The lure of broad horizons

August 6, 2004

Laura Spence advocates undergraduate study in the US as rising numbers of sixthform students consider turning their backs on universities in the UK

The temptation to take a degree in the US is growing, according to figures showing that more British sixthformers than ever before are seeking information about studying across the Atlantic.

The Fulbright Commission, which offers advice and scholarships to students interested in an American higher education, dealt with 20,000 inquiries at its London office in June alone. Since 2002, the number of inquiries to its advice service has risen 400 per cent.

Yet, if the idea of studying in the US has a growing appeal, the number of British sixthformers who apply remains small - and the number who win a place smaller still.

Last year, 8,326 UK nationals were studying in the US - 500 more than the number doing so a decade ago. Roughly three times as many Americans study in the UK each year, albeit often for just one year of their course.

Study placements in the US have also become more popular among UK students over the past 25 years, according to a report published this week by the UK's higher education funding councils, the Department for Education and Skills and the British Council.

The report also observed that even those UK students who took part in exchange programmes preferred countries where they would be taught in English.

The absence of a language barrier is not the only factor that draws the eye of UK students towards US institutions.

As Carol Madison Graham, the Fulbright Commission's executive director, pointed out, the flexibility of the US higher education system and the chance to cover a wide range of disciplines within one degree course holds a further attraction.

"There is no question that more UK students of all backgrounds are attracted by the flexibility of the US higher education system," Ms Madison Graham said.

"Offsetting this increase in interest, however, are the challenges of financing a US education and the post-9/11 visa regime, which is both more rigorous and more complex."

Could the introduction of the £3,000 tuition fees in the UK from 2006 encourage more UK sixthformers to think about studying abroad?

Some US institutions certainly see their approach to student financial support - with no upper limit on aid - as a trump card.

Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, said he had no doubt that UK students believed there were "incredible academic and extracurricular activities and resources" in the US.

"It is attractive that we meet the full demonstrated need of all students we admit," he said. "Financial support is offered at the time of admission based on a student's and family's demonstrated need regardless of citizenship.

"I expect applications from around the world to continue to go up at the most selective US colleges and universities."

Not all US institutions are as expensive as those of the Ivy League, whose tuition fees can be more than $30,000 (£16,500) a year. Fees for an undergraduate at state universities such as Arizona, New York State, Virginia and Indiana ranged from about $3,500 to $6,500 in 2003-04.

According to the Fulbright Commission, state universities - particularly the University of California - also continue to attract interest from UK students.

The largest art school in the US, Savannah College of Art and Design, in Georgia, which has 6,000 students, is recruiting in the UK - although it has had only limited success. In the autumn of 2003, it had 12 UK students.

But Paula Wallace, the college's president, believes the number is set to grow. "As a private college, we find we have the flexibility to recruit the best faculty from all over the world," she said.

Bob Carstairs, assistant general-secretary of the UK's Secondary Heads Association, said: "My view is that student grant discussions are largely responsible for people believing they'll get a better deal in the US, coupled with cheap air fares leading to a huge increase in foreign 'acceptability', both for potential students and for their parents, who can now visit each other for less than the cost of driving from London to St Andrews."

Harvard University received applications from 214 UK nationals for an undergraduate place this year; Princeton University attracted 154 applicants, its lowest number since 1999; Yale handled 75 applications; and Dartmouth College counted only three.

Princeton said that the "large majority" of its British applicants came from independent schools such as St Paul's and Eton.

Today's sixthformers are "very sophisticated young people making sophisticated life choices", said Paul Kelley, the headteacher of Monkseaton Community High School, Laura Spence's old school.

Dr Kelley said: "I think there are two things going on. Once a few people study in the US, it becomes an established pathway. Second, students can see where a lot of money is being invested and they shop around."

'A lot of people would like the opportunity'
Laura Spence advocates undergraduate study in the US as rising numbers of sixthform students consider turning their backs on universities in the UK

A place at Yale University to study English literature is the aim of Gemma Cramman, a sixthformer at Laura Spence's old school in Tyne and Wear.

Gemma, 18, is predicted to achieve straight-A grades when she sits five A levels at Monkseaton Community High School next summer.

The teenager, who has never visited the United States, said that the breadth of the Yale curriculum - and the opportunity to supplement her study of literature with other disciplines - had a strong appeal.

"I want to study English literature at Yale primarily because of the diversity of curriculum that it offers in comparison to British universities," she said.

"I believe that other subjects can integrate into your understanding of your major discipline. But I think that a broad curriculum can be very important when you are making decisions about something that is going to affect the rest of your life."

Gemma's research of Yale was done mainly via the internet. Her parents had encouraged her to consider Yale. The family hope to visit the university this summer.

"I think there are an awful lot of people in my year who would like the opportunity, but not many people who have expressed an interest have sought the information or done the research," she added.

"Maybe it's an idea that they would play with for a while but not want to try."

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