Is It Cheaper for Americans to Go to College Overseas?

View as:


The rising cost of college education is a source of rising concern in the United States. The College Board reports that annual tuition, fees, and room and board at a public four-year school averages $19,548 for in-state residents and $34,031 for out-of-staters; that number climbs to $43,921 for private four-year colleges. With costs rising about 3.5 percent a year, the total tab -- and subsequent debt -- for obtaining a college degree is staggering. Elsewhere in the world, though, tuition at public colleges is far lower and in some places shrinks to zero. Studying abroad for a college degree would seem to be a good idea.

But wait. There are hidden costs for Americans eager to cash in on a cheap education overseas. Four years of college means four years of winter and summer breaks, and airfare to and from home adds up quickly. In most countries foreign students must obtain a special visa (equivalent to nearly $475 for study in the United Kingdom, for example) and prove they have the financial resources to pay for school and living expenses. Scholarships rarely are available to students from outside the home country, and American financial aid, including Pell Grants, often doesn't apply. (There are exceptions, and federal aid may be available for study at some international schools.) The amount of time foreign students can work usually is limited. And language requirements generally are rigorous.

Still, attending college in the following 10 places is popular with American students. Some are cheaper than studying in the U.S., and some are not. Of course, choosing a school shouldn't hinge entirely on cost. Course offerings and experiences accrued from living and studying abroad are at least as important, as is confidence that the degree will be well received by future employers.

Where to buy cheap college textbooks online.

How to get a college degree for less.

7 steps to landing a college scholarship.


American students are drawn to the U.K. by the cultural and linguistic similarities, although tuition of about $18,000 a year is only slightly lower than in the U.S. Living expenses are high in London but lower in other parts of the U.K. Prospective students must prove they have access to about $1,500 a month to qualify for a student visa for study in London and about $1,200 to study elsewhere. One financial incentive to earning an undergraduate degree in the U.K.: It takes three years instead of four.


Annual tuition in this popular study destination is generally less than $1,125, and cost of living is relatively low. The application process, however, is quite rigorous, and requires, in part, translated birth certificates for students and parents. Specialized schools, such as technology institutes or grandes écoles, have a separate application process that includes a personal interview. Some universities require more than a high school diploma (i.e., one to three years of college study) for admission. All applicants must pass a French proficiency exam unless they graduated from a bilingual English-French secondary school. Foreign students must have access to a minimum $485 a month for living expenses. A few scholarships are available to non-French students.


Tuition is free at all public colleges and universities in Germany, although students still pay admission fees, health insurance costs, and general living expenses. Students who want to enter a German university straight from high school (no GEDs accepted) must go through a process (known as HZB, or Hochschulzugangsberechtigung) to determine whether they're sufficiently prepared. Certain subjects and test scores are required for admittance, as is proficiency in German, even though some classes are taught in English. Applicants may be accepted to enter the general student population, be assigned to a preparatory year, or restricted to certain subjects. Proof of financial resources -- the equivalent of about $8,900 -- is required for the first year of study. Foreign students can work and scholarships are available.


Tuition at Scandinavian universities is free for nationals and students from other European Union countries, but Americans intending to study in Denmark or Sweden pay about $10,000 to $20,000 a year for the privilege. Finnish and Norwegian schools extend free tuition to students from farther afield. Although foreign students escape tuition fees altogether in Norway, the cost of living is fairly high; would-be students must prove they have access to about $1,000 a month to live on. After a year, admitted foreign students are entitled to free health insurance. Requirements for students from abroad are enumerated on an official list. For Americans, that means a high school diploma plus one year of college classes or a score of at least 3 on three Advanced Placement tests. Proficiency in Norwegian is required.


While many Chinese students are itching to attend American colleges, the low cost of higher education in China pulls some Americans in the other direction. Tuition at Peking University, for example, costs about $3,500 a year, with living expenses, visa, and application fees adding another $7,000 or so. (The cost of living in smaller cities is far cheaper.) Although undergraduates can take courses taught entirely in English (referred to as an English-medium degree program) and pay about 50 percent more for the privilege, working knowledge of Mandarin is advisable for anyone planning to spend four years in China. Many universities are open to any secondary-school graduate who successfully completes the application process. Foreign students must prove they can pay school fees, and scholarships are available.


English as an official language and proximity to home make Canada a popular choice for American students looking for a cheaper college education. Most Canadian universities accept the (American) Common Application. Tuition varies widely across the country but averages about $10,700, according to the federal government agency Statistics Canada. Some schools are considerably more expensive -- McGill, for example, charges up to CAD$17,000 a year, and elsewhere tuition can reach CAD$35,000. In some provinces students younger than 18 or 19 must live with a host family, which runs about $500 a month; living expenses for students on their own total $3,000 to $5,000 a year.

American students must obtain a student visa/study permit (about $110) and pay application fees, which vary by school. Health insurance is mandatory. Some provinces cover international students under the local health plan but others require private insurance. Students can qualify for the same loans in Canada as they would in the U.S. (except for Pell Grants) by filling out the FAFSA application. Students may work up to 20 hours a week during the semester and full-time during summers.


The six public universities in Costa Rica eagerly welcome international students with an easy route to admission. The schools are heavily subsidized and costs are low. Universidad de Costa Rica charges by the credit hour; a full-time course load of 17 credits at about $80 a credit hour comes to less than $1,400 for a semester. Living expenses typically range between $500 and $1,500 a month. For foreign students, the Universidad de Costa Rica suggests a homestay with a local family, which receives compensation from the school for hosting. Most courses are taught in Spanish, and preparatory language classes are available. A visa is required.


College costs are higher in Japan than elsewhere in Asia but are cheap compared with the U.S. Annual tuition ranges between $5,000 and $15,000, depending on the degree, at private universities. Students also pay admission fees of about $2,500 plus $250 in examination fees, and the cost of living averages about $800 a month. Japanese universities admit students based on their grades and passage of an entrance exam and a language proficiency test; an interview often is required. Students must obtain health insurance, which costs about $180 a year. Scholarships are available, including some offered by Japanese-American organizations. Foreign students are allowed to work part-time, and many do.


For American college students seeking an overseas education, this small island nation located south of Sicily in the middle of the Mediterranean enjoys a distinct advantage: English is the official language of instruction. Tuition for students from outside the European Union varies by school and discipline, with science being more expensive than liberal arts or business. The University of Malta charges per credit; a course load of 18 credits costs $2,900 to $3,600, depending on the course of study. Living expenses amount to about $1,300 a month.

Admission criteria include International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses. American students need a visa and a bank statement proving they can cover a year of tuition and living expenses, totaling about $20,000. Students must apply for a residence document and obtain an identity card and health insurance. Financial assistance is not available to American students.


This country hosts waves of international students even though the cost of attending university in Australia is higher than anywhere else -- including the U.S. According to the financial services company HSBC, students pay about $42,000 a year when studying in Australia compared with an average $36,000 in the U.S. Several merit-based scholarships are available to American students, who may also qualify for Stafford Loans and PLUS loans from the U.S. government. Applicants must meet academic requirements set by each university, obtain a student visa, prove sufficiency of funds, and obtain overseas health insurance.