American dream continues to lure students

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2008, 12:00am

The spiralling world economy may have taken some of the gloss off the world's leading industrial nation, but the United States' position as the premier destination for international postgraduates remains intact.

From MIT to UCLA Berkeley, Yale to Kellogg, the best US graduate schools dominate worldwide listings for academic courses and business education, not to mention their own fiscal reserves. The vast amounts of intellectual property amassed by the country's leading universities mean they will be able to ride out the financial storm.

According to the latest statistics from the Institute of International Education, there were almost 583,000 overseas students studying in the US in 2006-7, of whom 7,722 were from Hong Kong. That was a 2 per cent decline on the previous year but still enough to secure Hong Kong 14th place. Mainland China came second, sending 67,723 students, behind India with 83,833.

Typically, about a quarter of local students heading to the US to study enrol in postgraduate courses, with the MBA being the most popular choice. But one of the main reasons for heading stateside to study is simply diversity and breadth of choice. Students interested in studying a more obscure subject in Hong Kong would be hard pushed to find a reputable course.

The US is not just about famous universities: there are more than 3,000 regionally accredited colleges and universities. While many of these are state run, the US is home to a wide variety of privately run universities and colleges. Some of these are very large but others are small liberal arts centres with fewer than 2,000 students. Some private universities may have a religious background or may be single-sex institutions.

However, the distinction between public and private should not be seen as a reflection on a university's quality. Unlike Hong Kong's only private university, which offers only three postgraduate courses run in partnership with overseas universities, some of the most prestigious seats of American learning are outside the publicly funded sector.

Accreditation is an important issue to consider, as it is not an outright requirement for private universities in the US to be officially recognised by the state or other academic universities. Given the time and hard-earned money you are about to invest, it is worth checking the true value of the qualification.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation's website ( contains an extensive section on how to identify so-called degree mills and accreditation mills - associations under which unorthodox universities accredit one another to make their credentials appear more credible. The website also has a database of genuine and reliable institutions.

American graduate schools tend to be fairly stringent in their admissions requirements, so be prepared to be asked for your GRE or GMAT standard aptitude scores. Certain courses may require you to take a subject-specific GRE or for fields like medicine or law you may need to take their own specialised professional study exams.

It may take as long as a year's preparation to meet all these demands, so entry requirements need to be one of the first things you take into account when looking for a course or plotting your study schedule.

Non-native speakers of English are also required to demonstrate their ability in the language, with almost all universities relying on TOEFL scores - although the required standard will vary between institutions. A small number of universities will accept other language qualifications. Language qualifications may affect your student visa application, and the immigration department is likely to be less flexible than universities.

Web links

A guide to higher education in the US

Search engine for degrees and institutions

Institute of International Education, promotes closer educational relations between the US and other countries

Scholarships, fellowships, grants database

Michigan State University Library guide to grants and funding

New York University Graduate School of Art and Science

Test of English as a Foreign Language homepage

Graduate Record Examinations homepage