When British student Rishab Mehan arrived in Cambridge for college in 2010, he decorated his room with a few Beatles album covers and an English flag. But it wasn't the Cambridge where his classmates at Eton, the prestigious English boarding school, had expected the academic star to spend his university years. It was Cambridge, Mass. He'd chosen to go to Harvard instead.
Mehan is not alone. With tuition fees skyrocketing in England and admission to Britain's elite universities becoming increasingly competitive, growing numbers of British students are now applying to college in the States. "The numbers have increased dramatically in the last seven years," says Richard Burston, who oversees Yale alumni interviews of candidates in the U.K. "It's quite remarkable." Mehan's school, Eton, which has educated 19 prime ministers and Princes William and Harry, now sends about 25 students out of 260 to the States each year a five-fold increase since 2000. (Seven Eton students will join Mehan at Harvard this fall.) The number of pupils applying to the U.S. from rival Westminster School has doubled in the past five years. And similar dynamics are at work at other elite academies.
It hasn't always been this way. Ten years ago, few students were interested in applying to the U.S., and those who did were left to navigate the gauntlet of GPA's, SAT's, personal essays and financial aid forms by themselves. Today, top schools like Westminster and St. Paul's have special U.S. advisers to help students deal with the process.
What's sparked the interest? Tuition costs, for one thing. Until recently, England's elite universities offered an unbeatable combination of world-class curricula at a nanny state price. That was before Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government slashed education budgets in the name of austerity. As a result, tuition at many U.K. institutions will almost triple to £9,000 ($14,700) per year next fall.
That might seem like a bargain compared to the more than $40,000 in annual tuition costs now common at U.S. private colleges. But the truth is that at some elite schools with generous financial aid, the majority of students pay less than sticker price. (At Princeton, 60% of students receive aid and many of that school's scholarship packages cover 100% of tuition.) And thanks to a "citizenship-blind" aid policy at six U.S. colleges Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Amherst and Dartmouth British citizens in need can access the same grants as their American counterparts. Why? Harvard's philosophy, shared by other top U.S. institutions, is that "students benefit greatly and learn much from living and studying with others from a wide diversity of backgrounds, including geographic and economic. We also seek to admit the most talented, able and diverse student body possible, regardless of citizenship," says university spokesman Jeff Neal. That means that for some U.K. students, the real bargain is stateside.
Starting next year, a student with no savings from a household with an average U.K. income of £30,000 ($50,000) will accrue around $20,000 in loans per year for tuition and living costs at Oxford. (Most undergraduate courses in the U.K. run for three years for a total of about $60,000 at that income level.) At Yale, the same student would be expected to contribute about $5,450 per year towards tuition and living costs for a total of $21,800 over four years. That's a staggering $38,200 difference in the price of a degree. Only when a British family starts earning an income of around £90,000 ($150,000) will Yale, Princeton and Harvard begin to cost as much as a top English university after tuition rates go up. Mehan says that even before the tuition hikes, Harvard's grants made it a better deal for him than Cambridge. "In the end, I think financial aid is what tipped the balance," he says.
Financial aid isn't the only attraction. For many students, the American liberal arts approach is an appealing alternative to the British system, which locks students into a single subject for their entire university career. And then, of course, there's the cultural experience. David Feinburg, a teacher and counselor at renowned boys' school St. Paul's, says former students are "incredibly positive" about their U.S. experience. "They're enormously popular socially."
The other factor is the brand game. Students fearful of being labeled an "Oxbridge reject" want a prestigious backup. And many take advantage of the entirely different admissions philosophies at top U.S. and U.K. universities in the hunt for a "name" university. While Oxford and Cambridge focus solely on academic élan (extracurricular activities are deemed irrelevant at best), U.S. universities consider the applicant as a complete person. "For some of our students, maybe they're not quite as brilliant academically, but they're very strong in sport or music or some other characteristic which likely makes them a better candidate in terms of getting into a good school in the U.S. than they would be over here," says St. Paul's Feinburg. Eton's headmaster Tony Little agrees. "If we do have an outstanding rower, and we're writing on his behalf, we don't refer to the rowing at all for a British university," he said. "Not to do so for an American university would be derelict!"
Whatever techniques British students are using, they seem to work. The number of British undergraduates at Princeton has more than doubled since 2005 to 77, and Harvard admitted a record 30 by April last year, with more placed on the waiting list. British students have a better chance of getting into Harvard than the average applicant. Nearly 9% of the Britons that applied to the Harvard class of 2014 were accepted, compared to 6.9% overall. Certainly their extracurricular talents in the way of sport have not gone unnoticed. Of the 30-odd Harvard applicants from the U.K. admitted to the class of 2014, six are varsity heavyweight rowers, comprising over a third of Harvard's freshman roster.
Despite the glowing reviews from returning students, some argue that American universities with their system of lectures and seminars, can't match the one-on-one attention provided at the U.K.'s top universities. "My personal view is that if you have a clear idea in your mind that you want to read a particular line of inquiry, and you can get into Oxford and Cambridge with the tutorial system, there is none better," says Little. "You write your essay, you go along alone to your supervisor and then you have it ripped to shreds in front of you. That's a pretty powerful experience intellectually and academically that investment of contact is a remarkable thing."
Some British teachers, particularly those educated at Oxford or Cambridge, don't like the idea of their best students abandoning Britain for the States. But as more and more British students cross the Atlantic, attitudes may change. "In the old days, there was a perception that if you were an elite U.K. school, that the pinnacle of success would be how many students they could get into Oxbridge," says Yale's Burston. "I think that's no longer the case."