Where should I go to college? Comparing undergraduate education in the US and the UK


This past autumn, I had the opportunity through Vanderbilt University to spend my fifth semester of undergraduate study as an exchange student at the University College London (UCL) in London, United Kingdom. While I had some familiarity with the distinctions between British & American undergraduate education systems prior to my exchange at UCL (as I posted a US vs Indonesia undergraduate education blogpost), spending a term at UCL solidifies my understanding of their comparisons. This post should point out some of the most relevant factors for consideration if you’re deciding between studying in the UK or the US.

Top Three Factors for Consideration
As a slight background: UCL has been consistently ranked top 5 in the United Kingdom and Europe for most of the popular subjects such as Economics and Law. This year, the QS World University Rankings placed it at number 4 in the world overall. Vanderbilt, which is the American university that I attend, is ranked top 20 in the United States for most of its programs based on US News. In general, UCL is considered more prestigious and competitive compared to Vanderbilt. With this in mind, I had higher expectations for UCL, but British and American educations are vastly distinct, making prestige and competitiveness less significant factors for comparison in regards to academic quality (more on this later).

Based on my experience, I believe the top three most crucial factors for consideration if you’re deciding between studying in the UK and the US are:
1. Tuition/Costs
2. Academics (Curriculum, Applications)
3. Social Life

Despite the decline of the US$ to the £, UK universities still cost significantly less compared to American universities. This is due to the fact that almost all but two UK universities (University of Buckingham and University of Law) are public institutions, so they receive about 2/3 of their total funding from the British government to subsidize the tuition costs. As an example of a comparison with a private American university, Vanderbilt’s tuition is US$41k/year, while it costs around £14-18k/year for international students to attend UCL (costs varied depending on the chosen major). UK universities are also cheaper compared to most top public American universities such as UC Berkeley, Michigan, and UT Austin, where the tuitions range from $30-39k/year for international students to attend. In addition, UK degrees generally take one less year to complete, making the total costs of obtaining a British undergraduate degree even lower by comparison, even with the generally higher living costs in the UK.

Recent changes in British government regulations, however, should be taken into account for prospective UK applicants. The British House of Commons approved an increase of tuition fees to a maximum of £9k/year for the upcoming year (an increase from around £8k/year) for local students, which may also lead to a tuition hike for international students (though still relatively insignificant compared to annual increases in tuitions of American universities). You can compare the UCL tuition and LSE tuition with American universities tuition.

In addition to the tuition costs, another critical distinction between a British and American undergraduate education is the curriculum. British education is similar with Indonesian, in which one must apply and commit to a chosen major at the very initial stage of their education. In the UK, students are admitted directly to a specific major and take courses mainly from that department with limited liberty to explore other subject areas. Prospective students are also only allowed to apply to five universities or majors in total (with other additional limitations), which can be done through UCAS. In most American universities, on the other hand, students are given the autonomy to decide their majors until as late as the end of their second year, are required to fulfill course requirements outside of their departments in order to graduate, and can apply to as many schools as they want with no limitations on major selections (Applications for US universities are typically done through the Common Application or the individual universities’ websites).

Due to the fewer course requirements, a British undergraduate degree (for most majors) demands less time commitment. Obtaining a US undergraduate degree typically takes four years while most UK degrees allow you to finish within three years. UK terms are also much shorter, totaling around 6-7 months in one year while US semesters total almost 8 months in one year (See University of Pennsylvania’s Academic Calendar vs Oxford University’s Academic Calendar ). Even top programs at top institutions like LSE Economics demand less course requirements compared to similar programs at US institutions. You can see the comparison through looking at the LSE undergraduate Economics major requirements vs Duke Economics and Columbia Economics. In addition to the lighter requirements and total term lengths, the amount of hours you spend a week in class is also less in the UK (because, in addition to the fact that you can take less courses in one term, UK universities also generally require less class time). If you want to finish sooner with longer holidays and more free time, the UK is the way to go ☺.

In terms of assignments and grades, a UK undergraduate education also has a slightly different system. Your course grades at US colleges generally comprise of various factors such as midterms, final exams, homework, participation, and/or quizzes. In the UK, however, your final grade is almost solely based on one or two assignments, which is usually in the form of a long research paper or a traditional written examination. A typical UK student commonly only take or submit one to two exams/papers for one course each term with no homework or participation grades. Again, there are exemptions to this system depending on the institution and course (for example, Oxford has its own unique grading system with a greater focus on direct faculty interaction and some engineering courses at several universities may require problem set submissions), but this is generally the case in the UK (See a typical LSE course’s Grading System/Syllabus vs Harvard.

DISADVANTAGE: Less Course Selections
One personal disappointment that I have with UK universities in terms of academics, despite the well-known prestige of UCL and other UK universities that I considered studying at (LSE, Oxford, Edinburgh, St. Andrews), is the lack of course selections available. US universities have vastly greater and more diverse course selections for undergraduates, allowing even higher academic freedom for those who are intellectually curious. You can see the difference by looking at the course selections available at leading programs at prestigious universities such as LSE Economics vs Brown Economics. Clearly, you would be able to take more diverse set of courses by studying in the United States (though the plethora of course options available in the US is consistent with US universities’ higher demands in terms of major and graduation requirements).

Both UK and US universities are very diverse in terms of social scene, so this topic is difficult to generalize. Vanderbilt, however, can be described as a very typical ‘American’ university. It has a strong fraternity (Greek life) scene, active sports (football, basketball, baseball, etc.), and a close-knit campus life where almost everyone is required to live on campus. British Universities do not exactly have sports teams, generally do not mandate their students to live on campus, and have social interactions occur mostly through clubs instead of fraternities. Most British Universities have their own ‘Student Unions’ where most of the clubs activities and events are organized (See UCL Student Union vs list of clubs at Duke (a typical American university with strong Greek life). To those of you who are unfamiliar, you can read more about what Greek/fraternity life in America is all about.

What I love the most about UK universities in terms of social life is the diversity of the student body. British universities are generally more diverse, since they have more international students coming from all across the world and especially Europe. While Vanderbilt and most highly ranked US undergraduate institutions have less than around 10-15% of international students, UCL has nearly 30%, LSE has +40%, King’s College 20%, SOAS has +25%, and St. Andrews has +30% (although less popular UK universities do have low rates of international students that are similar with most US universities).

Despite the advantages of studying in the UK that I mentioned above, I personally believe that the quality of undergraduate education is much better in the US especially in terms of academics. With the vastly greater course selections and space available to discover multiple subject areas, the US education allows us to become well-rounded academics with a diverse set of knowledge. As I have previously stated in my older blogpost, the US is generally better for those who are unsure with what they would like to study (I was an Economics major freshman year, switched to Public Policy, and eventually decided to study both Finance & Public Policy) while the UK is best for those who are certain with which direction they are heading.

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Marsha Sugana
Marsha Sugana is a third year undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University, majoring in Finance & Public Policy. She is mostly passionate about financial regulation and the banking industry, particularly in Indonesia. Her experience include interning as a Business Analyst at Deloitte where she worked on a project for Southeast Asia's largest bank, Assistant Chairing the UN Conference for Trade & Development for the International Model United Nations Association, and being the Indonesian finance delegate for the 2012 G20 Youth Summit.