Does an American university make more sense for a poor, bright Brit?

2 Aug
Last week I was lucky enough to go on social mobility charity, The Sutton Trust’s first ever summer school which took bright British kids from state schools and poor backgrounds to the US to check out the amazing courses and bursaries on offer for talented young people over there. It was one of the most fascinating trips I have ever done – the kids were completely amazing, all stars of their own schools and it was a privilege to spend time with them. More seriously, Britain and particularly our elitest universities have got to up their game when it comes to helping those from different backgrounds feel at home and improve their pastoral care and professor time: if they are charging £9,000 a year, students now have to feel they are getting value for money. What follows is an edited version of a piece that appeared in the Sunday Times last weekend – to read more go to www.sundaytimes.co.uk
They are impossible to miss. Amidst the hustle of a pre-Olympic Heathrow Terminal Three, the 65 teenagers, of all hues and sizes, sporting sunflower yellow rucksacks, is shadowed by a smaller group of anxious mothers. “She’s never been away before,” a woman says sadly. Her daughter, head resplendently crowned with a mighty twist of black braids, is a picture of fond irritation: “Go mum! Honest, I’ll be fine.”
And they are off. brandishing passports and boarding passes, instantly expert despite most having never flown before. Camera phones at the ready, they snapd the escalators, departure board, gate and even the plane itself. Squealing with delight, they discover that Stephanie, a small, shy, brown-haired girl from the Wirral, was celebrating her 17th birthday.
“It’s the best birthday I’ve ever had ever,” she beams. “I’ve never been on a plane let alone to the States. But this is my ticket to a whole new life. Studying in America will give me a new start.”
This group of hyper-talented British state school pupils from low-income families are at the start of an all-expenses-paid tour last week to explore what some top American colleges might have to offer them. It is funded by the Sutton Trust, a charity that campaigns for better social mobility through education.
Corey, a cherubic half-Jamaican, half-Irish boy from Tottenham, north London, with a large diamond star in his ear, seems to sum up the view of the group when he says: “There’s more hope for someone like me in America. They seem to value kids like us more, they are more generous with money, they will pay me to study there. If I study in Britain I will be massively in debt.”
Corey, however, is exactly the kind of young man that UK Plc, mired in a third quarter of recession, needs to build a brighter future. As well as being an Olympic platinum sports ambassador – he is an athletics star – he is taking A levels in maths, further maths, history, English, politics and psychology. He used to want to be prime minister but he’s lost faith in British politics because “both parties are the same” and now “wants to make a life for myself in the States”.
Why do academic prodigies from poor backgrounds feel that Britain is letting them down? Are their chances really better in America?
IT is not just the underprivileged who are looking across the Atlantic. An increasing band of young Britons, faced with rising tuition fees at home, are choosing to go to university in America. A record 8,861 UK youngsters opted to study in the US in 2009-10 and preliminary evidence suggests interest has surged dramatically in 2011-12.
Now that a degree is such a major investment – new research last week showed that those studying in England should expect to finish university with debts of £59,100 (the average tuition fees is now £8630 and a kid has to live somewhere and eat too) – young people are looking for the best possible return on their investment.
American colleges — with their heavy accent on pastoral care, small classes, pick-and-choose “liberal arts” and science curriculums, plenty of professorial face-time and excellent financial packages for those on low incomes — have never been a better bet.
At our top private schools, increasing numbers of pupils are opting for the Ivy League over Oxbridge. Chris Ajemian, who runs Cates Tutoring and Educational Services, helps many high-end international students through the application process. He says Britain is his fastest growing market. Now he is shepherding the Sutton Trust kids round Yale, Wesleyan, Trinity, Princeton, Colombia, Harvard and many more and intensively tutoring them on how to up their scores on the all-important SAT college tests.
On the first morning at Yale, Sir Peter Lampl, founder and funder of The Sutton Trust , explains that he decided to set up this US summer school because these prestigious American colleges offer such a good deal to poor bright kids.
Helping them is his passion. Research he has commissioned shows that social mobility in Britain has gone backwards since the 1950s when clever boys from poor backgrounds – like Lampl himself — could access Oxbridge and success via grammar schools, direct grant schools and assisted places.
Lampl is haunted by the notion that if he had been born in 1990 rather than 1950 he would never have gone to Oxford, London Business School, Boston Consulting and then on to found a seriously lucrative business in New York. These days, he uses his considerable wealth to help poor bright kids access the best education there is.
Thus far, his efforts have been concentrated on setting up Summer Schools at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities in the UK for children from low-income families where no-one had ever been to college before or from schools which had never sent a child to a good university. But after a meeting with Fulbright (the organisation which helps predominantly postgraduate students from America and Britain study in each other’s countries) he decided to fund this trip.
