Does it pay to be a student in the US?

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News, Washington

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image captionStudy 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.

image captionJames 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".

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

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image captionEmma 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.

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.

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