Does it pay to be a student in the US?

Students Study in America for better prospects and perhaps better weather?

The numbers of British students studying in the United States is at a record high, but with tuition fees set to rise in England, could even more travel across the Atlantic?

In the sea of American football shirts, and college-branded hoodies, the England top is hard to miss.

Its proud wearer is 27-year-old James Martin, from Sheffield, who is now very much at home on the campus of George Mason University in Virginia.

Currently studying for his masters, Mr Martin already has a degree under his belt from the same institution. He is one of a growing number of British students choosing US universities as their alma mater.

James Martin James Martin wears his England shirt with pride on campus

"I never thought I'd get an undergraduate education, because of my upbringing. Everything that our family got they've earned by doing it," he explains, proud of his roots in a working class family in Hillsborough, South Yorkshire. "I chose to come here because of the money."

Easy admission

Having done worse than he had hoped in his A-levels, he took a gap year in the US, staying with family.

It was then he decided to enrol into a community college in the state of Virginia, near Washington DC. As his mother is American, he was able to without the need to apply for a student visa. He says his tuition fees at community college worked out at about £1,500 a year.

"As long as you're a high school graduate, the admission is very, very easy. The actual rate at the time was $50-60 for every hour of course credit. I thought it was a very cheap way of getting education."

The ability to attend lectures in the evening allowed James to take on a part-time job on campus to top up his income. After community college he was admitted to George Mason university where, with the help of student loans, he completed his undergraduate degree.

He estimates that his time at George Mason, including tuition, accommodation and books, cost him about £14,000 a year.

With the prospect of tuition fees in England and Wales rising to as much as £9,000 a year, many are predicting more British students to follow in his footsteps.

The Fulbright commission, which promotes study exchanges between the US and the UK, believes that the numbers of British students in the US in the next academic year could rise "dramatically", in the wake of rising tuition, and a limited number of places at home universities.

Lauren Welch, who is the director of advising and marketing for the commission says interest from British students in American institutions has "skyrocketed".

The student on a scholarship

Jack Scott

I turned down a place at Birmingham university to come to American University in Washington DC.

I am here on a football scholarship, so it has definitely been easier financially because I haven't had to pay for anything.

When I talk to my friends back home I always see their Facebook statuses and they're always talking about having to take out a loan or that they've gone over their overdraft.

If the prices are going to be similar why not come to America, because it's a whole other country with a whole other set of opportunities and experiences.

At a recent undergraduate study fair for pupils looking to study in the US, she reported a 50% increase in attendees on previous years. The commission's website has seen traffic go up by a third.

"People are worried that they may not get a place in the UK so they want to throw their hat in the ring in other countries to see what happens," explains Ms Welch.

The price of tuition in the US varies dramatically across universities. Undergraduate degrees are four years long - the annual average cost to study at a private university is £20,000, at a public university it is £12,000-£18,000.

"While the possible rise in tuition rates won't be on par with the US, I think the sense is that students are thinking I have to pay £9,000, why not go an extra couple of thousand pounds more and have that added bonus of going abroad," adds Ms Welch.

In the 2009/10 academic year, 8,861 students from the UK were studying in the US, according to figures compiled by the Institute for International Education, for its Open Doors 2010 report - the highest numbers to date. One famous student treading the path is Harry Potter actress Emma Watson, who is at Brown University in Rhode Island.

Almost half of those came to study at undergraduate level, with nearly a third taking postgraduate classes. About one-third of those who came for undergraduate study did so on a scholarship. The rest tend to be funded by their families.

Udayan Tripathi, 21, is studying at Washington DC's prestigious Georgetown University, which counts former US President Bill Clinton among its alumni.

"My dad is paying for it," he explains. "You'll find that most British students are from very wealthy backgrounds, or upper middle class families. In my case my dad is working very hard to get me though this."

Visa hurdles
Harry Potter actress Emma Watson Emma Watson is a student at Brown university in Rhode Island

Udayan's decision to shun British higher education in favour of its US counterpart was driven by the choice it offered. He believes that the American university system, where you don't have to "major" in a particular subject in the first year of study, offers students more of a chance to develop as it gives them a chance to try out a range of subjects before choosing what to specialise in.

