U.S. students crossing the pond for college

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; B01

When Adelaide Waldrop learned that she had been consigned to the wait list at each of the four universities she wanted most to attend, it was as if all the excitement had drained from her collegiate quest.

Then she remembered her wild-card school: the University of St. Andrews, the medieval cobblestone campus in Scotland.

Now Waldrop, of Silver Spring, is a St. Andrews sophomore, one of a growing number of American students who enroll at top-ranked British universities, which offer the prestige of elite U.S. schools at a fraction of the cost.

The population of U.S. undergraduates at United Kingdom schools has spiked 30 percent in five years, to 3,560 in the 2008-09 academic year, the most recent figure available from Britain's Higher Education Statistics Agency. It's a trend driven by price, prestige and - in the case of St. Andrews - a prince.

St. Andrews, founded in 1413, is two centuries older than Harvard. It is the birthplace of golf - and of the romance between Prince William and his fiancee, Kate Middleton.

"It's just so magical walking around St. Andrews, with all of the history," said Waldrop, 19, a graduate of the Communication Arts Program at Montgomery Blair High School. "After visiting, I kind of just forgot about my other schools."

Waldrop is paying $19,670 in tuition this year at St. Andrews. Tuition at Swarthmore College, where she was wait-listed, is $39,260.

"We are considerably less than the very good privates that you have in the United States," said Stephen Magee, vice principal of St. Andrews. "And in that sense, we think we're a very good value."

The small community of collegiate expatriates is populated heavily with students from the New York-Washington corridor and California, British higher education officials say.

U.K. universities have emerged as a worthy consolation prize for students rebuffed from Ivy League schools. Much of the interest focuses on Scotland, whose four-year collegiate model closely resembles the American undergraduate experience. (English universities, by contrast, graduate students in three years and stress specialization over general education.)

"If you just fail to get in at Harvard, we're happy to have you at St. Andrews," Magee said, "because it means you're bloody good."

U.K. universities routinely send recruiters to U.S. high schools. The era of online admissions enables a student in Arlington County to apply to schools in Williamsburg and Edinburgh with similar ease. Social networking has created a new platform for students overseas to share pictures and stories with friends back home.

"I think universities internationally are trying to compete for American students in a way that they never have before," said Jim Jump, guidance director at St. Christopher's School in Richmond and former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. His school hosted recruiters from St. Andrews and Edinburgh this fall.

The London School of Economics and Political Science has 1,067 U.S. students enrolled and more than 20,000 alumni living in the United States, "a huge asset in promoting the school to prospective students" in America, said Will Breare-Hall, manager of student recruitment and study abroad.

Kajetan Malachowski, 17, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, has applied to nine schools, five of them in Britain. His top choice is the London School of Economics and Political Science.

"It's a lot cheaper," he said, "and I kind of want a change of scene."

Applications to U.K. universities rose 17 percent in 2010 and are up by half in six years, said Mary Catherine Scarborough, higher education adviser at the British Council, the United Kingdom's international cultural relations and education organization.

"I think with Facebook, Twitter, e-mail contact, pictures online, I think that's why this is picking up finally," she said. "Think about it: If it's a six-hour plane ride to the U.K., that's the same as if I attended UCLA."

Waldrop applied to seven colleges. By March, she had been wait-listed by the four that mattered most to her - Barnard, Bowdoin, Swarthmore and Wesleyan. Yet she was in at St. Andrews, a remote university chosen partly on the advice of her guidance counselor.

Her counselor at Blair told her that St. Andrews, globally ranked in the humanities, might be a good fit.

"I had this moment where I sat down with my parents and they said, 'It looks like you're going to Scotland for spring break,' " she said.

Waldrop lives in an apartment overlooking the West Port arches, "which were built in the 1500s and were kind of the gates to the town," she said. "It's sort of Hogwarts-esque."

Flights home are expensive and tedious. Every $100 her parents send from Silver Spring wilts to 60 pounds in St. Andrews.

Waldrop knows her U.K. education is "so much cheaper than many, many U.S. schools. At the same time, I'm paying much more than any British student."

Like their U.S. counterparts, public universities in Britain charge higher tuition to international students - in this case, those from outside the European Union.

A great many British students consider their subsidized tuition outrageously high. Violent protests have erupted over plans to raise domestic tuition, which will range up to 9,000 pounds, or about $14,000.

It's all relative. To U.S. applicants, even $20,000 tuition appears modest for a group of U.K. universities equal in global prestige to the best public and private universities at home.

Julia Cole, another senior at Whitman High, is applying to five schools in Britain and six in the United States. The U.K. schools are "a lot older," she said, and "a lot cheaper. Even with airfare and traveling back and forth, it's a lot cheaper."

Oxford and Cambridge are on par with Harvard and Princeton. The University of Edinburgh is ranked 40th in the world in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. St. Andrews ranks 103rd, not far behind Dartmouth.

But students applying to those schools sometimes find them more receptive than their U.S. counterparts.

Emma Platais, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, has been admitted to the international relations program at Edinburgh. She considers her application to Brown University, lower-ranked internationally, a comparative long shot.

"I think there were four girls who applied to Edinburgh" from Walter Johnson this year, she said, "and I think all of them got in."

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