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Forget Oxbridge. For today’s gilded youth, Ivy League is the goal — and parents will spend a fortune to get them there

Private school pupils, fearing they are being snubbed at home in favour of state-educated peers, are turning to the US instead — guided through the steps by a lucrative consultancy industry

Sian Griffiths and Shanti Das | Saturday September 25 2021, 6.00pm BST

As head girl of a top private school, articulate and motivated, with a string of top grades, Teagan Galloway is exactly the sort of high-flyer you might expect to sail into Oxbridge.

Not these days, she says. In fact, Teagan was so convinced she wouldn’t get in that she didn’t even bother to apply.

The diversity drive at top universities — and the threat to the Oxbridge chances of private school pupils — is “discussed and feared” at Bryanston, her £40,000-a-year school in Dorset, she says.

She had dreamt for years of following in her father’s footsteps to Cambridge, but after coming to accept that it would be “more competitive for me, not because of my personal attributes, but where I was educated”, the 18-year-old chose to “avoid the disappointment of missing out on an Oxbridge experience I had known so much about my whole life”.

Like a growing number of her privately educated friends, Teagan decided to focus her energies on applying to study in America.

Basking in the California sunshine at UCLA, she is thrilled with her decision. She has been blown away by the 419-acre campus, five miles from the Pacific, with Romanesque brick buildings, 12 libraries, a huge aquatic centre and an athletics stadium that can hold 11,700 people. “It is really nothing like studying in the UK.”

As Oxbridge raises the bar for private school pupils, they are looking increasingly to America instead. Teagan has noticed the trend. “Three years ago there were only four applicants to the US from my school,” she says. “Last year, that had tripled to 12. This year, 30 are looking to apply.”

American universities — and particularly the generous scholarships they offer — are rapidly replacing Oxbridge as the new battleground for the UK’s wealthiest kids and ambitious parents. While the costs are eye-watering, the scholarships available are extraordinarily generous — and the competition for them is fierce.

Perhaps unsurprising, then, that an extraordinary industry of tutors, agents and hugely expensive consultancies has sprung up in the UK, to help the children of Britain’s elite navigate the unfamiliar system and bag a place at sought-after US universities.

Some of the firms charge more than £1 million for bespoke admissions “coaching” for entry into Ivy League schools — including Harvard, Yale and Princeton – and claim to improve your child’s chances of a successful application by 400%.

There are also claims that underhand tactics such as those exposed in the recent Varsity Blues admissions scandal — including faked applications and essay farms — are emerging among some practitioners in Britain.

Private schools such as Eton College — traditionally “obsessed with Oxbridge” — are now getting ahead on arming their students for this new battle. A number have hired specialist tutors to guide teenagers through the long and complex American admissions process, with a view to them snaring the most lucrative scholarships for excellence — available in everything from piano to ping-pong and highly prized in a university sector where four years’ fees at full price plus living expenses can cost a quarter of a million dollars.

Experts admit it is simply “not feasible” for UK state school teachers to offer the same intensive support to equally talented but less well-off pupils who might want to try and bag a US scholarship.

So by driving the wealthiest abroad, is the increasing competition for spots at British universities creating a new inequality: a supercharged market for entry to world-beating US institutions, accessible only to the very richest — or those willing to game the system?

Etonians not welcome

Dorothy Byrne is unapologetic about her mission to slash the numbers of private school pupils going to Cambridge University.

Cambridge should ideally take 93 per cent of its students from state schools, and “private school students need to get over their obsession” with Oxbridge, the new head of the university’s all-female Murray Edwards College told us this month.

Eton students “would be very lucky to get into Manchester and Sheffield universities”, she said. In fact, “it might be good for them” to “travel to the north” and “meet more diverse people”.

The message that they are no longer as welcome as they once were at Oxford and Cambridge — two of the best universities in the world — is one that private school pupils and their parents have been hearing loud and clear.

