<i></i>

Top 10 universities/colleges where Australian students are studying at undergraduate level.

The number of Australians heading to the world's most prestigious universities such as Harvard and Oxford for their undergraduate degree is swelling, as students are lured by reputation and rich scholarly traditions.

But a leading education expert says the immense costs, up to $90,000 a year, will remain a barrier for all but a privileged minority or those with scholarships.

While 55,000 students received offers this week to study at NSW universities, many others were preparing for a year abroad.

Kim Zhang, who graduated from Pymble Ladies' College last year, will soon join an impressive list of Australians to have studied at Oxford University, including Tony Abbott and three other Prime Ministers.

The 18-year-old, who received an ATAR of 99.95, will travel to the oldest university in the English-speaking world to study the classics.

''It's one of the best places in the world for classical literature and philosophy and history,'' she said.

Australia is Oxford's fifth-largest source of international talent, with more than 300 Australians currently enrolled, of which less than a quarter are undergraduates.

In the US, two-thirds of the Australians studying at university are undergraduates or on exchange programs, figures from the Institute of International Education show.

Between 2012 and last year, more than 4000 Australian students were studying at American universities.

And, while there are more than 3000 institutions, Australians are well represented at the eight elite Ivy League universities in the US, with Harvard University the equal second most popular place for undergraduates to study and Princeton University equal sixth.

The most recent enrolment data from Columbia University in New York shows there were 116 Australian students in 2012, almost double the number in 2006.

Last year, the University of California, Berkeley had 65 Australians enrolled, Princeton had 30 undergraduates and 21 graduates and Yale had 42 students, including 15 undergraduates.

US consulate general public affairs officer David McGuire said the Ivy League universities were ''highly selective''.

Acceptance rates are as low as 5.69 per cent at Stanford University and 5.79 per cent at Harvard. In Britain, only 12 undergraduate Australians were accepted to study at Cambridge University in 2012 out of almost 100 applicants.

As well as competitiveness, Grattan Institute higher education program director Andrew Norton said cost would be a barrier for most students without scholarships.

''You'd expect some growth but I think the cost and social implications of studying overseas are still going to keep most people here,'' he said.

It is estimated Harvard costs an international student $73,000 a year. Cambridge ranges from $55,000 to more than $90,000.

By comparison, studying law at the University of Sydney while living at one of the prestigious on-campus colleges would cost about $30,000 without a government loan.

Jane McNeill, director of Hays recruitment in NSW, said a degree from a top university did not carry the advantage it once did.

''Today many employers value candidates with experience as well as a degree,'' she said. ''The biggest advantage of a degree from a prestigious university is probably the alumni network and the connection you make with fellow students.''