LONDON -- The line started at Kensington Town Hall and continued up the stairs, across the plaza, onto the sidewalk and halfway around the block. The hall has been the scene of concerts, dances, debates and even white collar boxing matches, but the crowd this time was after something different: an American college education.
The U.S.-U.K. Fulbright Commission's American college fair was once a sleepy single-day event. No longer. This year more than 5,000 visitors registered for the fair on Sept. 27 and 28 -- 25 percent more than last year. "You'd think we were releasing a new iPhone," said Lauren Welch, head of advising for the commission, which was founded in 1948 to foster educational exchanges between the United States and Britain.
"Last night we had a session on the application process in the auditorium here and 1,500 people came."
For decades U.S. colleges simply were not on British students' radar. That began to change in 2000, with Oxford University's decision not to admit Laura Spence, a straight-A graduate from a state-funded high school in the north of England. While Britain debated elitism, class and regional prejudice, Ms. Spence took up a full scholarship to Harvard instead.
The controversy also prompted many wealthier parents in Britain to consider American universities as backstops to Oxford or Cambridge.
In fact both of Britain's ancient universities admit a higher proportion of their applicants than any of the Ivy League colleges in the United States. But the American system -- which offers a couple of dozen celebrated liberal arts colleges and powerhouse public universities like Michigan and Berkeley in addition to elite private universities like Stanford and the Ivy League -- has become an increasingly attractive proposition.
British universities were free until 1998 but the introduction of fees since then -- raised sharply last year to £9,000, or about $15,000, from £3,300 -- has put the question of value for money firmly on the agenda.
"The cost is still higher than Britain, but not by that much," said Tim Feron whose daughter Katrin, 15, was going from table to table scooping up college literature. "With costs going up you just start to really look everywhere for the best schools," he said.
"I'll probably end up applying in the U.S.," Katrin said.
Two older students at the fair, Kirsten Tingle and Tommy Inglis, were already applying. Ms. Tingle, a student at Douglas Academy in Glasgow, and Mr. Inglis, from Buckhaven High School in Fife, said they had assumed costs would be prohibitive at U.S. schools. But this summer they were part of a group that spent a week at Yale on a program run by the Sutton Trust, a British charity that urges students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to U.S. colleges.
In addition to help with test preparation and the application process, the charity advises students and their parents on the ins and outs of financial aid.
The British government gives all students a loan -- low-interest but still reimbursable -- to pay university fees in England or Wales. In contrast, students whose families qualify for financial aid in the United States can often graduate with little or no debt.
"They made it seem possible financially," Ms. Tingle said.
Temi Bakarey, from Beal High School in East London, said she was attracted to the "more all around" education available in America. Although she hopes to become a doctor, Ms. Bakarey, 16, said she couldn't really settle on one subject: "I'm still looking at my options."
There were 170 universities represented at the fair, and though the tables for household names like Harvard and Stanford remained busy all day Carrie Ryan, who took time off from her own studies at Oxford to man the table for Sewanee University, had time to chat. "There was one person in my class at Sewanee from Britain," she said. "But I've had 30 students come and fill out cards today."
Mitch Freinberg, who heads Columbia's London alumni, said his table had been mobbed both days. "But some of them obviously haven't done their homework," he said, citing one student who hoped to major in "cosmetology" and another who wanted to do equestrianism. "I told him Columbia probably wasn't the right place for that," Mr. Freinberg said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.