When I applied to university, I faced a dilemma. The schools I wanted to go to were unaffordable, and the schools I could afford to go to were boring, nearby state schools. I didn’t want to spend the next 4 years of my life 30 minutes from my home. I wanted to get out and see the world. Those goals seemed incompatible—but they weren’t.
After ruling out expensive private or out-of-state schools, I looked abroad. I ended up going to the University of Hong Kong, where I got a degree in International Business for about $21,000. That’s the cost of a single semester at a private school, or one year at an out-of-state school. There are plenty of other choices, all around the world. Some are even 100% free, and they’re covered in this post.
We like to think of college in more romantic terms. It is a “ticket to the future,” it’s “a journey, not a destination,” it’s a “place to find yourself.” College may be all of these things, but it’s also an expensive investment. In fact, about 70% of college students who graduate do so around $30,000 in debt. Although university is about finding yourself, when it’s over, it’s mostly about finding a way to pay off your debt.
Americans are increasingly getting surgery abroad, or even retiring abroad, as a way to save money and have a good life on the cheap. College offers just as many options to save money and enjoy life. Let’s look at the current landscape of university education around the world. We’ll learn how it is possible to go to a higher quality foreign school for less money, why quality foreign schools are easier to get in to, how you can take classes 100% in English, and how you can even get an entire university education for free—all while seeing the world. Let’s get started.
Foreign universities offer higher quality at a lower cost.
Most people are aware that foreign universities are out there; they just think there are too many trade offs.
Sure, it might be cheaper, but will the quality be good?
Of course I’d love to study in Europe, but there is no way I can afford that.
These two problems—quality and cost—are not problems at all. In fact, foreign schools often offer higher quality at lower cost. We’ll compare just a few of the many great foreign schools with great American schools, and show why the foreign school is often not only cheaper, but also more highly ranked. Here are some examples:
University of Toronto Vs. Carnegie Mellon
University of Toronto is ranked 19th in the world, and is located in one of Canada’s great cities. Tuition ranges from around $8,900 to around $32,000, depending on the program. Of course, classes are all in English. If you get tired of Canada, it’s just a short flight or drive back to the States. Toronto is an international, cosmopolitan city, home of the rapper Drake, and recently ranked best city on earth by The Economist.
It would be great if everyone could afford spending $200,000 on college–but not everyone has that kind of wealth.
Carnegie Mellon is also a fantastic school, ranked 22nd in the world and is located in Pittsburgh, which, despite its reputation as a dying steel town, was recently ranked by The Economist as the continental United State’s most livable city. Yet, while Carnegie Mellon is a desirable choice, studying there can cost significantly more than even the University of Toronto’s most expensive majors, with a cost of over $49,000 in tuition alone. Likewise, 18th ranked Cornell only barely ranks ahead of Toronto while costing a similarly princely $47,286 for tuition. Carnegie Mellon and Cornell are top schools, but they are much harder on the pocketbook than Toronto, which offers the same quality for less.
National University of Singapore vs. New York University
National University of Singapore (NUS) is ranked 26th in the world, is located in one of the safest and richest countries on earth, and, thanks to a Ministry of Education Grant system, has tuition rates for foreigners as low as $11,000. All classes are in English. Better yet, it is normal to graduate in 3 years, saving you an entire year of tuition—essentially a 25% discount compared to a 4-year school. If money is still a problem, there are other scholarships, loans, and financial assistance programs to make studying at NUS affordable. Some tuition grants mean you need to work in Singapore after graduation–but that is hardly a burden. Singapore is one of the world’s great cities.
Compare that to New York University (NYU), ranked 30th in the world, with tuition at around $44,000, easily reaching $47,000 with added fees. Both of these schools are located in great international cities and both of them offer a fantastic education. NUS just does it cheaper. Applicants with their heart set on a business career in the Big Apple should also consider NUS in Singapore.
The University of Hong Kong vs. Brown
The University of Hong Kong (HKU) is ranked 44th in the world, and is located in a safe, international, and fun city, occasionally ranked as the world’s best city to live in. Despite being part of China, it still features its colonial-era British legal system, and is consistently ranked one of the world’s freest economies. Nearly everyone speaks at least some English, making it very friendly for foreigners. Tuition is around $18,000 per year, and accommodation is only $1,150 to $2,070 more (that is not a typo—it’s that cheap!).
As we can see, the University of Hong Kong not only provides an education that is much cheaper than Brown, but also ranks higher. Especially for those interested in international business, politics, or asian culture, HKU represents a fantastic deal. We didn’t include dorms in these comparisons, but maybe we should have. HKU dorms cost less than $2,000 per year. At Brown, they cost over $12,000— six times more! Hong Kong is the world’s freest economy, is extremely safe, and is the perfect gateway to the world’s second largest economy: China. Even better, after you finish your 4 years in HKU, you can apply for permanent residency in Hong Kong after only 3 more years living in the territory.