“It can seem like there’s no point in trying,” says Saiesha Gupta, 18, a pupil at £40,00-a-year Benenden School in Kent.

She tells of a friend who won offers from Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia, but was recently turned down by Cambridge. He had “the best application I’d ever seen” — he was a head boy, had four A*s at A-level and fourteen A* GCSEs. She believes the fact he had studied at a private school was the reason he failed to win an Oxbridge place.

“That really put me off applying,” she says. Gupta said there was “100 per cent” a feeling that the highest-achieving private school students could no longer be confident about getting into Oxbridge, and that coming from a private school was “a disadvantage”. Like her friend, Gupta has decided to study in America: she has won a place at Columbia University in New York.

The father of one young Etonian was gloomy about his son’s chances of getting into Oxford or Cambridge this year.

“As many Etonians as ever continue to apply for Oxbridge, but not that many get in,” he says. He is bitter about the growing use of “contextual applications”, which his son and his Eton friends believe have “prejudiced” Oxford and Cambridge against them. “I think it is driving down standards.”

A decade ago, parents like him, who had stumped up tens of thousands of pounds a year for the likes of Eton, St Paul’s or King’s College School in Wimbledon could feel confident they were securing their progeny the best possible change of a place at Oxford or Cambridge. A 2018 Sutton Trust study showed that just eight institutions — six of them private — accounted for more Oxbridge places than 2,900 other UK secondary schools combined.

But things are changing rapidly. Eton’s Oxbridge offers fell from 99 in 2014 to 48 last year. At King’s College School, acceptances dropped from 48 to 27. Some private school parents have even started to worry their schools’ brand is becoming “toxic” in the UK.

“Their best students are still getting into Oxbridge,” says Charles Bonas, of the Chelsea-based education consultants Bonas MacFarlane. “But people like me — I spent most of my time in the second division when I was at Harrow — that group is not getting the offers. I would not get into Oxford now.”

Contextual applications are the sole reason for this, he says. “If you look at Mansfield College, Oxford – 90 per cent of its entry was state educated pupils last year. That is a real problem .”

But far from following Byrne’s advice, and dutifully heading to Sheffield or Manchester, many private school pupils — and their wealthy parents — are setting their sights on America.

This year, at King’s College Wimbledon, 26 applied to American universities — about one in eight of the year group. And a total of 36 Eton students will start at American universities this year — including Yale, Princeton and Harvard — nearly as many as the school will be sending to Oxbridge. At St Paul’s in southwest London, 30 students have accepted offers from American universities this year, up from 22 in 2015.

British students ‘seen as diverse’

From his smart office in tree-lined Gertrude Street in Chelsea, London, Bonas — who is the half-brother of Prince Harry’s former girlfriend Cressida — runs an agency that was one of the first to specialise in preparing UK students for the US college system.

He belongs to a network of London-based, independent US college admissions experts who move in the same, high-class social circles as their clients and win business partly through word of mouth.

“For parents who can afford it, America is a fantastic destination,” he says.

Bonas says that while private school pupils fail to tick diversity boxes in the UK, in America, “if you are someone from a British private school, you are seen as being diverse”.

Another firm dedicated to servicing the educational ambitions of the wealthy is Crimson Education. Recently valued at $260 million (£191 million), the company has offices in Westminster and claims on its website that its packages — which cost between £2,000 and £20,000 — can boost students’ chances of admission to Ivy League colleges by up to 400 per cent.

Its founder, fresh-faced New Zealander Jamie Beaton, likes to tell how he applied to 25 of the world’s best universities — including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Cambridge — and got offers from all of them. Now, aged 26, he is selling that dream to teenagers. And thousands in the UK are buying.

Crimson’s packages include one-to-one admissions coaching, access to online resources and — unlike other firms — tutoring. There is also an essay review service at £1,000 per essay, and SAT mentoring and interview preparation, starting at £95 per hour.