To the kids, it is all free: Lampl is paying for their flights, food and even excursions including a Broadway show, boat trip round Manhattan and picnic in Central Park.
THROUGHOUT the transatlantic flight yelps of joy emanate from the yellow-rucksacked ranks. At JFK they cheer the yellow taxis and mob Dunkin’ Donuts. On the long coach ride through the Bronx and up the Connecticut freeway to Yale University in New Haven, the hubbub never dies. This is the trip of a lifetime and they are not wasting a second.
Selected from an original 700 applicants from schools and sixth form colleges all over the UK, to earn their place, they needed A-star A-level predictions, a family income under £40,000 and the kind of inspirational life story that admissions deans look for in the “personal statements” and essays that open the doors to top US colleges.
All are not only clever, but musical, or artistic and engaged in their communities. Nick, the son of a landscape gardener, heads up South Devon Young Conservatives and his own social enterprise; Jack is head boy of the new JCB Academy in Derby; Gabriella, from Newlyn in Cornwall is home-schooled and has just made a film about her region for the Olympics.
They take the grandeur of Yale’s faux Oxbridge-medieval in their stride. They eat New Haven’s famous Pepe pizza and lounge on the grass to the manor born. Their American hosts are warm and welcoming, stressing their own humble backgrounds, how Yale has helped them and the richness of the academic offering and support.
On the first morning Lempl welcomes his protégés with a speech in a grand lecture hall at Yale. “Yale is one of the great universities of the world,” he tells them, dressed in a sharp navy blue suite and pink tie and standing at a lectern. “I went to Oxford — but I have to say that if I was young now and choosing between Oxford and Yale I would choose Yale because it gives more breadth and depth of study.
“To be successful in a career these days you need international experience, companies are global, you should be too. I’ve brought you here because Britain is just a small island off the coast of Europe, while America is a a vast and exciting place, full of possibility.
“Ninety-three per cent of British kids are educated in state schools and hardly any of them are taking advantage of the opportunities on offer in the US. I want that to change. Yale, for instance, has a £12billion endowment. That means it offers needs-blind admission to students — which means if you make the cut, they will pay all your expenses. That is a great offer.”
These kids do not need convincing. They attend taster seminars on religion and medicine, galaxies and universes, the outlaw in film and women, cooking and culture. I am struck by the care and skill of the professors and the wide-ranging and quirky mix of content. It is a far cry from the compulsory Anglo-Saxon tutorials of Oxford. This is all about finding your metier, exploring your interests. It suits kids who want eventually, say, to study engineering but fancy doing some languages, philosophy and psychology on the way.
The next morning, driving past clapboard houses and lakes to look around Wesleyan University beside the COnnecticut River, I talk to Rob, from Dagenham a giant of a boy with a sharp mind. His lively blue eyes fill with tears when he tells me that his dad died earlier this year.
“There’s more for me here in America than in England,” he says. “In the UK it is kids who have been to private school who get on, who run the country, not people like me – just look at the Cabinet. In England I am immediately defined by my accent, my background. Out here I can be anything. Somewhere like Oxford is snobby — it would be easier for my friends and sister to go on relating to me if I came to the USA. I grew up on a council estate I don’t want to lose my roots, or who I am in order to fit in. Out here I don’t have to. In England I would.”
When I broach the subject of tuition fees, he becomes really angry. “It’s all very well for all these privately educated types in government to say that you don’t have to pay back the £27,000 it would cost me in tuition fees if I studied in Britain until you are earning well. That doesn’t help with living expenses which will put up the debt considerably.
“And don’t forget that £27,000 is more than most families round me earn in a year. It’s really put off my friends from applying to university. What we need in the UK is needs-blind admissions like they do in the US for kids from poor backgrounds. At the moment it just feels like no-one wants us, that there is no place for us in British society, that no one cares.”
Rob has a point. Social mobility in Britain is going backwards. There are more Etonians in the present coalition cabinet than there are women; 74% of judges and top medics were privately educated — and even 54% of senior journalists. It is easy to see why Rob doesn’t feel the British establishment is for “the likes of us”.
Out here though, the red carpet is being rolled out for these kids. Samantha, a small blonde from a tiny village outside Newcastle (she lives with her grandparents as she never knew her father, and her mother died when she was young), is overwhelmed by the welcome. Every prospectus underlines the commitment to financial aid.
The admissions deans tell tales of picking blueberries in the woods, swimming in waterfalls, endless sports, clubs and facilities; and they even hand out their personal email addresses to the group.
“They really seem to care,” says Samantha. “That’s so different from the UK where admission is all about grades. In the US the personal statement and essay is almost as important.”
“I went to an open day at Oxford,” says Sarah from Luton. “The first thing this girl with a plummy accent said to me as we walked around Christ Church was that if I walked on the grass in Tom quad I’d get fined £50. I just thought how stiff and stuffy. It didn’t make me want to go there.”