The levelling of costs between the two countries, a desire to experience American life, and enhanced employment prospects are the main reasons Britons come to study here, says Allan Goodman, the president of the Institute for International Education.

"For many students there is the thought that I will get a better job if I have a degree from America," he says.

Studying abroad can enhance a student's career prospects, by broadening their career horizons. Entering on a student visa allows the holder to stay in the US for a further year (or two years if they are a science graduate) to work here. A survey of employers carried out by the UK Council for Industry and Higher Education in 2007, showed that studying and gaining skills abroad helped to increase a student's employability.

Studying in the USA

  • 8,861 British students at US universities (2009/2010)
  • 47.6% are undergraduates

If you don't have wealthy family, or win a scholarship, it can be difficult to raise funds to study in the US.

British student loans can only be used for study in the UK, so anyone wanting to borrow money to fund a course would need to take out a private bank loan, which comes with higher interest rates, and no ability to defer repayment.

Getting a visa for study is another potential hurdle, but Amanda Morgan, who is the associate director of admissions at George Mason university says they are "generally easy" for British students to secure.

"They just have to show that they have no intent of emigrating to the US, and generally with British students there are pretty strong ties to go back to their country so there's not so much of a worry," she says.

The requirements of the I-20 visas allow students to work up to 20 hours on campus a week, but even then, they need to prove they have sufficient funds to cover their tuition, or have pre-approval for a loan.

Without financial support, a scholarship, or family ties, it is still a challenge for British students to take up a course in America. But with the prospect of fees rising in England and Wales, it looks like an avenue many students will at least be exploring.

Below is a selection of your comments

Community colleges in the US are an inexpensive introduction to higher education in America. An additional advantage is the variety of programs and scholarships available because, in the US, access to higher education has always been a right, not a privilege.

Joe Roberts, Jackson, US

It's not just America. Greater financial support in Europe is looking increasingly attractive. I spent a year at a French university the support given to students was impressive. Institutions in Scandinavia and Germany also offer far more financial support and lower fees. The UK should consider whether it wants to jeopardise its ability to attract the best young minds in the world.

James, London, UK

I am an American who did my Bachelor's degree in the US, but came to the UK for my MA and PhD, so I have experienced higher education on both sides of the pond. I am settled in the UK now and expecting my first child. I am very keen to make sure my child has dual passports, soleley to keep the avenues of education open at both ends. I will be strongly encouraging my child to consider American universities, because the format of education there is much more open and less limiting.

S Parker, Swindon, Wilts, UK

I think its great that people my age who want to do university can go to other countries to study. Not only are they getting their education at a fairer price, but they're being a part of a different culture, creating social ties around the world, engaging in diversity, and learning more than just a set degree along the way.

Holly, Derbyshire, UK

I am very proud of my British education and Americans cannot believe I went to a top tier University for no tuition cost. However, whilst I still believe the British education is more detailed and focussed, the value for money over here in terms of facilities at even an average state college is incredible . Whilst British educational institutions have been selling off, green space, sports fields, city centre property etc, the American public institutions seem to be progressing like only a private school can back home.

WillinUS, Chicago, US

As an American who took their first degree in the UK (and paid tuition for it), I wouldn't recommend going to the US for undergraduate education. 1) The UK system has long been acknowledged as being two years or more ahead of the US system in terms of levels reached. The quality is better over here, at least at the Russell Group universities.

Anne, High Wycombe, Bucks

I think the point about the flexibilty of the courses in the US is very true. I chose a general engineering degree because it allowed me to have a go at all the types of engineering before I chose which stream to go into. I dont know how students are supposed to decide what degree to do without any previous experience of the subject (like engineering). Not enough courses in the UK offer degrees like this and I think drop-out rates will reduce if they start to offer them.

Michael Osgerby, Warwick, UK

I obtained my undergraduate degree in the UK and my Masters in the US. My experience is that academic standards seem to be quite a bit tougher in the UK. An awful lot of people go to college in the US, many of whom would not pass 'A' levels in the UK. While there is definitely some benfits to studying abroad, potential students should do their homewrok carefully; there'll be more work in a US college, but it will not be as intellectually demanding. I would be interested to see if my opinion is mine alone, or shared by others.

