Last year 20% of Wellington College’s leavers took up places at US universities. 18% of Taunton School’s students did the same. Wellington and Taunton are independent schools; across state schools, the percentage of students leaving to study at US universities was negligible.
Why should we be concerned by this?
Arguably US universities are ‘better’ than those in the UK. Just under 70 of the world’s top 100 universities are in the US. They massively outdo those in the UK in terms of academic and extracurricular facilities, and in terms of the standing of their teachers.
It wouldn’t hurt so much if attending a US university were a question of paying through the nose for a gilded experience. But that’s not the case. Harvard and several other Ivy League universities have needs-blind admissions processes – as in – if the university wants you, you only have to pay what you can afford. And at many large state universities such as the University of South Florida, where the state government sets student fees, tuition works out at £10,000 per year – comparable to costs in the UK.
If we agree that we are concerned by the imbalance in access, we should also be concerned by the difficulties the state sector faces in trying to overcome it.
Over the last ten years, despite millions being pumped into outreach activities, the proportion of state school students at the UK’s Russell Group universities has decreased. Access to US universities opens up a new front in the war to close the inequality gap in the education sector, and I think this battle will be far harder to win than the one the UK state sector is already losing.
The reason it will be harder is that in many ways the application process to US universities favours privileged students more than the UK one does.
Firstly, rather than a centralized process like UCAS, students have to apply to US universities one by one. There are more than 2,000 US universities, and each has different deadlines and asks for different essays and references. So you have to be a far more ‘switched on’ student to submit your applications correctly, and this is of course harder if you are more disadvantaged and are making your applications with less support from your school and from home.
Secondly, in their admissions processes US universities put significantly more emphasis on the ‘rounded student’. All of them talk about ‘building their student community’ and ‘looking for the right fit’. This means that they are more concerned with students’ extracurricular activities than UK universities are – and of course the more privileged you are, the more likely your are to have had opportunities to, for example, do a Duke of Edinburgh Award and secure work experience in a top law firm. It also means that an inside-track on a particular university can really help swing an application. Knowing that a university needs a new hockey goalkeeper can make all the difference in an application to a US university in a way that is entirely foreign to the UK system. It is of course the UK private schools that have these inside-tracks.
Thirdly, the US system gives far more weight to teacher references than the UK system does. Most US universities ask for two teacher references, plus a ‘counselor’ reference (the equivalent to a reference from a 6th Form Tutor). In addition it is common for US admissions tutors to call up a teacher or counselor to ask for more detail on a student. And US universities expect a particular kind of writing in these references which is not at all like the teacher references we are accustomed to in the UCAS process – US universities want to know about the student’s soft skills at least as much as their academic ability – and they expect the reference to be gushing. A US university might read a teacher saying ‘this student will cope admirably’ as muted criticism. Students at UK private schools where staff have more time to deal with references are at a huge advantage when compared to their state school peers.
What should we do about this?
If you are a teacher at a state school who thinks that the same opportunities should be open to all students, it’s up to you to transform the situation at your own school – change in this area will be driven by teachers who take the time to become expert in the US university admissions process and then support their students to apply to US universities. What are the next steps? For the basics on the US applications system, check out collegeboard.org and commonapp.org. For expertise it’s also worth contacting The Sutton Trust, who run a programme to help high achieving UK students from low participation backgrounds win places at US universities.
Alex Kelly is Director of Unifrog, an award-winning tool which helps students choose the best universities for them, while allowing teachers to track their students’ progress.
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