For prospective graduate students, comparing master's degree programs in the United States versus the United Kingdom requires thoughtful consideration of factors such as time, cost, and effort. Regardless of which side of the Atlantic you are on, whether you should go to grad school after college depends on your goals.

For many, an advanced degree can lead to better career opportunities or a step toward obtaining a Ph.D. or other advanced degree. Here we compare master's degrees in the U.S. and the U.K., highlighting the key differences that could impact your decision.

Key Takeaways

  • Universities in the U.S. and U.K. consistently rank among the top ten in the world.
  • There are three types of master's degrees in the U.K.: taught master’s degrees, postgraduate diplomas, and research-based master’s degrees.
  • A British master's degree can take as little as nine to 12 months to finish, compared with two years in the U.S.

Master's Degrees in the U.K.

Attending the most prestigious universities can be important to some people. The U.K. is home to renowned institutions such as the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Times Higher Education ranks these two schools, along with the Imperial College London, among the top ten from the nearly 1,400 universities across 92 countries it surveyed. The rankings consider the school's teaching environment, resources devoted to research, and the international outlook of its staff and students.

One reason Americans choose to study in the U.K. is that the time to finish a degree is significantly shorter (and therefore less expensive) than American universities. In the U.K., there are three types of master’s degrees: taught master’s degrees (one year), postgraduate diplomas (two semesters, no thesis), and research-based master’s degrees (12-24 months, used as an entry to Ph.D. programs).

If your goal for obtaining a master’s degree is professional advancement, then it is often quicker to study for nine to 12 months (between two and three semesters) in the United Kingdom than it is to pursue a two-year master’s degree in the United States.

Costs vary considerably based on program type. The average cost of tuition for a non-British or EU passport holder working toward a British master’s degree is about £15,000 per year, or $18,500. A business degree is more than £20,000 per year, or $24,700.

However, these amounts do not factor in living costs. According to visa requirements, students must have access to £1,265 per month if they plan to study in London, or £11,385 over a period of nine months. If they plan to study outside of London, they must have access to at least £1,015 per month, or £9,135 over nine months.

Master's Degrees in the U.S.

In that same Times Higher Education survey, the remaining seven universities in the top 10 were in the U.S., and not just the east coast Ivy League schools you might expect. The California Institute of Technology and Stanford University placed higher in the rankings than Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Princeton University. In short, there are good schools on both sides of the Atlantic. Universities in the U.S. and U.K. account for 85 of the top 200 schools in the world.

For the 2018–19 academic year, annual current dollar prices for undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board were estimated to be $18,383 at public institutions, $47,419 at private nonprofit institutions, and $27,040 at private for-profit institutions. The cost to attend Harvard Business School is significantly higher: expect to pay more than $111,000 per year for combined tuition and living expenses.

Though tuition in the U.S. can be lower if attending a public school, and the cost of living lower if living in a small town, the time to finish a graduate degree is potentially longer. This means the overall cost of an American master’s program is equal to or slightly more expensive than in the U.K.

Following a four-year degree, American master’s degree programs typically require two years of study and thesis work. Some degrees can be completed in one year, depending on the course load. American master’s degrees can be professional or research-based. Research degrees are good starting points for Ph.D. degrees.

Special Considerations

International attendance to graduate programs in both countries has been reduced due to world events. In the United Kingdom, the residency barriers and increased tuition as a result of Brexit caused the number of EU students to drop by two-thirds.

Universities were also affected by the coronavirus pandemic. In the United States, enrollment of new graduate students fell by 39% in the fall of 2020, according to surveys of higher education institutions.