Is It Time to Rethink Elite Education Outside the Ivies? Looking Abroad in 2024

With 3X higher acceptance rates & tuition fee savings of over $100K, it’s no surprise that elite colleges abroad may become popular Ivy alternatives this year
  • While Ivy Leagues accept a meager 3-8% of its applicants, Oxbridges welcome 17% and 18% of their applicants, respectively
  • Oxbridge’s acceptance rates are almost 5X higher than Harvard’s
  • Only 2.5% of US students studying abroad undertake a full-time undergraduate degree
  • Undergraduates can save over $106,000 by going to elite universities abroad compared to Ivy League

The prestige of an Ivy League education draws tens of thousands of high schoolers annually to apply. But are the Ivies truly the best option for students? The data suggests that there may be other options right under our noses. 

In the fiercely competitive realm of higher education, the Ivy League has maintained an almost mythical allure. These esteemed institutions promise a coveted ticket to success, with prospects of an extraordinary future, lucrative careers, unparalleled opportunities, and the ultimate bragging rights. 

Year after year, colleges market this promise to countless high school students and parents who would do anything to secure admission to these institutions with centuries-long histories of excellence. Yet, with a mere 5% acceptance rate on average, the dream of attending these highly selective schools remains just that for most students—a dream.

While the notion of the Ivies as the gold standard is deeply ingrained in the minds of young students, it may be time to rethink elite education outside of this league.

International schools, especially those in the UK, offer enhanced opportunities, higher acceptance chances, and a priceless university experience (though, when priced, is remarkably more affordable than the Ivy League). So, why would US students not look outward when it comes to an elite education with the bonus of exploration, self-discovery, and adventure?

A Resurgence In The Growing Popularity of Studying Abroad

Despite a significant decline in the number of students studying abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, these figures are quickly bouncing back. Data shows that the number of US students studying abroad in 2021/2022 increased by 1,197% compared to 2020/2021, with nearly 190,000 students flocking to colleges further afield. If the trend continues, we could see the number of US students studying abroad meet or exceed the pre-pandemic record of nearly 350,000 students. 

This resurgence is unsurprising, as studying abroad offers students the unique opportunity of adventure, allowing them to immerse themselves in new cultures, explore new environments, and broaden their horizons.

Graph ofNumber of US Students Studying Abroad From 2017-2022
Source: Open Doors

Several destinations have become hotspots for US students. For example, there’s France, an ideal haven for fashion and art enthusiasts looking to jumpstart their careers; Italy, housing the world's oldest university, the University of Bologna, which features attractive tuition rates starting at just $2,200 for international students; and Spain, renowned for providing some of Europe's finest education and research opportunities. 

Bar chart of Most Popular International Destinations For US Students in 2021/2022

But one major country is rapidly becoming the go-to destination for studying abroad: the UK. American students are the fourth-largest demographic in British schools. This trend is partly due to the UK government’s ambitious educational strategy. The government set a target to boost education exports to a whopping £35 billion annually by 2030 and aimed to welcome a total of 600,000 international students. They hit this latter goal nearly a decade earlier than expected and are on track to meet the export target. 

Furthermore, US students are up to three times more likely to get accepted to the UK’s most prestigious schools for a fraction of the tuition price, with more opportunities to engage with other international students. These factors may contribute to many more Americans choosing the likes of Cambridge, Oxford, and other top schools abroad instead of the Ivies.

Oxbridge vs. the Ivies: A Case Study

In the 2021-2022 academic year, a substantial 188,753 American students took the plunge into a UK study adventure, but only 2.5% of these students studying abroad are doing so for at least an academic year. Thus, only a diminutive percentage of American students studying abroad seem to be actually taking advantage of full-time international degrees.

Pie Chart of Duration of Study Abroad for US Students in 2021/2022

Similarly, the meager annual average of just 49 US students pursuing full-time degrees at Cambridge between 2015 and 2021 starkly contrasts with the evident enthusiasm to study abroad. This gap further highlights the apparent missed potential in the form of opportunity cost for American students to truly capitalize on all of the benefits these international degrees have to offer.  

Bar Cahrt of Number of Full-Time US Undergradute Students at Cambridge from 2015-2021

There are several reasons to consider attending a UK school for more than just a summer escapade. It can offer students a transformative and enriching educational experience with a few unique benefits that the Ivies lack. 

With higher admissions rates and policies rolling out the welcome mat for international students, UK schools are doing more than the Ivies to incentivize domestic and international students to apply. 

