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Is the American University system better than the UK’s?

Updated: Nov 15, 2022

TLDR: It is. It is also many times the price.


For some, going to university is a rite of passage, for others it is a hard decision, and for the rest it is barely a consideration. For those who are thinking of going: what and where to study and how much it is going to cost, are going to be big questions.


The UK system is often the default for those in the UK, but it has a certain way of operating which may not suit everyone. It requires students to choose their subject by the time they are applying, without much flexibility for change.


The US has a vastly different approach, offering a broad range of courses for their students after entering university, to explore what's out there before making a decision. Not everyone knows these differences, or even that there are other ways to study out there, but deciding at 18 versus 20 might just change the course of your life (pun acknowledged and semi-intended).


Yet if only it was about deciding how you want to study. The big questions are rarely so simple. The US and UK are not just a medium-longish plane ride apart - we may speak the same language but the states is many cultural leaps from the UK, though that can be exciting rather than a problem (let's ignore guns and abortion)! Looking at cost alone, the playing field is considerably different.

How much are we talking about?


Whilst UK universities have a current cap of £9,250 annual tuition fees, there is no official cap on US colleges (let’s just use the words university and college interchangeably now – I am not referring to sixth form in the UK), though the most expensive institution (Harvey Mudd College) clocks in at $77,339 per year.


There is an enormous range in fees depending on where you go. The annual tuition averages $59,985 a year at the eight Ivy League colleges, out-of-state institutions at $27,020, and the cheapest in-state college average is $9,212.


American courses are four years long as a standard, and UK tends to be three. So, we are looking at a total racking up of £27,750 ($32,000) tuition fees to graduate in the UK, versus anything from $36,818 (in-state) to $108,080 (out-of-state) to $309,356 (Ivy) in the US. Things are looking pretty significantly different there, both within the US and compared to the UK.


This does not account for any expenditure in that time, and our current post-Brexit, post-Trussonomicked pound against the strong dollar means the travelling student might find the novelty of a British accent is no longer enough to secure their place in the social scene, if they simply cannot afford to go out. This may change, of course, but going from two dollars to a pound down to near-parity has almost entirely changed the game for Brits moving to the US.


For anyone who thinks I'm exaggerating, last year in New York I bought a takeout bagel for $25. Fortunately, each bite forced my gaping jaw to shut, and it was pretty tasty – but here lies a warning that the scrimping student could be in for a sharp shock.


So what's the justification?


Why the cost is so much greater in America compared to all other western nations is not a straightforward issue. However, US college gives you a chance to study things you might never have even heard of by the time you graduate in the UK, and more mature decision-making when you do pick a focus. The first couple of years of college are spent a wide variety of subjects - some of which you might have started at school and some you might like the sound of - but they do not have to be connected.


These courses, which can become ‘minors’, lay the groundwork for choosing a major in the second half of the degree. You could find yourself studying Renaissance Art, followed by Astronomy, with a side in US Politics, before settling on what you like best.


Whilst as adults we might have occasional chances to learn about these disparate fields as evening classes or be able to read some non-fiction, university is the single best time to do so in our lives. As children and young adults, our main responsibility is to learn, and this informs not just our working lives but what we value and how we conduct ourselves personally.


Knowing which academic and/or vocational direction to take has clear important consequences for our lives – so it seems best to zoom out and check the full map before we choose our individual path.


Are there any benefits to studying in the UK?


Early career deciders may favour a system that wastes no time. The UK courses tend to be shorter, because you focus sooner. Undergraduates immediately start at higher levels and narrow selection of subjects encourages depth over breadth. This is the justification for having three years and not four – though there is an argument this was because of a reluctance for additional state funding, when tuition fees were mostly paid for by the government rather than the student.

The whole system in the UK is geared up for you to study one subject, with some variations including bipartite courses, such as Physics and Philosophy, or Modern Languages where you can usually choose two. On extremely unusual occasions there are tripartite courses, the most famous of which is PPE (politics, philosophy and economics), where a small number of students each year can step up to the challenge of doing all three.


At an average age of 18, your academic destiny is therefore set, with very limited possibilities to study modules outside of your course title during the degree. It is not easy to change subjects during this time without repeating years or having to reapply.


In short, American colleges offer a student a smorgasbord before choosing a main dish, but in the UK, you’re either in for what you know already, or else it’s chicken surprise.


Is there any point considering somewhere I can't afford?


Well, a lot of Americans must be doing this. Just under two-thirds (61.8%) of students enrol college in the US, compared to around 40% in the UK. This seems like a lot of people who are willing to fork out six figure sums for their education.


Clearly not everyone has that sort of money. There is a lot of college funding – a significant amount of which is not repayable. The Ivy League universities offer astounding sums of free tuition. 55% of Harvard students receive scholarships and 20% pay nothing. Many Ivy institutions state that students with parental income under circa $60,000 will pay nothing at all.


Meanwhile not everyone is getting this, and a lot more students take out loans. Student loan debt in the US is serious business, in both senses – being a wonderful industry for the creditors, and a potentially lifelong punishment for the indebted. 46 million Americans owe $1.75 trillion in student debt. That is an average of $38,000 each, and counting.


For those used to the UK system, student loans also do not affect your credit rating. In the US they do. This difference alone is a fairly big deal, given your attendance at university could later prohibit you from getting a loan or owning a home.


This might explain the 32.9% of students who do not finish their degrees, or 17% of the adult population in the US. Students may head to university simply because it is the norm, but later find it is not for them. Rapidly mounting debts make what might have been a hard decision to quit, much easier.


Therefore, the cost of tuition is a crucial concern for those without the means to fund their study, and even more so for those considering careers that might not allow them to payback their debts so easily.


So if I'm not rich, is it just safer to study in the UK then?


Probably, but it's not perfect here either. Over in Jolly England, you are expected not to think too much about your student debt and pray that student finance covers what you need, which in this economic or ‘cost-of-living’ crisis is becoming increasingly difficult. Most students take up these loans and do not get scholarships. Paying it back then happens automatically in your payslip after earning a certain amount and the amount is intended to be “invisible”, or not affect your adult life, though clearly this is debatable.

It's worth mentioning that UK universities haven’t been entirely blind to the advantages of the versatile minor/major US system. Increasing numbers of ‘liberal arts’ courses have been popping up around the country, without a doubt emulating their west-of-pond equivalents, but they are relatively new to the game, and they are single courses rather than incorporated within a university-wide ideology and structure. This matters, as it changes the experience of the student to study their undergraduate degree as the university intends and is best at.


Regardless of your family wealth, I would suggest that if a more exploratory US college experience appeals to you, then look into it – you never know what scholarships or loans you might find. You don’t get many chances at a university education, so find the best one for you.


Meanwhile, if you happen to be American looking for cheaper ways to study, life couldn't be better for you abroad and your $25 is set to buy you many, many bagels.

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