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opinion and analysis EDUCATION WITHOUT BORDERS

Why the United States is the favoured destination for international students

If you are contemplating higher education abroad, the United States will most likely be high up on your list. As the world’s largest economy, it is no surprise that the nation allocates significant resources to higher education, which is as diverse there as it is excellent.

Monday 4 December, 2017
Cherry blossom trees in bloom on the National Mall near the Washington Monument in Washington DC.
Cherry blossom trees in bloom on the National Mall near the Washington Monument in Washington DC. Foto:AP-Andrew Harnik

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For higher education opportunities, in the United States is an amazingly vast land. In terms of numbers, its diversity and territory, there has never been an equal in all of human history. Today I want to offer a brief overview of the diversity one might encounter when exploring this land of educational opportunity, where around 2,200 Argentines begin their professional studies each year.

There are about 4,000 higher education institutions in the United States. I often tell my clients that one is sure to find something on the menu they like there. From small tertiary boutique institutions to the crème de la crème of global education – you can find it in the United States can offer it. Everyone can find their perfect match.

Navigation can be difficult, however. To avoid confusion, it is worthwhile mentioning from the start that in the United States the words “college” and “university” are used almost interchangeably. That said, in many cases the concept of a “college” is also used to refer to a specialty school within the overall umbrella organisation of the university, for instance, “the college of engineering” at X University.

As the engine of all knowledge and progress, research has been the focus and strength of US universities since they powerfully burst into the scene following World War II. Thus, the jewel in the crown for US education is what is referred to as “research universities.” A research university is an institution heavily funded for its research. Although the term often implies the study of natural sciences, there are many research universities in social sciences as well, especially for purposes of sociological and historical research. Research universities boast a wide variety of course offerings in all disciplines, both undergraduate and going all the way to post-doctoral activities. At the top level, of course, one will find the best professors and the type of research that leads to major prizes such as the Nobel, which imbibe the institution and its brand with prestige.

That brings us, for example, to the eight universities referred to as “The Ivy League.” This small and select group of universities in New England are a prime example of the highest quality of research institutions. The intellectual atmosphere there trickles all the way down to undergraduate programmes. 

At the other side of that spectrum one can find the so-called “Liberal Arts” colleges. Not to confused with art, these colleges focus primarily on undergraduate education and strongly believe that students are better off obtaining a strong general education before diving into a specialty subject. Liberal arts philosophy is a hallmark of the US education – I will expand on this idea further in the future. In addition to a few select star liberal arts colleges, the most notorious group among these colleges is a consortium referred to as ‘Colleges That Change Lives,’ and their purpose is just what the name says. Many of these colleges operate in what has become to be known as “college towns,” a very unique concept that adds value to undergraduate education.

Opposing that philosophy, a very strong movement of specialty schools offer students the opportunity to dive into their chosen career right from day one. Typically, these include business schools, technology institutes and art schools in all its forms, from visual to performance. Similarly – but not at a university level – there are countless tertiary, vocational institutions that offer specialty training in areas such as technical support, information technology, healthcare, culinary arts and more. These are shorter career paths with easy access to the labour market. 

Educational institutions can be divided into three major groups when it comes to the business aspect: private, public and for profit. Private universities are usually not for profit and all funds that enter the system are re-invested in it. The most prestigious institutions in the US are private and their day-to-day operation depends on tuition and donations. Public universities are funded directly by taxpayers’ money in each state and not by the federal government. These institutions charge less tuition of the residents of their state but international students in some cases can pay as much as they would in private institutions. Finally, for profit colleges are those that are privately owned to provide education for financial gain. They depend solely on tuition fees.

Some colleges in the United States have religious affiliations. For the most part, these include Jewish or Catholic schools, as well as other institutions with regional denominations within the protestant faiths. These schools are by no means exclusive to students of different faiths but they do adhere to the values and traditions of their own religion as a way of life on campus. Likewise, there is a group of colleges referred to as HBCU, or Historically Black Colleges and Universities, founded with the purpose of creating a safe and open environment for black people. Single gender colleges – especially for women – are still quite available in the United States. Many women feel comfortable at all female environments, which perpetuates the existence of such institutions and brings many advantages. A similar argument can be seen at US military academies, which provide excellent higher education opportunities. 

The US educational system also offers students the option of starting a college degree in what is normally referred to as “community colleges.” These colleges provide the initial two years of a degree, after which students transfer to a university to complete the last two years. I will discuss this unique system and its advantages in a future edition of this column. 

The US education system – particularly at the undergraduate level – is very unique and there are enriching opportunities outside the classroom as well. The diversity of available locations (including US universities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia) offer students countless options and opportunities, making it easy to find the best fit for each individual’s needs and aspirations. It’s a menu full of delights.  

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