Slashed Tuition Costs and Higher Acceptance Rates at Oxbridge

In terms of educational accessibility, UK schools boast higher overall acceptance rates. For example, Harvard’s acceptance rate is 3.59%, while Oxford’s and Cambridge's acceptance rates are 17% and 18-21%, respectively.

Bar Chart of Class of 2028 Acceptance Rates (Ivy League vs. Cambridge and Oxford)
*Please note that Cornell, UPenn, and Princeton have not yet released their admissions statistics for the class of 2028; the numbers provided here reflect data from their class of 2027.

In terms of prestige, these esteemed schools share striking similarities: centuries-old legacies, with Oxford’s dating back to 1096, Cambridge’s to 1209, and Harvard’s to 1636, comparable resources, including a world-class faculty, extensive research opportunities, robust alumni networks, and impressive graduation outcomes. 

Nevertheless, Cambridge and Oxford distinguish themselves by tuition costs. Cambridge's median tuition is £33,672 (approximately $42,865 as of June 11th, 2024) annually, contrasting with Harvard's $56,550. If we exclude the cost of medical and veterinary programs, which is £67,194, this median tuition figure drops to £31,188 (approximately $39,700 as of June 11th, 2024). 

Additionally, UK bachelor's degrees typically span three years, saving students an entire year's tuition and, more importantly, an entire year of time. 

Over the course of a Harvard education, students can expect to spend over $226,000 in tuition, whereas, at Cambridge and Oxford, the median costs are approximately $119,100 and $156,000, respectively—resulting in between $70,000-107,000 in savings.

Bar Chart of Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford Tuition Costs (2024)
*Please note that Oxford’s and Cambridge's international tuition rates are calculated as the median of their cost range, which is between £33,050 and £48,620, and £25,734 and £39,162, respectively, and converted to USD. The figures mentioned do not include clinical medicine and other healthcare program fees, which will be significantly higher for overseas students. Additionally, all currency conversions were made as of June 11th, 2024, but may vary slightly due to currency fluctuations. 

American students seeking a more cost-effective alternative with the same high-quality education might find skipping across the pond worthwhile. The US federal government has no cap on tuition—students can expect these already exorbitant prices to climb annually due to inflation and other factors. 

In contrast, despite funding concerns, higher education minister Robert Halfon has stated England will not lift the tuition cap for domestic and international students “in a million years.”

Excellence Without Elitism? UK Universities’ Diversity Efforts

According to a 2023 report, students in the top 1% of income earners are twice as likely to secure Ivy League admission, perpetuating advantages for wealthy families. While UK universities have also made headlines for elitist admission policies, they demonstrate comparatively lower prevalence than their American counterparts. 

For instance, a New York Times study revealed that an average of 67% of Ivy students came from the top quintile in 2017, with Princeton topping the list with 72% of its students coming from the most affluent backgrounds. 

On the other hand, recent UK studies indicate a positive shift in admissions trends towards increased socioeconomic diversity, with top UK universities admitting fewer students from affluent backgrounds. For example, Cambridge's admission of students from the wealthiest quintile decreased from 41.2% to 36.7% in the 2019/2020 cycle. Similarly, Oxford admitted 37.4% of 2019-2020 matriculants from the wealthiest quintile, down from 2018’s 39.6%. Notably, Oxbridge’s higher 2018 figures still fall significantly below the Ivy League’s 2017 numbers, even considering the one-year gap. 

Bar Chart of Percent of Students Admitted From the Wealthiest Quintile From 2018/2019 - 2019/2020

The Office for Students implemented national targets to eliminate admission gaps in the UK's most selective universities by 2025. Of these targets, 201 focus on enhancing access and opportunities for students with lower household incomes or socioeconomic backgrounds.

Additionally, Cambridge and Oxford boast significantly diverse undergraduate student bodies, with over 40% at Cambridge and 23% at Oxford being international students. This diversity is notably higher compared to Harvard's 15.4%, despite its reputation as a pioneer in American diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. 

So, while Harvard is certainly making commendable strides towards greater inclusivity—evident through its framework of Four Goals and Four Tools to enhance inclusion excellence initiated in 2018—it still has progress to make in comparison to its British counterparts.

Overall, these statistics position Cambridge and Oxford as more welcoming to international students—a key factor for US students to consider. 

Final Thoughts

When it comes to pursuing elite education, the world is truly an oyster—students shouldn’t let the Ivy League’s status confine them. Beyond those Ivy-laden walls, where prestige can sometimes overshadow real opportunity, lies a world of untapped potential—higher acceptance rates, slashed tuition costs, and comparable resources.