The intelligent choice

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 September, 2009, 12:00am

A new school year has just begun. After surviving the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, those attending sixth form are a step closer to being ready for university, thus many have started enrolling in the institution of their choice. For those who intend to continue their university education here, the top choices are the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University and the University of Science and Technology. And, for those who can afford it, studying abroad is still the ultimate dream.

I have argued before that the US is perhaps still the best place to get a university education. With the effects of the global financial crisis, deepening recession and worsening unemployment in the US, many middle-class American families can no longer afford to cover their children's private university education. This has, in effect, boosted admission chances for many overseas students.

Renowned local columnist Heung Shu-fai once shared the experience of his son's overseas study in a press interview. He pointed out that the US was able to give local students who achieved modest academic results a second chance in higher education. One way, he said, was using community colleges as a springboard to get into state universities. After having studied at a community college for two years and received full credits, students can get transferred to a state university. Heung's son studied at Foothill Community College in California, which has become a popular choice for many local students and a short cut to the eight prestigious state-owned universities.

American community colleges provide two years of high-quality and affordable post-secondary education for both US and international students. Their average tuition fees are around US$10,000 per year, while those at state universities are three or four times more for international students. They are accredited to award associate degrees that are fully recognised by American state-owned universities, unlike our associate-degree programme, which only aims to cope with rising demand for university education and youth unemployment, has little emphasis on quality, low prestige, and offers no guarantee of a university placement.

Community colleges offer small-class teaching that gives students better care and attention than formal universities. Furthermore, all classes are taught by professors while universities often use teaching assistants, as professors are tied up with research.

According to a survey in the latest US News & World Report, the top three US universities are Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Other Ivy League universities are also in the top 10. These are still the most popular choices for Hong Kong students. But we shouldn't overlook a number of less popular institutions that are excellent alternatives. Washington University in St Louis, for example, has a long history and ranks 12th nationally, three places ahead of the distinguished Cornell University.

When choosing a university, Hong Kong people often focus on the popularity factor and overlook other prestigious universities that are not as well known in Hong Kong. The Princeton Review, which publishes various guides to colleges and universities, recently conducted a survey on dream schools and interviewed 15,000 students and parents in the US. The students' favourites were Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and New York University. The parents, besides selecting Harvard, Stanford and Princeton, also chose the University of Notre Dame and Yale.

The University of Notre Dame is an intelligent choice. It has a long tradition of academic excellence; its undergraduate programme is ranked 20th among national universities and it has a comprehensive graduate programme. This year, the university will try to boost its international student intake, from the current 3 per cent to 7 per cent, to match that of Ivy League institutions.

When choosing a university, reputation isn't everything; long-term potential is also a significant factor. And aiming for those that are less well-known to Hongkongers, but highly respected in the US, would be a smart strategy to boost chances of getting in.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator