Our American dream... degree of success after students get on course for the States

HER grades were good enough to study at any university in the UK including Oxbridge, but the actress Emma Watson has chosen to do a degree in liberal arts at Brown University in the US.

Among her reasons were said to be the increased chance of privacy at the Ivy League institution on Rhode Island and the broad-based scheme of study offered by American universities.

She's not alone: in the last academic year, 8,861 students from the UK travelled to the US to study – some doing a full undergraduate degree or postgraduate course, and others spending a year as an exchange student at an American college or university.

Some won scholarships to cover their tuition and even accommodation due to a particular academic or sporting talent. More and more young British people are considering study abroad – particularly in America – and foreign universities and colleges are increasing their marketing efforts over here, seeing the impending rise in tuition fees as an opportunity to recruit.

The Fulbright Commission, which promotes study exchanges between the US and UK, says the number of British students travelling to American colleges and universities has been steadily rising for a decade, but the next year could see an explosion in interest once UK universities can charge as much as 9,000 a year. Undergraduate study fairs are reporting a 50 per cent increase in attendance, and Fulbright's website has recently seen traffic rise by a third.

Many students may be applying to universities both here and in the US and could find the financial differential will be nowhere near as great as in the past.

Almost half of British students who travel to colleges in the US are undergraduates, and one in three of those has done so on a scholarship. The rest are mostly funded by their families – UK fee and maintenance loans can not be used for study abroad.

Amber McLeen, 21 and from Leeds, is in her second year at Springfield International College in Massachussetts. She got decent GCSEs then left school to do her A-levels at college. A bright and very articulate girl with an IQ of over 130, she had struggled for years with written work and exams, but it was only during her A-levels that she was diagnosed with dyslexia and given extra support. By that point she was despondent about all things academic, and left college with one A-level.

"She had played football for Leeds Vixens since the age of five and her potential as a really good goalkeeper was spotted early on," says Amber's mother Heather. "She went on to play for North Yorkshire, and was always both talented and very committed to her sport." A friend spotted an ad for a company called First Point USA that recruited British students with particular athletic abilities for American universities.

"We went along and heard all about it. There are hurdles – having to pass American SAT tests for academic ability, references, a visa, and if you don't get a scholarship you have to show evidence of ability to pay fees and living expenses during their stay in the US. Amber studied for the three-hour SAT tests in maths, English and reasoning, got the score she needed, and was offered a soccer scholarship of $30,000 a year. Their team plays in the North-Eastern League, and they were very keen to nurture her goalkeeping talent. Sport is almost an industry at many US universities, but she has to study hard, too."

Amber's scholarship covers tuition fees and accommodation and meals on campus. Although sporting talent got her the money, she must also study for a degree, and is working hard for exams this week which will contribute to a degree in psychology and criminal justice. Heather says: "She loves it, and the moment she arrived said 'I should have been born here'. Going to the States has been positive in every way for Amber. The college has a dyslexia unit, offering any help she needs, and she has found the general 'can do' approach both to study and sport really suits her.

"She goes to American friends' homes in the holidays, and their families are very welcoming. The ethos of the students is to work hard and get a degree but also have fun, rather than have a lot of fun and possibly get a degree at the end – which seems to be the attitude among many students here. This opportunity got Amber back into study, and I don't think she would have got a degree here, the way things were going for her before."

Amber's fees are $40,000 a year (including accommodation and food), and her parents pay the $10,000 shortfall plus $700 a year health insurance (the college covers healthcare through injury during play or training), a monthly allowance of 140 and flights to and from the UK at about 600-700 each time. Their younger daughter Gabriella's studies at Manchester University cost them 3,250 in tuition fees, 4,400 a year in rent and bills plus an allowance of 200 a month. Both girls have part-time jobs.

Many UK universities offer students the chance of spending one year of their course at a university abroad as part of an exchange scheme. Nick Skeavington, who's 20, is on a three-year history and philosophy course at York University.

He's doing his second year at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and will return to York for his final year. He had looked at the possibility of doing his whole degree in the US, but the costs and different application procedures led him to dismiss the idea. He went to York and was very happy, but then attended an information session about an exchange scheme.

"I was attracted (to the University of Pennsylvania) because of the strength of the academic departments and the chance to get an Ivy League education. It's easy to travel from Philadelphia to other parts of the USA... I went through a competitive process of an application from and essay and interview. Overall, the experience is huge, and it is special and priceless to be part of another internationally renowned university."

Nick says the many positives outweigh the negatives. He misses friends and family, being able to buy beer legally, and living in a hall of residence with students younger than himself is not so desirable; the terms are longer, and the hours in class are longer and the workload heavier than in York ("If not in terms of actually thinking harder...").

Financially, being in the US is more expensive. He pays no tuition fees there, but still pays half fees to York. He lives on the same 3,000+ maintenance loan he would have if he were here, and his parents have paid flights and health insurance of 3,500. "I love everything about study abroad and am having a great time. I would recommend that everyone thinks about it."

Studies have shown that studying abroad can help to increase a student's employability, but raising the money for full-time study at a top university in another country can be a sticking point unless your family is well-off, you win a scholarship or have relations in that country who can offer accommodation. But tuition costs vary enormously within the US, say, where fees at a private university can be more than 20,000 a year or 12,000-18,000 at a public university.

"The increase in fees in the UK means more people are looking at other options," says Peggy Blumenthal of the Institute for International Education. "It's true that having some experience of studying internationally is professionally valued these days. Employers are looking for well-rounded people who are confident to function in a world where everything's becoming globalised."

The Fulbright Commission: www.fulbright.co.uk

Institute for International Education: www.iie.org

Education USA: www.educationusa.state.gov

Erasmus www.britishcouncil.org/erasmus (enables higher education students, teachers and institutions in 31 European countries to study for part of their degree in another country).

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