KMM, USA

A very interesting piece, but aren't you missing a similar story closer to home? The Scottish Government seems set to retain no fees for Scottish students and relatively low fees for students from other parts of the UK, at least for the short term. With no visa issues for UK students, this is also an avenue many students may wish to explore.

C Garden, Edinburgh, UK

Students from the UK will always be welcome here. And they'll have no problem finding boyfriends and girlfriends as we are Americans permanently besotted in love with our former colonizers. :-)

Rebecca Minnich, New York

To study in the US is massively expensive and one encounters problems when it comes to how the British employers and universities evaluate the US degree. Personally, I believe it is a superior qualification because it provides a more well-rounded education.

J Warren, Kingston, UK

I'm now in my 4th year of an undergraduate course at a leading university in the US. I turned down a place at Cambridge University to study here. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in the US, and would highly recommend it to anyone else. I would agree that those crossing the Atlantic for an undergraduate education are predominantly from wealthy families, but this doesn't have to be the case. Some top universities (think Ivy League, MIT etc.) offer need-based financial assistance. This means they will offer you scholarships to the value that makes the education affordable to you. For me, that means an American education is probably cheaper than staying in the UK. Scholarships for talented athletes are available at a wider range of universities. With the rise in tuition cost, I would encourage more people to research American colleges (here college means the undergraduate part of a university).

Brit in the US, Milton Keynes, Bucks, UK

Having left a UK HE Institution after 1 year my son gained his degree from a US University- not Ivy League but worthy. He is dyslexic and found the whole system of teaching and examination suited him far better than the UK essay based systems. He gained an excellent GPA, really enjoyed the wide variety of subjects he studied- and is now married and a US citizen!. It was a very expensive exercise for us. Not just the fees have to be taken into account but all the extras- accommodation, food, travel, a car and insurance, travel home, visas, health care etc etc. and of course the opportunities for work are very limited under the terms of the visa. So- it's a wonderful experience but beware the 'small print'!

Helen, Newcastle, UK

I won a fellowship to America in 2006 to study for a year at an Ivy League University. Subsequently, I was able to stay on different kinds of fellowships at other American universities to pursue a postgraduate education. I have found academia in America is a safe haven to pursue my varied interests. The financial support offered by American universities is absolutely crucial-particularly if you are in the arts. I will graduate with no loans (unlike my expensive British undergrad education where I was classed as a 'foreign student' and therefore paid three times as much) I have seldom heard 'no' since I've been in America. The sense of open-ness and possibility is resounding and has given me the confidence to pursue my chosen path.

LG, New Haven, USA

I am from the US, and did my BA in the US, but I did my MA in London, and surprisingly saved money. In the US an MA is at least two years, and most of the programs I was looking at, the tuition alone was going to be at least $50,000 a year. But the degree in the UK was only one year, and was £10,000 for the year. So in some ways, I saved money by studying in the UK, plus had a great experience with living abroad. I highly recommend it!

Hannah, Jerusalem, Israel

As a graduate of an English University [Leeds], now resident in the US [10+ years], I can say that the British educational system is streets ahead of the US system in quality and scope of requirements and value of degree.

Ronnie Bray, Mesa, Arizona

Send your comments

If you are happy to be contacted by a BBC journalist please leave a telephone number that we can contact you on. In some cases a selection of your comments will be published, displaying your name as you provide it and location, unless you state otherwise. Your contact details will never be published. When sending us pictures, video or eyewitness accounts at no time should you endanger yourself or others, take any unnecessary risks or infringe any laws. Please ensure you have read the terms and conditions.

Terms and conditions

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

  • Cesc FabregasFair price?

    Have some football clubs overpaid for their new players?


  • Woman and hairdryerBlow back

    Would banning high-power appliances actually save energy?


  • Members of staff at James Stevenson Flags hold a Union Jack and Saltire flag UK minus Scotland

    Does the rest of the UK care if the Scots become independent?


  • Women doing ice bucket challengeChill factor

    How much has the Ice Bucket Challenge achieved?


  • Women in front of Windows XP posterUpgrade angst

    Readers share their experiences of replacing their operating system


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.