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Who needs Harvard or Yale?

September 21, 2006 09:18 IST

If you're into prestige as well as a top-notch education, Oxford is right up there with Harvard. Yet consider this: An incoming freshman at Harvard College is looking at an estimated $185,800 for tuition and room and board over the next four years. The same student can earn a degree at Oxford in just three years for about $112,000 -- and that includes all school expenses, plus travel to and from the States.

The Oxford deal was too good to pass up for Christopher Schuller, a 20-year-old Nashville native who is starting his third year there with a double major in law and German law. "Even with overseas fees and the high exchange rate, Oxford is still cheaper," says Schuller, who found a similar cost advantage in the British school over his top stateside pick, the University of Chicago.

Who needs the Ivies, or any other elite U.S. college, when your kid can hop across the Atlantic for an excellent educational adventure? Besides lower costs, prestigious British universities offer the excitement of living abroad. Plus, they have less stringent entry requirements than Ivy League schools.

For example, the University of St. Andrews, Scotland's top-ranked university, expects applicants to have SAT scores of around 1,300, compared with 1,500 for most Ivies. The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) doesn't even use the SAT, instead requiring four advanced placement (AP) tests with scores of 4 or 5.

More U.S. students are noticing such advantages. According to Britain's Universities & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), 2,201 U.S. high school students applied to full-time undergrad programs at British universities last year, a fourfold increase since 1996. Some 948 were accepted. "Students get the chance to engage with a different culture while getting a top-of-the-line academic experience," says Marsha Little, director of college counseling at the Lovett School, a prep school in Atlanta.

Competitive Edge

A degree from a top British university can also offer that extra edge in an increasingly competitive and global job market. Alex Dresner, a 20-year-old sophomore at the LSE from Washington, D.C., believes the experience he's gained while studying overseas helped him land an internship at a communications consulting firm this summer.

Shaun Harris, adviser at the LSE career service, thinks the school's pedigree plays well with employers. "We have a pretty good reputation with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, as well as the White House and the Pentagon," he says.

The British approach to higher education may not appeal to everyone. Unlike the broad liberal arts curriculum offered by U.S. schools, British universities require students to specialize from their freshman year. For example, a biology major would take only classes related to the degree, and it would

be difficult to branch out. Switching majors, in effect, is starting over.

A different world

The chance to specialize at such an early stage can be a bonus in many professions. When Schuller finishes his degree at Oxford, he will be able to qualify to take the New York State Bar exam upon completing a U.S. law refresher course. That will save him tens of thousands of dollars on the cost of law school, plus he'll have the opportunity to earn money during the three years he would have been in school.

Even though Britain and the U.S. share a language, Americans studying in Britain have to adjust to a different culture, a task harder than it might seem. Class hours, for example, are kept to a minimum, typically less than 10 per week, with students splitting their time between small seminars and larger lectures.

Independent study is the name of the game; there is typically no set homework, and students must motivate themselves rather than rely on professors. Most schools start in late September or early October, and run over two or three semesters until mid-June. "American students struggle in the first term with the different type of learning," says Tao Tao Chang, head of Cambridge's international office, who adds that most go on to thrive at the university.

Social life also differs from U.S. schools. With no fraternities, sororities, or large-scale college sports, extracurricular life revolves around student unions: campus-based organizations that run everything from school elections to parties and help students with academic and personal problems. Societies, or student clubs, also play a part. There's usually something for everyone, ranging from sports and charity organizations to drama and political groups.

The application process will be foreign to U.S. students. They apply through UCAS, not directly to the schools. (The one exception is St. Andrews, which offers a special form similar to those for U.S. colleges.) Early in the fall the application becomes available online, and includes a personal statement and one teacher reference.

You can apply to six universities in total for a flat fee of $30. The deadline for Oxford and Cambridge is Oct. 15 because both require an in-person interview. For any other school, the deadline is June 30, with most sending out acceptance letters by mid-August.

British schools have little scholarship money available, so most U.S. students must pay their own way. Those in need of aid can apply to Sallie Mae International for student loans, just as if they were going to a U.S. school.

When it comes to bang for your buck, going abroad for college can be a smart idea. But will a degree from a British university help American students when they go home?

For Zahra Nawaz, a 23-year-old LSE graduate from Alexandria, Va., it definitely has. After returning to the U.S. in 2004, she was accepted into a master's program in security studies at Georgetown University and began working part-time at the Homeland Security Institute, a think tank of the U.S. Homeland Security Dept., in Washington. Nawaz has some advice for any student thinking about taking the British path to college.

"Be open, consider everything, and don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone," she says. "In the end, the different cultural experience you'll get is an education in itself."