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The UK vs US Higher Education System - What's the difference?

from  June 29, 2016 | 6 min read

While the US and the UK both dominate international rankings for higher education, the similarity 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 unique paths. Let's take a closer look.     

US education ranking vs UK: Enrollment

You may be wondering which country has more students and more graduates? In both, students represent a significant part of the population.  

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

Nearly 95% of college-age adults are enrolled in a tertiary education program in the US each year. In comparison, roughly 60% of college-age adults are enrolled each year in higher education in the UK. 

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

US education ranking vs UK: Graduation rates

The US graduation rate isn't as strong as the UK. In the US, roughly 30% of all higher education students drop out of school during or after their first year of study. Higher education in the UK has a better score, with a historical average of 7.5% dropping out each year, although rates have decreased to around 6% of first-year students since 2010. 

Approximately 40% 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 1%. 

US education ranking vs UK:  Tertiary education

A tertiary degree is increasingly viewed as a requirement for a productive and lucrative career in the United States. 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% pay gap. 

Meanwhile, higher education in the UK is often viewed as a way to enter a specialist career and not a firm milestone required for any career. 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% pay gap. 

Employment rates for tertiary graduates have taken a big hit in both the US and UK in recent years, primarily because of very soft employment markets following the 2008 financial crisis. Historical employment rates for graduates have hovered around 95-97% in both countries, but rates for every year since 2010 have been closer to 92-94%, fluctuating widely from year to year. 

US education ranking vs UK: Areas of study

In both the US and UK, the most extensive degree programs are in the social sciences, business, and law categories. About 40% of US degrees are awarded in related fields and roughly 34% in higher education in the UK.

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

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

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

University and college rankings

So what about success on the world stage? Is the US education ranking and reputation justified? What about England's university ranking — together with those of the other devolved nations (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) that comprise the UK?  

Well, the US and UK indeed dominate the international rankings of higher education institutions. The US routinely boasts 18 of the top 50 schools globally (35% of top-ranking schools), while higher education in the UK hosts 10 of the top 50 schools (20% of top-ranking schools). 

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

In the US, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) consistently dominates the number one spot. Other top-ranking schools include 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. 

US education ranking vs UK: Conclusions

Taken as a whole, the numbers paint the picture of two related but very differentiated higher education systems. UK vs. US education isn't a like-for-like comparison. 

When it comes to enrollment and graduation, more students start school in the US than in the UK, but many more fail to complete their degrees. After graduation, career attainments 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 compared to graduates each year. 

The cost of education marks another sharp difference between the two countries, as the US regularly ranks among the world's highest tuition costs. At the same time, the UK typically falls around 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. Despite its smaller size, higher education in the UK has a huge pull. Meanwhile, the US education ranking is justified by a host of reasons.  

Transform your own institution's ranking

Find out how Unit4's higher education solutions can free your faculty, staff, and students to achieve the best in education and research. Whether you work in higher education in the UK, the US, or elsewhere, you can give your teams and students the time, visibility, and control needed to set new standards of excellence. 

The right enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution can transform your fortunes. That's the story with Cranfield University in the UK. Its existing system was struggling with pressures around compliance, new funding models, and reorganizations. However, new ERP software from Unit4 proved to be a game-changer. This led to greater agility, improved operations, and more robust governance. What's more, the postgraduate specialist has made cost savings of £1 million and counting. 

"We agreed that we didn't want to use legacy systems like Oracle because of the horrific cost and maintenance issues. The beauty of installing these Unit4 solutions is that we can use our internal implementation staff. We don't have to hire or pay for the usual software vendor army of highly-priced, external ERP consultants," explains Ian Sibbald, Director of Finance, Cranfield University. 

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UK vs US education – where to learn more

To learn more about the challenges facing higher education and discover how Unit4 can help you embrace the right technology, download the industry brochure: NEW GAME NEW RULES — The stark reality of a disrupted market and how next-generation institutions are reacting. 

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