Universities in the UK and the US

The US and UK: Comparing Higher Education in the Two Top Ranking Nations

Posted by  Jami Morshed

While the US and the UK may share dominant placement when it comes to international rankings for higher education, the similarity often ends there. From the cost of higher education to key performance indicators like dropout rates and employment outcomes, these two world powers have each charted their own unique paths.

Enrollment Statistics in the UK and US

Roughly 2,200,000 students are enrolled in higher education during any given year in the UK, representing roughly 3.5 percent of the total population. In contrast, roughly 17,500,000 students are enrolled in US colleges and universities each year, representing about 5.5 percent of the total population.

Nearly 95 percent of college age adults are enrolled in a tertiary education program in the US each year, while roughly 60 percent of college age adults are enrolled each year in the UK.

Total higher education degree rates in the UK and US are mostly in line with one another, with 42 percent of adults up to 64 years old holding degrees in the UK, while 44 percent of adults in the same range hold a degree in the US.

Graduation Rates

In the United States, roughly 30 percent of all higher education students drop out of school during or after their first year of study. Schools in the UK retain a much higher percentage of their students, with a historical norm of around 7.5 percent dropping out each year, although those rates have decreased to around 6 percent of first year students dropping out since 2010.

Approximately 40 percent of students who begin a first-level bachelor’s degree in the United States will drop out before graduation. Meanwhile, most UK students who start a degree program will achieve a degree, with total dropout rates well below one percent.

Tertiary Education Impacts on Career

In the United States, a tertiary degree is increasingly viewed as a requirement for a productive and lucrative career. Indeed, the difference between yearly earnings for college graduates and high school graduates is stark. The average worker holding at least a bachelor’s degree earns $45,500 (£32,000), while a worker with only a high school secondary degree earns an average of $28,000 (£19,700) each year, marking a nearly 40 percent pay gap.

Meanwhile in the UK, higher education is often viewed as a way to enter a specialty career and not a firm milestone required for any career at all. The average worker holding a higher education degree in the UK earns £31,000 ($44,000), while those without a tertiary degree earn an average of £22,000 ($32,000), amounting to a 30 percent pay gap.

Employment rates for tertiary graduates have taken a big hit in both the US and UK in recent years, largely due to very soft employment markets following the 2008 financial crisis. Historical employment rates for graduates have hovered around 95 to 97 percent in both countries, but rates for every year since 2010 have been closer to 92 to 94 percent, with wide fluctuations from year to year.

Areas of Study

In both the US and UK, the largest degree programs by far fall in the social sciences, business and law categories. Roughly 40 percent of degrees in the US are awarded in related fields and roughly 34 percent in the UK.

Science, mathematics and engineering are the next most common areas of study, with 15 percent of degrees in the US coming from these categories, compared to 23 percent of UK graduates.

The arts and humanities are third most common, composing 16 percent of degrees in the US and 18 percent in the UK.

Unspecified or uncategorized areas of study bring up the rear, with 29 percent of US students graduating in this area each year, compared to 27 percent in the UK.

University and College Rankings

The US and UK mutually dominate the international rankings of higher education institutions. The US routinely hosts 18 of the top 50 schools in the world (35 percent of top ranking schools), while the UK hosts 10 of the top 50 schools (20 percent of top ranking schools.)

That dominance is even more sharply defined in the top 10 schools, with the US comprising 50 percent of that list, while UK schools make up an additional 40 percent. Only Switzerland and Australia regularly join the US and UK in top 10 rankings, generally taking turns at holding the 9th or 10th position for a few years at a time.

In the US, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) consistently dominates the number one spot, with other top ranking schools including Harvard University, Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

The University of Cambridge is habitually the highest ranking UK school, joined by the University of Oxford, University College London and Imperial College London.


Taken as a whole, the numbers paint the picture of two related but very differentiated higher education systems.

When it comes to enrollment and graduation, more students start school in the US when compared to the UK, but many more fail to complete a degree. Career attainments after graduation follow a similar pattern, with a tertiary degree being all but mandatory for the highest earnings in the US, while non-graduates in the UK enjoy a smaller earnings gap when compared to graduates each year.

The cost of education marks another sharp difference between the two countries, as the US regularly ranks among the highest tuition costs in the world, while the UK typically falls near the upper third of international cost rankings. One way to drop the tuition costs is for Universities to save costs by using a modern student management system.

Regardless of their differences, it's clear that the US and UK's reputations for hosting the top schools in the world are in no danger.

Jami Morshed

Jami is vice president of global higher education at Unit4. My mission is to help colleges and universities improve student success and institutional effectiveness. I’m responsible for everything we do at the Unit4 Global Center of Excellence to help institutions prepare for the future through scalable and comprehensive software solutions that streamline and modernize core business processes while eliminating the burden of managing ever-changing technology.

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