Four Tips for Getting a College Degree Abroad

A College Education Overseas

With the cost of a U.S. education booming, it might make sense for American students to do what Fortune 500 companies do when they encounter a cost they don't like: Outsource it.

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According to the Department of Education, the average undergraduate tuition at a four-year institution in the U.S. rose from $12,922 in the 2000-2001 school year (in today's dollars) to $21,189 for 2009-2010. Many top American universities are even more expensive, reaching upward of $50,000 a year in total costs.

"The cost of American higher education continues to grow at a very quick pace, and some of the options overseas can be less expensive," says Brian Whalen, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad. "So that, I think, was one of the reasons that more U.S. students are looking at options overseas."

But a lower price tag can be just one benefit of study abroad, says Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education.

"The real value for the American is being able to study in a global setting with students from all over the world and the professors from all over the world," she says.

Still, going to a foreign university isn't as easy as sending off a few college applications and buying a plane ticket. Here are some tips to make it happen.

Leap Language Barriers

Language barriers may seem like the biggest obstacle to study abroad, but actually many foreign universities are starting to use English as their language of instruction, Blumenthal says.

"It is not just that they are trying to market their programs to Americans. They are trying to market to students from all over the world," she says. "And the one common language that they can teach in that everybody is likely to want to learn or to want to study in is English."

That's particularly true of graduate degree programs such as Master of Business Administration and master's in engineering programs, Blumenthal says.

But Danny Byrne, editor of, which ranks universities internationally, says that some top European and Asian universities are now offering full undergraduate programs in English.

"These are very academically well-respected institutions, and they're offering a large number of programs in English now at the bachelor level," he says, citing the University of Groningen and Erasmus University in the Netherlands.

But just because classes are in English doesn't mean you can avoid having to learn the local language entirely, Blumenthal says.

"Even if they teach in English, a student is not going to be happy unless he can get around the marketplace and get around in social environments with some of the local language," she says.

Consider All the Costs

Depending on what school you choose, study abroad can help save on tuition. But, while tuition and fees may be the biggest component to the cost of a college education, it's far from the only one, says Whalen.

"What's important for students to look at would be the cost of living," Whalen says. "It's one thing to study at a university in London for maybe half the tuition price of a comparable U.S. institution. But London, of course, is a very expensive city in which to live."

Big swings in currency exchange rates can distort and increase those costs even further, Whalen says, as your dollars can buy much more or much less, depending on the value of the dollar.

In addition to the usual college student staples (Ramen, anyone?), international students will incur some additional expenses that domestic students don't have, he says.

"Coming back home at various times or having people visit can add up," he says. "So you have to pay attention, obviously, to the exchange rate, which is something that does not factor into the pricing of a U.S. university, and then the other cost of living factors."

Knowing these costs before you make the leap to an overseas education is the best way to make sure you don't regret your decision, he says.

Find a College Bargain

When you add up all the costs, every foreign university is going to present a different value proposition, just like an American school would, Byrne says. But it is possible to find some real bargains for students who do their research, he says.

For instance, many foreign universities' undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees are completed more quickly, lopping off a year's worth of tuition and expenses from the total cost of a college education, he says.

Many countries also provide generous support to their university systems. While tuition for international students will likely be higher than for domestic students, it still can provide significant savings over U.S. institutions, Byrne says.

That's particularly true in Europe, where a master's degree in finance will cost you more than $15,000 at Sweden's Lund University, and a master's degree in software engineering from Hof University in Germany could cost you as little as $3,200.

But such opportunities aren't limited to Europe. Byrne sees a similar situation in many Asian countries.

"Creating internationally competitive universities is something that is at the forefront of the agenda of most governments in Asia," Byrne says.

In particular, Japan has a plan to increase the number of international students studying in the country to 300,000 by 2020, in part by offering generous scholarships to those students, Byrne says.

Prevent Culture Shock at College

Leaving home and heading to college can be a big adjustment under any circumstances. But heading to a foreign country for school can add culture shock to the mix, making a student's first semester abroad difficult, Blumenthal says.

Whalen agrees and suggests that students should look for a solid orientation process when assessing prospective universities for study abroad, he says.

"Usually, the best practices are for students to have an extensive pre-departure orientation before they leave to go on a study abroad program, whether it be for a semester or a year or even a short-term experience," Whalen says. "And then they're also given an on-site orientation once they arrive and there's someone there to help guide them during the program itself."

That orientation is important because not understanding your host country can have dire consequences for students.

"You are subject to the laws of that particular host country and the laws, no doubt, will be different," Whalen says. "The things that you might take for granted in terms of how to travel or how to walk on a road or how to drive may be much different than another part of the world. So doing that advanced preparation is really a key in terms of health and safety."

Make Sure Your Degree Will Translate

It may seem silly in our increasingly global age, but university accreditation is still very much a national phenomenon, Whalen says. Fortunately, there are some ways to make sure your foreign degree gets recognition in the U.S.

"A number of institutions that offer options for U.S. students might indeed be accredited by one of the regional accreditation commissions in the U.S., so they have been looked at by these commissions and have been judged to meet the standards of quality of the U.S. higher education systems," he says.

Still, should students return to the U.S. hoping to continue their education at a domestic graduate school, accreditation may not be the only issue, Blumenthal says.

"Anybody who went to the Sorbonne or who went to St. Andrews or went to Oxford is not going to have any problems getting that credential recognized. But if they go to a smaller school or a school in a country that is not as familiar to the U.S. graduate school, it could be a problem," she says.

That goes for employers as well, she says.

"Even if it is a fully accredited institution, if the employer has never heard of it, if they do not know that the Technical University of Munich is as good as Georgia Tech, it could be a problem," she says.