An American applying to some school in Ohio is just another application. An American applying to a foreign university is an opportunity for them to expand their international appeal.
There is no doubt that Brown is a fantastic school. But without significant financial aid or large familial support, it is hard to justify going up to $200,000 in debt just to attend. It would be great if everyone could afford spending 200k on college–but not everyone has that kind of wealth.
The University of Toronto, NUS, HKU, and many other foreign schools outrank multiple Ivy League and private schools, and do so at a fraction of the price. These are the diamonds in the rough, the schools that nobody told you about that offer lower costs and similar or better quality.
Of course, rankings are not everything. They are very subjective, and don’t take into account all of the factors which make a school great. Furthermore, just because a school is expensive, doesn’t mean it is not worth attending. In fact, rankings are only a small part of what makes a school worth going to. However, these rankings are valuable in showing—in the most objective way possible—that foreign schools can be just as good or better, than domestic ones.
It isn’t easy to find admissions data for international students, and there’s a reason for it, a dirty little secret: It’s often easier for us to get in. Universities in countries like Japan, Singapore, China, and even European countries like Germany are desperate to increase their international student base. An American applying to some school in Ohio is just another application. An American applying to a Japanese university is an opportunity for them to expand their international appeal. Often, schools have internal targets for international expansion, but have relatively few international applicants. Thus, it is easier to get in.
I experienced this firsthand. At the University of Hong Kong, not only was I admitted to a very competitive school (in my year of entry it was ranked ahead of Stanford) but I also got into one of the most selective programs, the 30-student International Business (IBGM) major. I had decent grades in high school, but my classmates test scores blew me out of the water. These were some of the best students in all of Greater China. If I were from China, there is no way I would’ve gotten in. As an American, I was able to make the cut. This is true at schools around the world. Another university I applied to in Asia actually took the effort to call me and attempt to convince me to attend their school.
Many Universities also offer scholarships for international students, and, since the international student population is often small, your odds of receiving such support can be high. I also benefited from such a program. Opportunities like this are abundant. When you look at international school rankings, don’t be afraid of applying to foreign universities that rank above your domestic reach schools. You still have a good shot.
No language skills, no problem
Another common misconception about studying at a foreign university is about language.
Sure, I would love to study in another country, but I only speak English.
It would be fun to go to university in Germany, but there is no way I could take Physics in German.
In fact, you don’t need to be a linguist to study in a foreign country. We all know that Australia, New Zealand, Canada and (of course) Great Britain speak English. But it is also widely spoken in Hong Kong and Singapore, which both have top schools that teach only in English. But your options don’t stop there. Waseda University, located in Tokyo—one of the safest, cleanest, and all around best cities in the world—has undergraduate and graduate degree programs in English. You can get degrees in Engineering, Liberal Studies, Political Science and Economics , and other subjects, all for around $13,000 per year in tuition. There is a long list of scholarships which can go a long way towards making this school free. Along the way, you’ll have an excellent opportunity to be immersed in Japanese. Experience here puts any graduate well placed to work for famous international companies like Honda, Nintendo, Sony, Toyota, and more. Plus there’s just so much cool stuff in Tokyo.
In Britain and Australia, students traditionally graduate in 3 years, not 4. This gives you an opportunity to both save money and have an extra year to work, travel, write a novel, or code an app.
If you want to study in the medical or life science field, Karolinska Institutet may be for you. Located in Sweden, it is one of the world’s best medical schools, and classes are completely in English. Even though it is exclusively teaches medicine, it is still ranked as the 44th best university in the world. Tuition starts at a little over $21,000 for Americans, but Europeans get in free. However, even paying the full $21,000 tuition could result in massive savings over similar $50,000 schools in America.
There are many, many other choices. Since English is the language of commerce and international culture, many schools all around the world offer degrees in a language you can understand.
Getting an education for free
Studying at a foreign University is like a permanent study abroad. In America, traveling further than Mexico or Canada can be prohibitively expensive. In most other continents, you have a wealth of options for cheap travel. If you study in Hong Kong, Mainland China is accessible by subway, and Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, and other countries are a two hour, $150 round-trip flight away. When you study in Germany, Paris, Milan, Prague or Copenhagen are all short train rides away.
But isn’t Europe too expensive? Sure, the old world can be expensive—but it doesn’t have to be.
