Students should read the small print, says Geoff Parks, Cambridge University's director of admissions: US scholarships are not quite as "free" as they might seem, as students have to take jobs on campus or take out loans to repay part of them. "I think there are interesting questions about whether US undergraduate education is as good as in the UK. Our exchange students with MIT do terribly well over there; their students who come here, don't."

At present however, he adds that the numbers are too small to arouse concern. But they may grow over the next five years, says Robert Gullifer. The US applications system is spread over a longer period than the UK one: students must take SATS at the beginning of the Upper Sixth year, and complete a large dossier with references, and be interviewed in the UK by alumni, before Christmas. That puts the choice back into the lower sixth year.

In practice, he adds, the US option needs to enter students' minds at 15, in Year 10: "If you are thinking of going into a different system, you have to prepare yourself, emotionally and psychologically."

The more unexceptional that choice seems, the more likely new students are to make it. So at Monkseaton, the norm when planning for higher education - particularly among gifted sporting students attending the school's football academy - is now to look in the UK and across the Atlantic. For some students, says Sebastien Anzevui, who is due to join his brother, Anthony, next September on a soccer scholarship to Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, the choice is a no-brainer: "In England you go to uni, you come out with debt," says Anzevui. "If you go to America, you get the advantage of the football, the lifestyle, and the degree, and it's all paid for."

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