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The American Option

Posted on: 01 Dec 2016
Posted by: Peter Tait

Peter Tait, former Head at Sherborne Preparatory School, discusses the breadth of education offered by American universities, in comparison to 'the more rigid system we have in England'.

After sitting her A Levels at an English boarding school in the 1980s, Amanda Foreman was awarded an E for English – even after a re-sit.


Not surprisingly, no British University made her an offer, leading her to look abroad for her tertiary study, not by choice, but by necessity. Yet a few short years later, after completing her under-graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College in the USA, then Columbia University, she won a scholarship to Oxford where she completed a DPhil on ‘Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’ (later to win the Whitbread Prize for best biography), launching her on a career as an academic and writer. What was it in the United States education system that allowed her to flourish? And, conversely, what was there in our system of assessment that allowed her (and many like her) to slip through the net?


One possible explanation is that some students take time to find their academic potential, to find out what they want to do or to learn what study is really all about. Another, more plausible, is that some approaches to tertiary study suit some students more than others and that for an increasing number, the breadth offered by American universities, particularly in the liberal arts, is much more appealing and relevant to them compared to the more rigid system we have in England. Even the process of application focuses as much on character as academic prowess, with the admissions process including essays and pieces of reflective writing an important part of the process.


While the cross-Atlantic traffic is still firmly in the UK’s favour, over the past decade the numbers of UK students going to study in the United States has grown steadily, and is now increasing by around 8% per annum. Each year, over 10,000 students are leaving to study at American universities, with the majority going to the prestigious Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale, more than half at under-graduate level. As well, the number of students at UK universities studying abroad as part of their studies has soared by 50 per cent last year, a trend that seems likely to accelerate in the future. Even for students initially put off by the high costs, the very many generous bursaries and scholarships available at American universities have, on investigation, made it a realistic proposition.


Two years ago, Sir Anthony Seldon, then master of Wellington College, Berkshire, suggested that students were being attracted by the breadth of the liberal arts curriculum, in which students take a range of subjects in their first two years rather than specialising in one discipline, suggesting that British universities should take note of a growing feeling that British degrees were too narrow.


"There's an allure about studying in America and having a broader, liberal arts approach with greater focus on sport, music and artistic prowess. It is a more generous vision of what higher education can be rather than the utilitarian approach we see in the UK.”


For those who go to university with only a vague idea of what they want to do, being able to select their ‘Major’ after their first two years of study rather than at the outset has considerable appeal. As part of their liberal arts education, mandatory for all, students study a wider range of subjects in comparison to English universities, (more akin with the position in Scotland). Students are encouraged to take other courses to provide complementary skills and interests that designed to give students a greater breadth of knowledge. Hence, even if set on studying engineering, a student will receive a broad education in the liberal arts before specialization, something we may see as wasteful of time and resources, but which is fundamental to the American tertiary system.


At the recent Education Theatre, now an integral part of the annual Independent Schools Show in Battersea, one of the key talks centered around the process of applying to American universities. Without repeating the detail of the talk (which can be accessed via YouTube), or the difference in requirements (applications, for instance, have to be made to individual universities and need to start a good year earlier etc), there is a clear difference in the ethos and approach of the two countries in their approach to tertiary study. Not surprisingly, a growing number of schools are considering the option of American universities in all its diversity as they seek to offer the best advice for their students.

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About Peter Tait

Peter Tait is the former head of Sherborne Preparatory School and is now a writer and independent education adviser.