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How Your Kid Can Go To College For (Next To) Nothing

It's a little secret that's just too juicy to keep to myself.

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photo of a library in Trinity College in Dublin Ireland
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I have a little secret that I’d like to share with other parents of teenagers (I have two teens and one 22-year-old) because it’s just too juicy to keep to myself: American families can save big bucks by sending their high school graduates to university overseas. And no, I’m not talking about a “semester abroad” program. I’m talking about sending your teen to Europe (or elsewhere) to earn his or her bachelor’s degree. It’s what I did, and you can too.

In 2016 at least 48,000 U.S. students were pursuing full degrees abroad. Top destinations for these degree-seeking students include the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Germany. That’s up from an estimated 42,000 students in 2011. The top three destinations in rank order are UK, Canada and France, which together host over 31,000 students. After that are China and Germany with over 3,000 students, and then Australia and New Zealand, each hosting over 2,000 students.

This is according to the latest data from the Institute of International Education (IIE), which offers a treasure trove of information on how to pursue a degree abroad.

There are many advantages to this, but perhaps the most compelling is the money you can save. Many programs in Europe offer bachelor’s degrees after only three years and for cents on the dollar. In my case, my oldest son decided — after two semesters at a $60,000-a-year university in Boston — that he didn’t want to go back, mostly because he felt class sizes and the school itself were too big. My husband and I were gobsmacked — especially since we spent a year with him looking for the “perfect” college. But there was a silver lining. After doing some digging, we came across a small English-language university in Holland that charges students — American students included — less than a tenth of the yearly tuition fees we were paying to the Boston-based school. Instruction is top-notch, the surroundings are lovely and class sizes are generally smaller than 25 students. Yes, there is the cost of flying him home for holidays, but the overall price still pales in comparison to what we were shelling out before.

And so off he went and just a few weeks ago, in December 2017, he graduated with a degree in physics. He is now looking at master's degree programs abroad.

In its most recent survey of college pricing, the College Board reports that a moderate college budget for an in-state public college in America for the 2017–2018 academic year averaged $25,290. A moderate budget at a private college averaged $50,900. The price paid to attend an Ivy League university can easily top $60,000 a year.

But in Europe, many countries are helping students — including foreign students — cover the price tag. In Germany, for example, education is thought to be a right and not a privilege. Therefore, the government has been fully funding university costs since October 2014. More than 900 undergraduate and graduate degrees are offered in English at dozens of German universities that consistently place near the top of international rankings.

Many other countries also offer classes in English at incredibly low costs. Finland currently charges annual tuition fees that start at around $4,800 a year. International students in Norway typically pay no tuition fees at many institutions that include the University of Oslo, although the country’s cost of living is one of the highest in the world. In many cases Austria, too, offers tuition prices at only about $350 to $750 per semester. In France, foreign undergraduate students pay only a small fee of $208 per year for tuition at public universities. Public colleges in Iceland are free for American students.

The cost benefits are not as appealing at UK-based universities. At Oxford, for example, foreign students pay roughly $22,000 a year to study politics or history and $33,000 to study engineering or computer science. The University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, charges about $23,000 for most degrees for foreign students.

The good news is that it's possible to receive financial aid, whether need- and merit-based, from universities outside the United States, as well as federal aid from home. Indeed there are close to 1,000 foreign colleges and universities where Americans can use government financial aid, according to the Department of Education website.

But as with everything, there are pros and cons to getting a degree abroad.

"Getting a degree abroad can develop valuable skills because it pushes students to get out of their comfort zone to experience another culture, language, environment and education system," said Lindsay Calvert, who leads IIE’s Generation Study Abroad initiative. "Studying in another country is an important way for American students to get the international experience, language capabilities and cross-cultural communication skills necessary to succeed in careers in an increasingly global economy."

According to an IIE survey released in October 2017, among alumni who studied abroad for at least one academic year, 68 percent reported studying abroad contributing to a job offer or promotion, compared to just 43 percent of alumni who studied abroad for fewer than eight weeks.

When it comes to cons, not every teenager wants to be thousands of miles away from home. And there are cultural differences for American students overseas related to alcohol. In Europe, the drinking age in many countries is 18. Also in Europe, there generally is a greater onus on students to keep track of their schedules and deadlines. In addition, overseas universities don't look as closely at extracurricular activities when considering applicants as American universities do. They're more likely to place an emphasis on SAT/ACT scores as well as SAT subject tests and reference letters.

To find out more about programs in Germany, check in with the German Academic Exchange Service.

For general information about degree programs outside the United States, contact the Institute of International Education.