Helicopter Mum preparing to call Harvard in February after her son is not admitted to Oxford.
Helicopter Mum preparing to call Harvard in February after her son is not admitted to Oxford.

Last year I was called by a woman (a friend of a friend) whose son had not been accepted by Oxford.  Given how difficult Oxford is to get into I was a little surprised at her reaction.  Deep disappointment, even grief, I could understand but she was incandescent with rage.  “How dare they…?” etc  She finally concluded by saying ” I said to him, never mind!  We’ll just apply to Harvard!” The month was February.  If this had been a TV show I would have burst out laughing.  Poor Americans. We have spent so much time and energy trying to convince the British that we are NOT inferior and here was this woman speaking of a Harvard application as a last minute emergency measure.

Britain tends to have two kinds of parents where study in a US university is a consideration.  First, those who have some familiarity with one or two US colleges because they have lived or worked in the US or they may work  with Americans.  These tend to be open minded about institutions even if they want a college in the East – not unreasonable considering the distance and cost of air travel.  Then there are people who really struggle with the concept not only of a US university but of a British one other than Cambridge and Oxford. Their instinct is for a prestigious  name but their knowledge base is limited.   Back to my “Helicopter Mum,” it was clear that Oxford was the only place she had ever contemplated for her son.   That she was willing to consider sending him to the US bears out the evidence on the growing interest in US universities in the UK.  The US-UK Fulbright Commission, which runs an annual USA College Fair in London, says that in the past few years their numbers have doubled.

Why has interest in US universities increased so dramatically in the UK?  The short answer is system stress and  finances. In August (today in fact) many British students  discover whether their grades from national exams will be enough for admittance into the universities of their choice.  British students (may they remain strong and brave!) have a peculiar system requiring their teachers earlier in the year to predict the grades they are likely to receive in national exams known as A levels. Based on the predictions, universities to which students apply make “offers” promising to admit them only if they achieve particular grades. The offers are generally made in early spring, the students take their exams, usually three, then in late August (how DO they relax while on  vacation?) they receive notification of their results.

Failure to achieve the required results triggers an emergency process known as “clearing” in which the student scrambles around trying to find not simply another college but potentially another subject to study as well.   Generally UK students apply to study a specific major. This is not something to confirm later as in the United States, If you apply to study Spanish, that is what you do from day one. Therefore, the  student who fails to get the necessary grades for a chemistry major at his chosen college might look around for a major or “course” as they are known, in another science if he/she has also taken an exam for that.  Think of a Middle Eastern Bazaar.

College: “I’ll admit you with  three Bs.”

Student: “What about an A, a B and a C”

College: “Sold!”

These days “clearing” is done partly online where students check available courses  but before the system went online I remember national newspapers publishing  the courses  on the front pages like jobs ads. Students then (as now)  telephoned the jam packed lines of university departments to make their pitch.  My heart went out to the poor things searching desperately for a port in the storm — and it still does.  No doubt the stress of the process has enhanced the reputation of US universities.   American colleges are on a different schedule and  they are not interested in predictions (however accurate) so they admit British students based on very rigorous exams taken at age 14 as well as the SATs of course and the college application. If a student really prefers a British university it can be risky.  US universities require a commitment by 1 May whereas offers from British universities in the spring are just that –  “offers” not a commitment.  If places are tight or there are too many A grades a student may still have problems.  A  few years ago I met a British student who had applied to a top UK university, received her required grades in August, then  was told there  were not enough places. She went elsewhere. That might not happen every year but the point is that  British students accepted to excellent US universities are often going with a sure thing rather than “rejecting” a top UK university in favor of one in the US as newspapers report. While their friends are checking their exam scores today, British students admitted to US universities are busy packing.  A British student at a US college with a pre-semester orientation class in August was actually sitting in class when exam grades emerged.  For him they were irrelevant.  Seen in this context, the entire US system is the safety school.

However, the increased tuition  of British universities from £3,000 (approx $5,000) to £9,000 (approx £14,000) is the main reason  US colleges are more and more attractive – that and a look at the cost of living in popular locations. The tradition in the UK is that students live in student housing in the town.  Students in university towns complain of extortionate rent by landlords. As predicted by many experts, the rise in tuition in the UK has made students more discerning. If they cannot get into a top class UK university, an American state university for the same price with better facilities looks like the best deal.

British newspapers however have also played a part in the trend toward US colleges as a respectable alternative.  The number of UK students going to the US has been an annual story for a number of years.  Education is a testy political issue and often exaggerated stories of UK students fleeing UK universities appeared to be a stick with which to beat education ministers over the head.  The accumulation of articles in national newspapers about British students in the US has however increased awareness of US higher education and many secondary schools are responding by adding US colleges to their college counselling.

Despite the increased interest in studying in the US, the vast majority of UK college bound students are looking at British institutions.  Today my thoughts are with all students receiving their results and especially with those doing so on camera on the national news! I wish them all well. As for those who are disappointed in their choices I hope their parents do not turn up the pressure with talk of face saving by last minute applications to Harvard.