One satisfied British customer is Fara Bakare, 18, who attended Benenden. She arrived at Stanford in California earlier this month, having gained a place at one of the most competitive universities in the world, with an acceptance rate of just 4.7 per cent. Before submitting her application, Bakare worked with Crimson Education for a few months, with her family paying £7,500 for a package of help with two applications.

“My school counsellors were great but they didn’t have that much experience applying to US universities,” she says. “Crimson helped trim and shape the application to make it perfect.” Her family saw Crimson’s fees as an “investment”, she says. “It’s a big cost now but the opportunity to be at Stanford is a greater opportunity.”

In comparison to the cost of studying at Stanford, it is certainly a drop in the ocean: the cost of attending is about £54,000 a year.

In the past three years, the number of inquiries from UK-based applicants like her have grown by 286 per cent, Beaton says. Although the cost of studying in America is much higher, he believes American universities beat British ones on three fronts: flexibility, funding and future earnings.

Rather than having to choose one subject from the outset and stick to it, students in the US take a range of classes to begin with before deciding what to focus on later — a “major”. Then there is the availability of scholarships. While fees for students who don’t win financial aid are sky-high, many have them subsidised. Scholarships are on offer for those from lower-income families or with sporting or musical talents, which can pay for everything from flights to accommodation to food.

“If you’re a high-achieving student in the UK, it can actually be cheaper for you to go to the US than the UK,” Beaton says. “Harvard, Yale and Princeton have needs-blind financial aid.”

The secret sauce

In America, the industry around preparing students for US college applications is well-established. The business is worth an estimated $2.2 billion, with top names charging up to £1,000 for a single, one-hour coaching session. Rates for a bespoke package of coaching over up to three years range from £8,000 to more than £1 million.

US-based tutoring firms are also seeing growing numbers of families making inquiries about their services from Britain.

Ivy Coach, which calls itself “the world’s leading college consultant”, charges up to $1.5 million, although a typical fee is more like £50,000. Unlike in the UK — where applicants are limited to five choices, and can select only one out of Oxford and Cambridge — students can apply to as many US universities as they wish. The more colleges a family wants their child to apply to, the higher the rates.

The firm, which says it is seeing growing demand from British parents, claims its secret is to make kids “weird” so they stand out.

Another consultancy firm offering “truly a white-glove, luxury, premium service” is Command Education. “Typically families would spend a quarter of a million [dollars],” says Christopher Rim, a Yale graduate and the firm’s founder. “Sometimes that’s more than college itself.” Non-disclosure agreements — perhaps unsurprisingly — are commonplace.

“Families don’t want to tell everyone,” Rim says. “They want to make it seem like their child did it 100 per cent on their own, without any guidance.

“Some of the families send us huge, 20-page NDAs. About 40 per cent ask us to sign one. We’re behind the scenes; their secret sauce.”

The costs of the tutoring packages might seem staggering, but those offering it insist it is a worthwhile investment. Students at US universities, they insist, reap far greater rewards in the long term — with dazzling career prospects and higher salaries.

A study this week appears to bear out their claims. It found that English universities have some of the most expensive degrees in the world even though their students often earn less on graduating. Men with US degrees earn an additional £426,000 over the course of their lifetime compared to the additional £153,000 conferred by going to a university in the UK, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found. Female graduates earn an extra £308,000 extra in the US, compared to £140,000 in the UK.

“I’ve seen many of my alumni go on to get jobs at Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Morgan Stanley, work at Google, Facebook, all of these companies,” says Beaton. “If you go to the top US employers — US hedge funds, private equity funds — there’s an earnings premium of 30 per cent at the minimum. It can be double or triple in the US relative to the UK.”

Like Beaton, Bonas also sees a degree from a top American university as a shrewd investment. “It will pay back in droves,” he says. “The top universities in America are plugged into alumni networks, and alumni networks fix students with internships, which is the route to jobs.”

Making kids ‘weird’

While the rewards are great, the competition is fierce — and standing out is everything.

For the best chance of getting in, most college counselling companies recommend families get in touch when the child is 12 or 13, or even younger.

