Can College Abroad Actually Save You Money?

Eliza Haverstock
By Eliza Haverstock 
Updated
Edited by Karen Gaudette Brewer

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When Emma Freer was a high school senior in 2011, her impression of American campus culture — sororities, football games, broad course requirements — didn’t appeal. Her parents had saved enough money to cover her in-state tuition, but, she says, “I knew I didn't want to go to Ohio State.”

College abroad offered a solution. Freer graduated from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews in 2016, debt-free and with a master’s degree in English and social anthropology.

“I got a really excellent academic education as well as a second education in travel, living abroad and being an outsider in a new culture,” Freer says. “I never wished I had gone to school in the U.S.”

Lured largely by promises of cheaper tuition, college-bound Americans are increasingly eyeing programs abroad. 

Over the past five years, U.K. universities have seen the number of U.S. undergraduate applicants spike by 49%, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, which manages the U.K. public university admissions system. The number of Americans studying in France has risen 5% over the past five years and jumped 50% from 2020 to 2021, according to Campus France, a French government agency that promotes higher education to foreign students. Meanwhile, Google searches in the U.S. for “college abroad” have more than doubled since February 2021.

But college affordability depends on more than just tuition. Understand the key costs of an international education before you book a one-way plane ticket.

Tuition

“The tuition is what draws people in, what catches their attention,” says Jennifer Viemont, founder of Beyond the States, a company that helps American students find degree programs in Europe.

Tuition abroad can vary depending on which city, country and type of school you choose. Germany, for example, abandoned public university tuition fees for all students — international included — in 2014. On the other hand, at England’s prestigious Oxford University, international students pay up to about $53,900 each year.

American students can sometimes use federal aid for international schools, including loans. Additionally, undergraduate degrees from schools abroad typically take three years, rather than four, saving students a full year’s worth of tuition and expenses.

Cost of living

Cost of living varies in different cities and countries, affecting how much you pay for housing, food and other basic expenses beyond tuition.

For example, Norway has long offered free tuition to all students regardless of origin — but the average student there should budget about $1,260 per month for living expenses, according to the University of Bergen.

But in Portugal, basic expenses run half that. A student will need about $640 per month to get by, according to ISPA, Lisbon’s Institute of Applied Psychology.

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Exchange rates

Fluctuating exchange rates can make it difficult to predict the full cost of your education, says Jessica Sandberg, dean of international enrollment at Duke Kunshan University, a joint venture between Duke University in North Carolina and China’s Wuhan University.

When Freer studied at St. Andrews, the exchange rate was not in her favor. “I would work all summer to save up, and when I would deposit the money into my Scottish bank account, it would sometimes be nearly half of what I put in in dollars,” she says. Tuition fees could swing by a few hundred U.S. dollars, she says, depending on the day she paid her tuition.

Build some flexibility into your budget to account for exchange rate shifts, and consider studying in a country with a favorable exchange rate.

Other costs

Health care. Many countries require that students pay an annual fee to access their national health care system. While this may cost a few hundred dollars each year, coverage is generous. When Viemont’s son broke his wrist in the Netherlands, there was zero out-of-pocket expense.

Travel. Students who want to use free time to travel should budget for these expenses. Emergencies, like a family member getting sick, could lead to bigger travel bills. “It's more expensive when things go wrong,” advises David Hawkins, founder of U.K.-based college admissions consultancy The University Guys, so put money aside for a last-minute flight home. Credit cards suited for study abroad could help reduce some travel expenses.

Visas. Most countries or regions require student visas or residency permits. Though these typically aren’t huge expenses, some mandate “proof of financial means,” explains Sandra Furth, a certified educational planner and founder of World Student Support. In the U.K., for example, you must show enough savings to cover the first year of tuition, plus at least about $11,200 for living expenses.

“Overseas, the living costs are a little bit more a la carte, and that’s maybe a blessing and a curse for young folks who are going to have to budget and make choices,” Sandberg says. “It can come out to be less expensive, but that's going to come down to the individual's spending habits.”

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press. 

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