Politically the world's superpower, the United States is also a major player in the international competition for overseas students. "The US is home to top universities and boasts a reputation for world-class professors, cutting-edge technology, excellent research opportunities and a diversity of academic institutions, offering a broad-based education with the flexibility to tailor programmes of study to an individual's needs," says EducationUSA Adviser Angel Lau. And these characteristics help make the American higher education system a popular choice for Hong Kong's students. "The number of Hong Kong students enrolled at US colleges and universities rose 1.3 per cent to 8,136 in the 2010-11 academic year, making Hong Kong a leading source of foreign students in the US. Hong Kong ranks 16th overall, and seventh as a source of foreign students at US community colleges," Lau says. The Institute of International Education's Open Doors: Report on International Educational Exchange says the states hosting the most international students are California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, and Illinois. The University of Southern California, the University of Illinois, New York University, Purdue University (Indiana) and Columbia University (in New York) are the most popular. Lau encourages Hong Kong students and their parents to remain open-minded and think beyond school reputations and brands. She suggests that they research other options, as "we have more than 4,000 higher education institutions, offering 600 majors in 50 states". She sounds a note of caution. "Unlike some countries, the US has no ministry of education to regulate accreditation and policies of higher education institutions. Students are responsible for checking the accreditation of institutions." Lau suggests visiting the Council for Higher Education Accreditation website should be helpful. In general, Lau explains, there are two pathways to a US bachelor's degree. Students can either take a four-year college or university course, or first take a two-year community college programme, then transfer to a university or college to complete the third and fourth years of the programme. "For a four-year university or college degree programme, you should start the application process at least 12-18 months before your planned arrival," she says. "Most institutions require TOEFL or IELTS if English is not the student's first language." Most universities require applicants to achieve certain SAT or ACT (American College Testing) scores. Students should check for specific admission requirements. Lau says living costs vary widely. "Living expenses are highest in large cities, California and the Northeast [but] can be much lower in the South, the Midwest, and rural areas," she says. "Each US institution has a designated career centre that will help students find on-campus jobs. However, students should verify if they are allowed to work, based on the type of US visa they have." For accommodation, Lau advises checking the preferred school's website to see what choices are available on and off-campus. She also recommends that Hong Kong students make the most of the extra-curricular activities available. Students wishing to stay on after graduation need a permanent resident card, or "Green Card", to live and work. Sponsorship by an employer or family member (spouse or parent) who is already a US citizen, is the usual way to qualify.