“We prefer they come to us around eighth or ninth grade so that we can map out what they should be doing through the rest of school,” says Brian Taylor, the owner of Ivy Coach.

The US application process consists of five main pillars: grades, extra-curricular activities, essays, recommendation letters and — historically — standardised testing.

Arguably the most important part is the extra-curricular activities. While a raft of A*s might once have been all that was needed, it’s rarely enough to win a place in America’s elite colleges today, the firms say.

This year, applications to the Ivy League surged, while admission rates plummeted. Harvard saw applications rise by 42 per cent compared with 2020, while its acceptance rate fell from 4.9 per cent to 3.4 per cent — a pattern repeated at many of the other top colleges. One admissions tutor described it as “a bloodbath”.

As a result, when it comes to beating the competition, it’s what you do outside the classroom that is most important, says Taylor from Ivy Coach.

“The student’s story plays a huge part,” he says. “There’s a reason that Harvard, for instance, prides itself on rejecting five classes worth of kids with perfect grades, perfect scores. It’s a very human process. The aim is to sway human beings to root for you.”

The goal, the coaching firms say, is to make children exceptionally good in one area — and give them a believable story.

“The highly selective universities are looking for singularly talented students who excel in one specific area,” he says. “If you’re the biology kid, I want to see the research you’re doing. I want to know what specific kind of bio research you’re interested in. And I hope you’re not a cancer researcher, because they’re a dime a dozen. When it’s another cancer researcher, they yawn.”

Each student must list ten extracurriculars on their common application. But make no mistake: for the most competitive US universities, being a member of the school rounders team or playing the flute simply won’t cut it.

Instead, teenagers need to do something amazing: write a book, launch a business, write an academic paper, start a charity, build an app — in other words, convince admissions officers that “this is someone who’s going to change the world in one super-specific way”.

They must typically do this, Taylor says, on top of taking online courses on their subject of interest.

As a rough rule of thumb, he recommends students spend 25 hours a week on extra-curricular pursuits during the school year, from the age of 14 or 15 onwards — and 40 hours a week over the summer holidays — to have the best chance.

“If you suddenly have all these new interests before you apply, it’s transparent to the admissions officers that you’re doing these activities to try and get into college,” he says.

Private school pupils from the UK that come to him “don’t necessarily have the greatest grades and the greatest scores,” says Taylor. Part of his job is managing these parents’ at times unrealistic expectations of success in the competitive US system.

“We help them get into the best school possible for them,” he says. “But you know, if someone has no chance of getting into Harvard or Yale, or Princeton, we’re going to tell them. A lot of people strategise wrong; they shoot the impossible dream. That’s a mistake.”

Tiger mother for hire

Similarly well-versed in managing wealthy parents’ expectations is London-based coach Susie Cochin de Billy.

“I often get students and parents come to me and they say, ‘We want to apply to university but we only want to apply to the Ivy League. If we don’t get into the Ivy League, we’re not interested in America’,” she says.

“That’s a very bad strategy and it’s also narrow-minded. It’s like saying, ‘Oxford, Cambridge or nothing?’ Have you heard of Bristol? ‘What’s Bristol?”
The former interior designer is now offering a very different sort of service to the capital’s elite.

She is the founder of the Chelsea-based Arcus Advisory, a bespoke counselling service that offers parents “discreet and very personal” assistance with US college applications, charging up to £11,000 for an unlimited package, where clients can call on her around the clock.

Since starting her business 12 years ago, she has seen the level of interest grow “exponentially”.

“I would say that 12 years ago, there weren’t that many students applying from England … so if you were a very strong student you could get into the Ivy League,” she says.

“I probably get four or five times as many inquiries now. I turn away a lot of students. There are a lot more people doing what I’m doing now than there were 12 years ago, and there’s enough work for all of us.”

