Harvard or Yale? Yale or Harvard? Which is it to be? Until recently, many foreign students interested in studying in the United States saw the question this simply. Yet, even though Yale and Harvard might be the most famous universities in the United States, they are among the most difficult to get into. With dozens of applicants for each opening, they can afford to be picky. They are also among the most expensive, costing as much as $55,000 per year.
Yet, famous as they are, they are only two among thousands of fine schools in the United States, a constellation of four-year universities and colleges and two-year community colleges. Many of these colleges and universities have departments equal to or superior to their more famous rivals. These facts are borne out by the 2011 study in The Times of London, which indicated that seven of the 10 best universities in the world are in the United States.
The sheer number of schools is among the first surprise for many students. Most countries have only a few or, at most, a few dozen, universities, and not all offer a high quality education. By contrast, the United States, according to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, has more than 6,500 universities and colleges, including many two-year community or junior colleges, which offer top-flight courses in every academic field from accountancy to zoology.
Another difference between the United States and most other countries is the highly decentralized nature of the U.S. system. No universities are run by the U.S. federal government other than the military academies. Many are owned and run by state governments; more are private. All offer possibilities to students willing to look beyond the obvious.
How many students have thought of attending the University of California at Davis or the University of Washington? Both are highly regarded state schools, little known overseas yet offering excellent degrees in a number of fields. Who thinks about attending Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania or Deep Springs College? The latter is an intensive four-year institution with only a few dozen students, located in a remote corner of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. Its students raise cattle and much of their own food. There are universities that give no grades and there is at least one that charges no tuition — every student has a job working for the university.
Although only a few of these schools can offer world-class degrees in almost every subject, most have particular strengths. The Economics Department of the University of Chicago is legendary among economists, boasting 10 Nobel Prize winners. Approximately one in five of all Nobel Prizes awarded in economics have gone to scholars who did their research there. Embry Riddle University in Prescott, Arizona, offers an aerospace engineering degree that some consider the best in the world. Tiny Reed College in Portland, Oregon, is among the highest-rated small schools in the United States, with a world-class mathematics department. “There are examples of just about every type of higher educational institution for just about every kind of student,” says Phillip Ives, (2004) an official with the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Educational Programs. “This whole question of breadth, depth and diversity is the key to the quality of the U.S. higher education system.”
Part of that breadth and depth comes from following a philosophy that few other countries have begun to explore. In many countries, universities offer three-year programs limited almost exclusively to the student’s major field of study. Students studying engineering follow a program made up almost entirely of engineering classes or those closely related to the field. Students studying literature study little else. By contrast, American universities put the “universe” into university, insisting that students gain a broad general education in addition to their specialized studies. If you want to major in engineering, then you must also take literature and history. Literature students must take a course or two in science and math. Math students will take philosophy and perhaps a course on public speaking.
The result is that although the students attending universities in other countries may graduate with more classes in their field of study, they might learn little else. They will miss the broader social and cultural context in which they will work and might actually be less prepared for the careers offered by an ever-changing world. With new technologies emerging with increasing speed, the computer sciences student with some background in philosophy and physics may find that he or she is better prepared to pursue new fields of work than students who have not ventured outside their core area of study. American students wanting more specialization can complete a one-year master’s program concentrating only in their major field of study. This produces the best of both worlds, a broad background and a deep understanding of a special field.
Studying abroad is not for everyone, of course. And not everyone who wishes to apply to schools in the United States will be accepted. American schools are expensive and financial aid for foreign students is difficult to obtain. Entrance standards can be very high, especially for the best-known schools. Wise students apply to several universities simultaneously.
And, as the American government balances its traditional open door with its need to thwart terrorism, the student visa will not come as easily as in the past. However the number of international students studying in the U.S. has continued to rise and is currently at its all-time highest, with 2009/2010 figures near 700,000. The greatest number of students, 127,628, come from China and 104, 897 come from India. Interestingly, among the five countries sending the most students to American universities, Canada is the only non-Asian country.
Where do these students go? The school with the largest number of overseas students is the University of Southern California, with more than 7,987. (Harvard is 13th, with 4867. Yale does not make the top 25.) The state of California hosts the most foreign students of any state, with 94,279. The 76,146 students studying in the New York City area make it the most popular destination city for foreign students. “There is an institution and program that perfectly fits every student’s needs and background,” State Department official Phillip Ives says.