At this time of year, deans of admission from US universities can be spotted prowling the British countryside, hoping to snare unwary 18-year-olds with offers of a world-beating undergraduate education at bargain basement prices. Given the terrible write-ups that most British commentators give British secondary education, you might wonder what US universities hope to get out of it.
First, of course, British secondary education isn’t that bad, especially if the comparison is with most US high schools, and especially if you compare the best state secondary schools on both sides of the Atlantic. British students leave school at the end of what Americans would count as “13th grade” rather than the 12th grade; the few US high schools that put their students through A level or the International Baccalaureate lay on a 13th year for the purpose.
More importantly, US universities have a thing about “diversity”. If the entire student population looks as if it has got dressed at J. Crew and Brooks Brothers and attended the same dozen expensive private preparatory schools that their parents attended before them, it makes administrators and faculty uneasy. Most of the time, to be sure, talk of “diversity” is code for getting more African-American students into the posher sort of college or university. But foreigners help the cause as well.
If your son or daughter hears the siren voice of an American recruiter, should he or she listen? The answer is unequivocally ‘yes’
So, if your son or daughter hears the siren voice of an American recruiter, should he or she listen? The answer is unequivocally “yes”. Begin with the sordid matter of money. If the siren voice is that of an Ivy League university or its peers – Stanford, Duke or Chicago, say – it is a vastly better bargain than anything the UK can offer. Of course, the “sticker price” of an Ivy League education is spectacularly high; tuition, board and lodging, books and other expenses add up to almost $60,000 (£36,800) a year. And on top of that you need to allow for health insurance and travel from wherever you live. But look at the financial aid package the better-heeled universities and colleges can offer. Princeton is more generous than most – and one of only a handful of places that treat foreign students exactly as if they were Americans – but many others are almost as generous, and unlike the Ivy League, will offer scholarships for athletic or musical prowess. If your potential as a golfer matches your abilities as a future star of Silicon Valley, Stanford is waiting for you.
Someone whose family earns less than £50,000 a year will get just about everything for free – tuition, board and lodgings, books and even travel to and from home. In the old days, financial aid used to be heavily based on loans, much like the current British system. But now, anywhere that can afford it doesn’t make loans but gifts. There’s no repayments of 9 per cent of whatever you make over £21,000 a year to think about.
In the old days, too, the amount you were eligible for fell steeply as your family income increased. Now, it doesn’t. At Harvard, Yale and Princeton, more than 60 per cent of the students get something from the financial aid programme – including families that make more than $200,000 a year if they happen to have two (or more) children attending university. If your family makes the equivalent of £100,000 a year, you are eligible for a grant of more than three-quarters of the $40,000 tuition fee.
This generosity makes the US higher education scene pretty odd, to be sure. Whatever else it might be, it does not look like the higher education system of a society deeply committed to social justice. On the one hand, you have highly competent, highly educated young people from upper-middle-class backgrounds getting an excellent education for nearly nothing, getting out of institutions with graduation rates of 90 per cent with no debts and every chance of a well-paid job with virtually no risk of being unemployed for long periods, and on the other, a host of disillusioned and unhappy people who fell for the advertising of for-profit providers, failed to complete a degree for any of a host of reasons, found themselves with loans they couldn’t repay and no prospect of a job that will enable them to make inroads into their debts.
As to the education on offer at the places that will pay you to accept it, there’s not a great deal to say. The staff-to-student ratio at an Ivy League university or its liberal arts college equivalent is around twice as generous as you would get at Oxford or Cambridge; nonetheless, there’s a certain amount of spoon-fed, large lecture, course-based teaching as well as a lot of small seminars and the chance for plenty of one-to-one interaction in the final two years of a four-year course.
The old gap between what a student with an American and a British BA could be expected to know has long been closed, but some hard-to-describe differences of intellectual style persist. Many stem from the great advantage of the US system; the absence of specialisation in the first two years and the fact that your major in the last two years does not consume all your classes, gives you room to make mistakes, try new disciplines, and keep up an interest in something besides your main academic interests – medieval French poetry alongside your nuclear physics, as it might be. And you don’t need to learn a (truly) foreign language.