Home or away: Should you go to university in the US?

Having studied in the UK and the US Danae Mercer takes you through the pros and cons of studying either side of the pond

Last week, students across the UK received their A-level results. In the same breath the latest rankings of the world's top 100 universities were released. 40 of these were in the US.

What’s studying in the US like? Is it all beer pong, sorority sisters, and sparkling new campuses funded by American football dollars? Is it even that different from the UK?

I'm an American. Owing to a unique scholarship, I've studied in both the UK and the US as an undergraduate. Below are four key elements worth considering if you’re thinking of trading in tea for coffee and hopping across the Atlantic.

The structure of the degree is different

By the time I arrived in the UK, I had already packed away four years of university study. I thought I knew my chosen subject well.

Then I met UK second-year students. They put my knowledge to shame.

In American universities, an undergraduate degree takes four years. During that time, students will study a range of topics not directly related to their desired focus. For instance, my focus was politics and journalism. I still took courses on theology, art, maths, photography, French, and more.  

"The two systems approach education in dramatically different ways," said Prajwal Ciryam, a former Fulbright scholar. "The Americans champion a breadth of knowledge, the British a depth."

"You can see it in the way the undergraduates identify themselves. In America, a student 'majors in biology' — implying she does other things as well — while in Britain, she 'is a biologist,’" said Ciryam.

Students in the US typically don't declare an area of focus until the end of their second year of study, allowing for time to explore. In the UK, this focus is declared instantly, shaping every class a student takes.

“In the States there is more emphasis on knowledge per se, in the United Kingdom more interest in analysis,” said A. Graham Down, President Emeritus, Council for Basic Education.

How you're assessed is different

In America, university students are graded constantly. There are regular quizzes, mid-terms, finals, papers, projects, and even ‘class participation’. All these elements together compose a student's overall academic ranking.

In the UK, the process looks a bit different.

"It was one of the most startling things to me when I started my course here," said Brian Biggs, an American student who studied in the UK. "The fact that my entire grade for the year would be based upon a series of exams at the end of term… I wasn't expecting that."

For Dr Matthias Dorrzapf, Senior Tutor at St. John’s College, Cambridge, the UK assessment method has particular benefits.

"Continuous assessment as it is in place at most US universities prevents students from actively teaching their ideas to other students. The best way for students to learn is to teach understanding of the course material to others. Lectures and tutorials at UK universities are centred on this concept,” said Dr Dorrzapf.

But what about the social life, how is that different?

The short answer is that regardless of region, you’ll be surrounded by other students. They will be excited, curious, nervous, motivated, bored, and everything else all at once.

The long answer is a bit more nuanced. In the US, as in the UK, alcohol plays a role at university. The American legal drinking age is 21. This simply means that much alcohol consumption happens in secret. For better or for worse, students find ways around the rules. One student I knew lugged a keg up the stairs in a fridge box. Another took to brewing his own beer in his closet.

In America, Greek life very much exists. Experts estimate that around 1m current US students belong to a sorority or fraternity.

Student life tends to be centred on the campus. Many students live in dorms all four years, eating meals together, playing sports together in college facilities, and so forth.

The elephant in the room: cost

If you've read this far and are thinking about packing up your wellies to head to the US, there's another very important element to consider: cost.

American universities are expensive. According to the College Board's 2013 Trends in College Pricing report, full costs (tuition plus room and board) range from around £19,762 to £25,265. Places like Harvard go upwards of £40,000. The catch is that these figures aren't for all four years. They are per year.

More than half of US millennials financed school through student loans, according to a Wells Fargo study. The total US student debt outstanding was over $1tn at the end of 2012.

There are scholarships and means-tested financial aid, both which help reduce the costs. Yet the price tag is still high. Around a third of US millennials say they would have been better off working instead of going to college and paying tuition.

In the UK, the most you'll pay is £9,000. Some universities are now offering additional scholarships, gym membership, cheaper books, computer software, and other benefits to help soften the increased-fee blow.

So where should you go?

There are numerous differences between US and UK universities. I’ve only touched upon four of them here.

If you’re debating where next, all I can say is good luck. Regardless of region, you’re in for an adventure, and one heck of a ride.

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