She scorns companies, though, that “churn out essays”. She says her clients prefer dealing with someone with more experience. “I’m 100 per cent bespoke. You get me, not a 21-year-old student doing it on my behalf. I like to think I’m one of the top.”

Sometimes, her job involves awkward conversations, she says. British parents — and children — can have unrealistic expectations about the amount of work that’s involved with a US college application — building up your extracurriculars and writing dozens of essays on top of your normal schoolwork. Each university demands two or three essays each, so students — who might apply to ten or 15 different places — end up writing 30 to 50 essays, with each one going through several rounds of drafts.

Because the application deadline is in January, it can mean masses of work over the festive period. “You always get the last-minute students sending you things on December 31 and I’m up until 3am helping them with that. I put in umpteen hours for a student. I’m often the tiger mum the parent doesn’t want to be.”

If the student also needs help getting good grades, or tutoring to prepare them for the SAT or ACT exams, they typically work with a third-party tutor, meaning extra hours, and cash. “Some students need four or five sessions of SAT tuition. Others need eight months,” she says. Tutors typically cost £90 to £120 an hour, but some charge up to £600.

When it comes to gaining real-world experience, students are often in for a shock. According to Cochin de Billy, one week of work experience at “a job that your family’s connections got for you somewhere in Mayfair” will not cut it.

Teacher recommendations are also “extremely important”, she says — and here the British tendency towards understatement can be an issue for UK applicants. “Faced with the typical English teacher recommendation saying, ‘Joanne is quite good’, … the Americans will think, ‘She’s a total failure’.”

While most students are enthusiastic about the idea of going to the US, it is often not their dream but their parents’, she admits.

“Usually it’s the parent driving the car. But what I hope is that the children are keen. Sometimes the parent is the only one driving the car, and then that’s harder.

“I had one student where he was ignoring me and not answering emails or texts. I was tracking him down. The mother was hands off. I was like, ‘I need these essays and I need them now.’ The mother said, ‘That’s why I hired you. I need somebody who’s actually a little scary.’”

One of her former students, Carolina Nasr, 24, says Cochin de Billy was “a massive help” with her US college applications.

The sharp-witted daughter of a former private equity firm director, who attended £23,000-a-year Godolphin and Latymer, an all-girls day school in west London, is acutely aware of her privilege. “I could not be more of a stereotype, to be honest,” she says, laughing. “I’m pretty much as Kensington as they come.”

She also acknowledges that this comes with drawbacks. “Not to criticise the private school system in the UK, but you’re spoon-fed everything your whole life. So it’s difficult to wean yourself off that. I’m not a self-starter; at least, not at that time I wasn’t.”

At first, Nasr knew she wanted to attend a “quintessential American campus university” but wasn’t sure which one. “Susie said, ‘Virginia suits your checklist.’ And that’s where I ended up going,” she says.

Over six or so sessions and countless email exchanges, Cochin de Billy helped Nasr, who got 11 A*s at GCSE and 35 at IB (out of a maximum of 45), perfect her application and supported her with essay-writing, editing drafts and correcting grammar.

“When you’re that age you do need someone to hover over you,” she says. But she adds: “I had a very clean and honest application. No one wrote my essays for me. No one bribed anyone. There’s no denying that I come from an advantageous position where my parents could help me, but I definitely put in the work myself.”

On her application, Nasr included extra-curricular activities such as being on the first team for netball and writing for the school’s language magazine. But she says the application process has become more competitive in the last few years — something she has witnessed because her younger brothers have since gone through it.

“Nowadays, students literally start companies. They will abandon them as soon as they get in, but they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I have this really amazing idea for this eco-whatever’. They go through with it, get funding, create an Instagram … That’s the level of what you need to do rather than, ‘I was on the netball team’.”

“There are more people from the UK applying but also more people from China, Brazil, India. You’re competing with the entire world. You have to exaggerate even more what your skills are and what you can do. Everyone wants the next Mark Zuckerberg.”

