College Education Concerns in the 21st Century
(c) M. Ryder
"I found it quite difficult, to be honest," admits Hart, who opted for philosophy/sociology.
But the next step -- the actual applying to five different universities -- well, that was a breeze. That's because, like every other
college-bound British student, Hart used the
It took only 25 minutes to click through the online, standardized form and send it off to five schools at once, along with his personal statement.
"It was really easy to use. It's brilliant," Hart says.
UCAS was set up more than 40 years ago by the U.K. higher-education institutions themselves to simplify the undergraduate admissions process and reduce paperwork. Every accredited school here is part of the system, making it essentially compulsory. "It's a really impressive institutional innovation," says
American higher education borrowing an idea from overseas? Isn't that heresy, since the U.S. system is -- with all its faults -- still widely considered the gold standard by many foreign academics and students? Well, while clearly many foreign models won't work in the States --
free tuition, anyone? -- there are some practices, mainly cherry-picked from
UCAS makes things easier for students in other ways, too. Its website is crammed with information about, and entry requirements for, every degree program at every school, which greatly simplifies the research students must do to make informed choices. The process starts in September, and all applications must be filed by
If several universities send them offers, students then make a "firm" choice, usually the school with the most rigorous entrance requirement, and an "insurance" choice. For example, all five schools Hart applied to accepted him. So his first choice --
and where he starts this fall -- was the
Students who don't receive initial offers or who fail to meet A-Level requirements aren't without hope. UCAS also has a "clearing" system that helps most students find schools that will accept them. Around 75 percent of all applicants find a place. Of those who don't, about 80 percent are accepted the following year.
The universities claim UCAS greatly reduces admissions headaches because it gives them a much clearer picture of the number of incoming students to expect. Says
Once accepted, students have to think about paying for the next three to four years. That's not a fun prospect. Nevertheless, the British state-funded system is fairly risk free and places a less onerous financial burden on economically disadvantaged students. "Unlike the U.S., students here don't have that debt around their necks all their lives," says
Here's why: Repayments are income contingent. Graduates don't repay a cent until they're earning at least
Students can also take out cost-of-living, or maintenance, loans, which are repaid in the same way. The top amount they can borrow, if they're living in
Interest rates on student loans are equal to the rate of inflation. However, another LSE economist,
There are some signs that
For many students, these programs should offer welcome relief. But there still is some ground to cover before the American student loan program matches its British peer. Barr says that an income-contingent repayment plan in the States should charge the same rate it costs the government to borrow the money. A real interest rate that's essentially zero, Barr says, puts too much fiscal pressure on government finances, resulting in student loans that are typically too small --
which reduces access to higher education because many disadvantaged students need larger sums to truly cover expenses. Bigger loans with slightly steeper interest rates won't punish poorer students, Barr says, because they're protected by the income-contingent payback scheme and, in the
Taking a break. OK, once students know which college they're attending and how they'll pay for it, what's next? How about a year off? The British are the world leaders in taking so-called gap-year breaks. Around 230,000 British 18-year-olds take one each year.
Many also mix and match their options.
To many American parents, the notion of a gap year might seem like 12 months wasted, goofing off. But many educators claim that students who take a gap year often excel in college. "They do a lot of growing up in that year, and they have a greater sense of what they want to do when they get here," says
Gap years are gaining traction in
Hart certainly thinks his experiences in
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(c) 2009 U.S. News & World Report