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The most pressing challenge to undergraduate education in the United States is arguably its sharply rising cost. In a 2013 Bloomberg News article, Michelle Jamrisko and Ilan Kolet assert that tuition expenses have increased 538 percent since 1985, compared with a 286 percent jump in medical costs and a 121 percent gain in the Consumer Price Index. Jamrisko and Kolet further write that “the ballooning charges have generated swelling demand for educational loans while threatening to make college unaffordable for domestic and international students. The ‘skyrocketing’ increases exacerbate income inequality by depriving those of less means of the schooling they need to advance….”
The rising cost of higher education in the U.S. is clearly about more than learning; it reaches into the very definition of American society and severely limits fulfillment of the long-touted and distinguishing claim of this country that accessible education rivals hereditary privilege as the path to achievement.
Colleges and universities have tried numerous strategies to contain or reduce tuition so that their institutions are more accessible -- increased fund-raising for financial assistance, online learning, sharp discounting of tuition, a three-year degree, community college articulation agreements to four-year institutions and radical reductions in tuition. None of these strategies have prevented escalation of college costs.
Relying on fund-raising places the university on a never-ending treadmill of solicitation that, pursued too vigorously, alienates alumni and varies in success with the economic conditions out of the colleges’ control. Online learning remains a highly debatable option for the 18- to 21-year-old undergraduate. Discounting has its limits when the discount no longer provides the funds necessary to operate the institution. A three-year degree raises questions about the ability of sufficient academic coverage of courses of study and potentially eliminates time for those activities valued in an American education -- out-of-class activities. And in every case so far in which a college or university has radically reduced tuition, the expected results were not forthcoming, and in most cases, the charges in a few years were quietly adjusted back to their escalating rates.
There is, however, a highly viable alternative that is not often discussed broadly in the United States -- certainly not by the U.S. college and university establishment itself, as it would lead to its own disadvantage, nor by high school counselors, as the option is not yet common practice. The need for options is all the more critical as colleges and universities in marginal financial condition close (Sweet Briar College being a recent example) and students seek alternatives that are affordable. I am talking about an undergraduate degree at one of the 123 British universities -- well beyond the historic focus on only Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrew’s -- for a limited number of U.S. students in the know.
Annual tuition for British undergraduate degrees averages well below the expense of well-considered private colleges in the U.S. and about the same as that of an out-of-state public flagship university. By only taking three years to complete, however, British degrees stand in striking contrast to American four-year degrees that confront students and their families in the United States with severe, lingering financial challenge. For example, the cost per year for a B.B.A. (honors) degree in Business and Entrepreneurship at Bath Spa University, recently judged one the U.K.’s most creative universities, is, if fully charged, $26,000, or the equivalent of $19,500 per year for a four-year education in the United States.
Savvy Americans are clearly noticing this option. A recent British Council Report entitled “U.S. undergraduates choosing U.K. for their studies” states the following:
“New HESA [Higher Education Statistics Agency] data shows a 28 percent increase in Americans pursuing their full undergraduate degrees at British universities over the past four years, and UCAS [Universities and Colleges Admissions Service] data reveals an 8 percent increase in U.S. applicants for courses starting 2014-15.”
What is fueling this trend? The British Council in the above report identifies several factors:
1. The strong reputation of the British higher education system.
2. The shorter length of the degrees.
3. Increased competitiveness on the job market, where an international experience of duration arguably counts as positive and distinguishing.
4. American students’ ability to use their U.S.-backed government loans to complete full degrees abroad, when scholarships are not available.
While I previously spent my entire professional career working for U.S. education institutions -- nonprofit and for-profit -- I am currently in a position to gain particular insight into Britain as a destination for university-bound American students. Through a private/public joint venture between Shorelight Education (Boston) and Bath Spa University (England), I have become founding dean of the School of Business and Entrepreneurship (SBE) in Bath. The three-year B.B.A. (honors) degree invites young entrepreneurial minds from all over the world to gain a mastery of fundamental business skills and pursue their interests in one of four distinct concentrations -- enterprise innovation, design management, social entrepreneurship or emerging technology.
What I have learned in a short period of time is that a British university education can be most appealing and cost efficient to an American student who is sufficiently adventuresome and mature to defy inherited expectations of a distinctively American education and embrace another way of doing things, and he or she can achieve the same results as an American education. It is not for everyone, but it is certainly a viable option for more students than are currently taking advantage of it.