Dirty trick

While most admissions experts are above board, there is a murkier side to the industry — one that makes its biggest beneficiaries millions, and has led to myriad allegations of unfairness.

The underbelly of the American tutoring system was exposed in dramatic fashion in 2019, when an FBI sting operation exposed how dozens of wealthy families had allegedly paid huge sums to help get their children into colleges across the country, including by falsifying test scores and athletic achievements.

Dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, the operation implicated more than 50 parents, college coaches and exam invigilators, most of whom negotiated plea deals. The trial of two parents who denied the charges began this week — one accused of paying more than $1.7 million in bribes to get his children into Stanford, Harvard and the University of Southern California.

“There’s a small portion of bad apples that pollute the system and they hopefully largely get caught,” Beaton says. “Varsity Blues was a good example of that.”

But the boss of one UK-based college counselling company says he “gets asked all the time by families” to bend the rules and has been offered cash to bribe college officials.

“It’s just so high risk, I’d never go near it,” he says. “We’ve been propositioned a few times but just shut it down immediately. I would say that now, it would be very difficult. Because of the scandal in the US, most admissions officers would be hyper [sensitive] about getting caught doing anything like that.”

A common tactic among unethical college counsellors is over-egging a student’s talents on their application. “There are plenty of firms that are unethical in how they work with students,” says the boss of another UK-based company. “They do things like writing the kids’ essays. They will actually complete the kid’s common application account for them and not even let the kid log in.”

Sometimes, companies fabricate their students’ extracurriculars. “The colleges don’t really check them or vet them. They just take your word for it,” another coach says. “There are so many international counsellors that fabricate stuff for their students. There is pressure on people like me because the parents say, ‘Well, that counsellor does that’.”

Having others write essays for them, and fabricating elements of a CV, are seen as the easiest ways to cheat, the coach says.

“There are so many moving parts, so they literally want to try every single part. If they can’t get in through the back door, through donations, or cheating in their exam — and there’s now really solid security when it comes to taking the standardised tests like the SAT — they want to try ‘gaming’ their CV.

“Students also use essay-writing services. It’s one thing to read and give feedback on essays and say, ‘This looks good’, and do what an English teacher does. But there are other companies that would write the essays for them.”

A trick that has become more popular in recent years is getting students’ names on research papers alongside university professors, one UK-based counsellor says. Companies charging as much as £3,000 per paper have sprung up to cater to the demand.

“So many people are doing it,” says the coach, who would not be named. “They say, ‘OK, we will get your name on a paper that’s published by a professor at whatever university.’ Then they get somebody else to essentially write your part. They find graduate students at universities who are willing to be paid some fee for that. And then they take whatever that person has written and submit it.”

In other cases, companies will charge “success fees” or use other tactics to boost their profits.

Charles Bonas, one of the biggest players in the British market, charges a flat fee of up to £20,000 over three years to coach a teenager for American university entrance. But some rivals, he says, “add a zero” to that — bringing the fee to about £200,000 — if the youngster gets into their preferred university. These so-called “success fees” are “where it gets corrupted”, he says.

Other firms take a commission from the universities themselves for sending students their way, usually lower-profile institutions that struggle to attract as many applicants. Taylor, of IvyCoach, says these companies must be avoided.
“Those are not for highly selective US schools. Most schools in the States do have trouble with enrolment and getting these tuition dollars. But the people who have admissions agents … it’s a very slimy industry,” he says.

Perhaps part of the problem is that paying your way into US universities is a long-standing tradition — as long as you play by the colleges’ rules. It’s no secret that money can ease your path to admission; in fact, most colleges admit “legacy” students — with a family connection to the university — at a far higher rate than other applicants. At Harvard, the acceptance rate for legacy students was reported to be about 33 per cent in 2019 compared with an overall acceptance rate of under 6 per cent.

“We’ve long argued that we should eliminate legacy admission,” says Taylor from IvyCoach. “Why should students who are the children and grandchildren of alumni have a leg up in this process?”