Chloe, a creamy-skinned blond from Essex, whose mother is a cleaner, adds: “They just don’t get it. I couldn’t afford to go to Oxford. Just the transport to get there is too expensive for my family to manage. But if I came to Yale they would give me $1,000 upfront for a computer and a winter coat, pay my airfares, tuition and living costs. I can work on campus and come away with no debt. If I stayed in the UK it would cost me £27,000 in tuition fees and all my living expenses on top of that.”
It is easy to forget just how hard life is for kids on really low incomes. Stephanie, from the Wirral, tells me how she had wanted to attend an open day at Cambridge but couldn’t afford the £90 it would cost to get there – neither her school, nor the college would pay.
“My father works for the church, my mother looks after my three sisters,” she explained. “We couldn’t afford for me to have oboe lessons so I taught myself off YouTube.” At the end of every academic year she sells her text books so she can afford to buy the ones she needs for the following term.
Farah, who came to the UK from Uzbekistan when she was six, wants to be a doctor. She would be the first person in her family ever to go to college. “But since they cut Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) I work 12-hour shifts in a sunglasses shop in Westfield to pay for my fares to sixth form college and to buy lunch. Working so much means I am really tired when I am trying to do my school work.”
The group nod sympathetically, sharing similar stories. It is clear the loss of EMA is yet more evidence to them that the state does not care.
Saidatu, the braided princess I first met back at Heathrow, lives in a council flat in the notorious estates around south London’s Elephant and Castle. “All the boys I know are in gangs,” she says. “Lots of them are already in prison. I want to be a forensic pscyhologist and work in prisons to help them.”
She is already nominated as a Young Leader in her community. The boys, she says, “really encourage me, they say, go for it, like I am going to do well for all of us.”
She wants to study at super-liberal Wesleyan which has a strong history of social justice and where undergraduates can be part of a programme which helps in local prisons. “I’ve always felt like an American. There is so much more I can be here than at home.”
Sarah, from Luton, tells me she also wants to read psychology. Her dad is not around — “he’s gone back to Nigeria” — and her mother works shifts as a support worker for the mentally ill. “For as long as I can remember I’ve just wanted to get as far away from Luton as I can. I don’t want to be stuck there.”
The rest of her school mates, she says, do not share her level of achievement or ambition. Why is she different? “I have a work ethic. I always have motivation. I am like a sponge — I just soak up information. I’ve always had a dream about America, I reckon it’s easier for a person like me to make it here; my background won’t be held against me. I would like to come here and never go back.”
Over and over again they say that in the US it is ability that counts, not what you sound like or who you know. Even the prospect of sharing a room at college with an unknown “roomy” doesn’t put them off, nor the absence of alcohol (no drinking till 21), nor the – to me – almost oppressive earnestness of the American students or almost cult-like atmosphere of some of the campuses.
As the days go by, the kids grow more and more confident. They become fluent in American collegese (freshmen, sophomores, sororities, fraternities) and start asking super-sharp questions about the percentage of successful applicants, the necessary SAT scores, funding packages (grants or loans) and the availability of jobs on campus.
On Wednesday, after visiting the truly magnificent Colombia campus in Manhattan, they wander through Central Park, take in shopping and the Museum of Modern Art and have tea with the British Consul in the Residence. Scrubbed up in their dresses and suits the boisterous, nervous teens who left Heathrow have become a roomful of glamorous and confident young people.
After just four days they are noticeably more grown up and articulate. Glowing with the joyful discovery of their own potential, they charm possible future sponsors of the programme. Lampl says that he hopes that at least half of these kids will end up at a US university. The Sutton Trust will help them apply, pay the entrance fees for their applications and coach them through the tricky multiple choice US exams (SATs and CATs). Next year he plans to run three more US summer schools.
Will they miss England and their families if they go abroad to study? “A bit,” says Nick, a triplet from Torquay, “but my folks are scared when they leave Devon and going to America will be the best and most exciting thing I could possibly do in my life.
“I’m energetic, I’m busy, I want to do loads of stuff both in terms of studying and being involved in college life. American universities just offer so much. I really feel that at Yale or Colombia I could really run around at a high octane pace and emerge with no debt and the world as my oyster.”
At present the exodus is only a trickle, but it is gathering pace. If the UK is going to hang on to its brightest young talents, the government and the universities are going to have to offer them far more than it currently does. If not, we will all be the losers.
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One Response to “Does an American university make more sense for a poor, bright Brit?”

  1. reesesrants August 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    I’ve worked with US students and they are drowning in debt

    So the answer is most emphatically not.

    Let’s campaign to make education affordable for ALL students in the UK and remember why it is that they are being priced out of university.

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