For example, British universities have numerous opportunities for students to participate in club or intramural athletics, but the big-time university experience -- packed stadiums, mascots, tailgating parties, athletic scholarships, halftime shows and marching bands -- simply is not available. British universities also have abundant clubs for student engagement outside of class -- at the university or in the local community -- but again, the students find their way to these activities independently, although often through peer encouragement, and without the engagement of the elaborate and somewhat massive student life staff that exist at American colleges and universities.
The U.K. undergraduate curriculum also commences in a more focused manner than the initial exploratory curricula in the U.S. (To be accepted to a British university, students must demonstrate in a variety of ways the ability to have already been successful at university-level work -- this necessity attributable to entering British students being a year or two older than most American high school graduates.) To a certain degree there is the assumption that students already have a good idea of their course of study, and they delve deeply into it in a concentrated manner.
What is of particular interest to me is the three-year degree. Only a few years ago on this very site, my co-author, Neil Weissman, and I launched into a vigorous denunciation of such a degree. Here in part is what we said:
“It may be that we can no longer afford the four-year standard for an undergraduate education. If economic realities push against our current model, so be it. But before we fast-forward college in the name of affordability, let's at least be honest about what is being lost. Three is usually not more than or equal to four. Not all results -- especially in education, where widgets are not the product -- are available at lower price and the same quality. Perhaps we can ‘get undergraduates through’ in three years. However, what we may have to alter to achieve that end might severely compromise what we hope to accomplish for our students, particularly in areas vital to a thriving 21st-century democracy and economy.”
We identified several aspects of value to a distinctively American education for the 21st century if a three-year degree were the norm for all students, as advocates were demanding at the time (the three-year degree has historically always been available for those who have advanced academic standing and can discover the option’s availability -- colleges and universities are usually not forthcoming, as at least a year of tuition is thereby lost): global perspective, interdisciplinarity, complexity, choice, creativity, democracy, meaning and technology.
I still stand by our argument against the comprehensive adoption of the three-year degree in the U.S. for all the reasons cited at the time. But just as we left room for advanced placement students who had the necessary credits and the desire and discipline for a shorter undergraduate degree, I believe that those students with a desire to embrace early a global commitment through education, and thus prepare for a later life of global engagement quite fitting the demands of the century, and who do not need or desire the trappings of American education but desire something different that still results in the same accomplishment, should readily seek a British undergraduate education as alternative.
Objections to obtaining an undergraduate degree in Britain are historically numerous, but all inconsequential. Some worry about the distance from the U.S. Of course, a flight from the East Coast of the U.S. to London is in duration about the same as that to Los Angeles. Others are concerned about perceived inability to ever return for graduate studies or a job in the United States. This is a most provincial and U.S.-centric comment, as British-educated people obviously work all over the world, and U.S. citizens educated in the U.K. have returned to the U.S. without difficulty to further education and work. The positive employability of U.K. university graduates in the U.S. is presented in a December 2011 report (“U.S. Employers’ Perceptions of U.K. University Degrees Earned in the United Kingdom”) conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for the British Council:
“Most employers in the United States consider degrees earned in the United Kingdom to be the same as or better than those earned in the U.S.”
The report notes that all U.K. universities profit for the “halo effect” of those prestigious institutions known to American employers, such as Oxford and Cambridge. That said, the report urges that other U.K. universities engage efforts to make themselves known in the U.S. to enhance even further their graduates’ employability. This is no different, of course, from U.S. colleges and universities with specific name recognition challenges internationally if they are not the likes of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford or MIT. Even the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the U.S., as well as many other universities, are abstractions globally.
And the transition for American undergraduates at U.K. universities back to the U.S. for advanced education is being further promoted by articulation agreements between U.K. universities and American graduate and professional schools. I personally am currently engaged in negotiations with numerous American graduate schools to provide just such a transition in the form of “early screening” agreements, whereby in the second year of study in the U.K., the American students submit an unofficial application to the U.S. institution. Other arrangements will follow, to include what I call “integrated degrees” -- a U.K. bachelor’s degree extended to contain course work jointly designed and overseen by U.S. graduate schools with the awarding of “merged” degrees -- that is, a bachelor’s/master’s degree from both institutions. Students holding such degrees arguably signal that they are prepared to operate in a globally engaged world.
Centuries ago, of course, an emerging American higher education was often complemented by study at a European university. The international university fulfilled a need to offer what the U.S. at that time could not provide, for example, medicine and other scientific fields of study. The U.S. today is having a difficult time providing an affordable education. The solution may well be to recommit to this historic international interdependency, embrace a multiplicity of place for education and prepare as a by-product a graduate who is informed and prepared for the globally complex world that surely awaits them.