Wealthy families who don’t have a connection with the school frequently flash cash in the hope it will buy them a bending of the rules, he adds. But in order for a donation to matter, a sweetener of a few hundred thousand — or even a million — is highly unlikely to work. The minimum benchmark? $10 million.

“How many people want to donate $10 million? Not that many,” Taylor says.

The final frontier

So where does all this leave the genuinely disadvantaged — or even just ordinary, state-educated students? Do they have any hope of making it onto a coveted US scholarship? Oya Christie-Miller, founder of Christie Miller Consulting, based on Regent Street, central London, says state school students are in with a shot — but only if they’re “very competitive”.

Even for “middle-class families” who are otherwise comfortable, affording the fees is often out of reach. “There are some middle-class families who want to keep their horizons quite wide. They can afford £9,000 a year in the UK. But in the US it’s $75,000 a year. They really need the scholarship,” she says.

While the playing field may not be even, a handful of the brightest and best state-educated youngsters do head to the US for university. Charities such as the Sutton Trust help students with their applications, and offer tailored support to prepare students for navigating the US admissions system. The education charity, which aims to improve social mobility, is helping 44 state-educated teenagers to start out at US universities this autumn.

The multimillionaire Sir Peter Lampl, who founded the trust and set up the US programme, says picking the US over the UK has many benefits. Advantages include the experience of living in dorms on campuses with fabulous facilities, access to scholarships — especially sports scholarships — that can cover most of the fees; an alumni network that helps graduates into internships and jobs, and the chance to work your way through university, with many of the top universities offering part-time jobs to students.

Since the pandemic, which has left British students complaining about the quality of their online tuition, American universities, which require students to be double-jabbed and are resuming a full face-to-face teaching experience, look like an even better bet.

Emran Majidy, 18, a pupil at Herschel Grammar School, a state-funded selective school in Slough, has turned down an engineering place at Jesus College, Oxford, to go to Northwestern University in Illinois this autumn.

His tuition, living costs, travel and books are all covered by a four-year $80,000 annual scholarship. “It is much harder to find funding opportunities in the UK compared with the US,” says Majidy, whose father is a taxi driver.

Luke Grayson, 18, a state school pupil from Sunderland who scored straight A and A* grades in maths, further maths and physics, was rejected by Cambridge. Instead of his second choice — Imperial College London, which offered him a place — he is going to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire on a $71,000-a-year scholarship. “When Dartmouth made the offer, I felt ecstatic. I would have been £70,000 in debt by the time I graduated from a UK university,” he says.

Lampl believes passionately that more state school youngsters should get the same chance to study in America. “Leading universities in the US want to attract the most talented students, whatever country or social background they come from.

“This means there are some very generous financial packages on offer to students from the UK. The application process to US universities is a major barrier, however — particularly for those with no experience of the American system.

“It’s not feasible for UK state school teachers to provide the level of support needed, particularly to youngsters from poorer homes. Our own Sutton Trust programme provides intensive and tailored support for over a year.

“However, our US programme run with the Fulbright Commission provides support for teachers, pupils and parents, which has resulted in 514 students taking up places at over 80 top American universities, including 34 at Princeton, 23 at Yale and 21 at Harvard. As a result, studying in the US can be a realistic goal for young people of all backgrounds.”

Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Buckingham, believes the state sector should go further. He says all large state secondary schools should train teachers to navigate the American admission system — in the same way as many state schools have now cracked the interview coaching and extra prep needed to boost a teenager’s chances of getting into Oxbridge.

“Private school students are being turned away by Oxbridge in greater numbers than ever before, as state school students have learned how to excel at the interviews both universities insist on as part of their entry procedure,” Smithers says.

“So the private school pupils are now learning how to navigate the US admissions system. It seems only fair that state school pupils should get a crack at that too. To succeed they will need the kind of coaching that is being made available in private schools and via expensive tutorial agencies. This is the next educational frontier.”

The Times

Originally published in The Sunday Times on September 25, 2021

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