What British Colleges Can Teach America

A few lessons from overseas that might help American colleges.

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In September 2007, when London student Tom Hart was 17, he had to make a tough decision with potentially lifelong ramifications: which degree program (major) to study at college. "I found it quite difficult, to be honest," admits Hart, who opted for philosophy/sociology. But the next step—the actual applying to five different universities—well, that was a breeze. That's because, like every other collegebound British student, Hart used the United Kingdom's universal clearinghouse, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. It took only 25 minutes to click through the online, standardized form and send it off to five schools at once, along with his personal statement.

"It was really easy to use. It's brilliant," Hart says.

UCAS was set up more than 40 years ago by the U.K. higher-education institutions themselves to simplify the undergraduate admissions process and reduce paperwork. Every accredited school here is part of the system, making it essentially compulsory. "It's a really impressive institutional innovation," says Sarah Turner, an economist at the University of Virginia. Fairer, too. Because students fill out only one application, and because it limits the total number of colleges to which they can apply to five, "transaction costs" are reduced, which puts all students on an equal footing, regardless of how wealthy or poor they are. It's a good idea, a much-praised system that perhaps the United States should consider adopting.

American higher education borrowing an idea from overseas? Isn't that heresy, since the U.S. system is—with all its faults—still widely considered the gold standard by many foreign academics and students? Well, while clearly many foreign models won't work in the States—free tuition, anyone?—there are some practices, mainly cherry-picked from Britain, that would be welcome additions: a less punishing student loan program; more encouragement for students to follow the British tradition of taking a "gap year" break before starting college; and, of course, a central admissions process, like UCAS.

UCAS makes things easier for students in other ways, too. Its website is crammed with information about, and entry requirements for, every degree program at every school, which greatly simplifies the research students must do to make informed choices. The process starts in September, and all applications must be filed by January 15. The fee for applying to five schools is approximately $35. By late March, students will have learned which, if any, of the five schools has accepted them. Offers are typically contingent on students' receiving certain grades on their A-Level exams. A-Levels are a set of course-based tests (usually three) students take at the end of their last year of secondary school.

If several universities send them offers, students then make a "firm" choice, usually the school with the most rigorous entrance requirement, and an "insurance" choice. For example, all five schools Hart applied to accepted him. So his first choice—and where he starts this fall—was the University of Bristol, which required him to get three A's in his A-Levels. His backup choice was the University of Leeds, which required only one A and two B's.

Students who don't receive initial offers or who fail to meet A-Level requirements aren't without hope. UCAS also has a "clearing" system that helps most students find schools that will accept them. Around 75 percent of all applicants find a place. Of those who don't, about 80 percent are accepted the following year.

The universities claim UCAS greatly reduces admissions headaches because it gives them a much clearer picture of the number of incoming students to expect. Says Jon Beard, director of undergraduate recruitment at the University of Cambridge: "A student cannot elect to go, or be enticed, to University B if they have committed through the system to University A." UCAS also provides schools with useful, national statistical trends, like which majors are growing or falling in popularity.