Rhine Waal University has tuition of $0 and classes are in English. A mere 15-minute drive from the Netherlands, this University is located in the heart of Europe, and offers many opportunities for travel. Clearly, this is a fantastic deal. Along the way, you’ll be able to learn German, travel around Europe, meet a diverse number of students from around the world, all while paying absolutely no tuition at all. That even beats an in-state school or community college back home.
If you take the plunge and decide to study in a foreign country, I think you’ll look back on that experience with good memories, and, probably, much less debt.
Likewise, you could get a Bachelors in International Business from the Aalto University of Business in Mikkeli, Finland. Tuition is completely free, although, like anywhere else, you will have to pay for books and other living expenses. Classes are completely in English. Even better, after students finish this course they can automatically matriculate to do a Masters at Aalto University’s Helsinki campus.
Options like this aren’t just good for the student that wants to see the world—they’re good for anybody on a budget.
Other benefits of going to a foreign university
It’s not just about the cost. In fact, studying full-time at a foreign university will not only expand your horizons, it will make language learning as easy as possible. In a total immersion environment, you’ll be ahead of your peers trying to master a foreign language back in the States.
Learn difficult languages easily
The days are gone where knowing just a little high school French counted as speaking a foreign language. In today’s world, complicated languages like Chinese, Arabic, or Korean are increasingly in demand. These languages, like any other, can be learned in a classroom in America or with language software– but it sure isn’t easy. Only spending time in a country where a language is widely spoken can give you the experience and practice to really excel. If you’re learning Arabic in a classroom, it is hard work. If you’re negotiating with a local at a market in Egypt, it’s an adventure. In your home country, you go home, turn on the TV, and you’re immersed in a sea of English. In a foreign country, you’re not only learning in the classroom, you’re constantly tested and learning things by immersion. Even if you study in English, being in a new country gives you a great chance to learn languages on the side.
When I was studying Chinese in China I found that a mix of interaction with locals and flashcards at home was the best way to make real progress.
Understand another culture
Beyond the relative ease of learning a language in a foreign country, living with locals can give you something that a classroom never will—real cultural experience. It is one thing to learn how to order food in Japanese, it is quite another to really experience it yourself. The reactions, the social dynamics, and the unwritten rules of language can only be learned with native speakers in their natural context. There is also another dirty little secret: Language classes often don’t teach the way real people actually speak. Students are often taught the most polite way to say things, not the way individuals often speak in real life. If you want to learn French slang, you’ll learn it on the streets of Paris—not the classroom.
Learn a language 10 times cheaper
Let’s say you want to learn Chinese. Middlebury, a small private University in Vermont, is famous for its language programs. I remember visiting the campus in awe at the number of languages I heard spoken—by Americans, not foreigners. They really do have a truly impressive language program. Yet, despite the high quality education on offer, the 2014 tuition was over $45,000. Room and board is another $13,000. Other famous Chinese programs, like Harvard or Yale, will easily cost as much or more.There is a cheaper way to learn a language. In fact, tuition to learn Chinese at Tsinghua University in China is only $4100 per year. Housing is similarly cheap, with 365 days of rent only costing between $2,300 for a shared room and $4,700 for a single. Tsinghua is no also-ran school, it is widely considered the best or second best school in China, and is ranked by THES ahead of famous schools like Brown, Vanderbilt, Tufts, and Purdue. Most importantly, you’ll be living in Beijing, where you will have true total immersion in Chinese culture and language.
You could pay around $60,000 to learn Chinese in America, or, you could spend around $6,000 to study Chinese at the best university in China. The choice is clear.
Graduate in three years
Beyond quality, cost, and language learning opportunities, there are other great reasons to look abroad. In countries like Britain, students traditionally graduate in 3 years, not 4. This gives you an opportunity to both save money and have an extra year to work, travel, write a novel, or code an app. This also takes place in several other countries in Europe, and former British colonies like Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. Even if you end up paying the same price as you would’ve in the States, you are still effectively getting a 25% discount.
Seize this opportunity and do something amazing
College is an adventure. If you can afford it, going to a private school or an Ivy League college is a great choice. If you have any money left over, going on an expensive study abroad or vacation is a great way to see the world. However for those of us who want to go to a quality school, see the world, and also balance a limited budget, a foreign school is often the ticket to success.
Going abroad for university seems scary—but it doesn’t have to be. You’ll find other international students ready and willing to help you out. Locals will be curious about your culture, and you’ll have a great chance to learn about theirs. And if you don’t like it, transferring back home is always an option. But if you take the plunge and decide to study in a foreign country, I think you’ll look back on that experience with good memories, and, probably, much less debt. For me, it was a life changing experience. I met so many great people and some of my closest friends are from my time in Hong Kong. I developed so much as a person and my view of the world really expanded. Feel free to start a conversation in the comments, I’ll be glad to help you learn more about the exciting opportunities out there.
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