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Should You Earn Your College Degree Overseas?

A growing number of Americans are going overseas for their degrees. Should you?

Should You Earn Your College Degree Overseas?
[Photo: Flickr user August Brill]

A growing number of Americans are seeking to study abroad during their college years, according to data from the Institute of International Education. For the 2012/2013 school year (the most recent year for which numbers are available), 289,000 Americans spent part or all of their most recent year in college overseas. That’s a 400% increase from 20 years ago.

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There are myriad reasons for this increase, including the skyrocketing cost of a college degree in America. Depending on the country, Americans have a chance of earning their bachelor’s, master’s, or even a PhD for cents on the dollar. In the last year, more than 4,600 American students were enrolled in full degree programs in Germany alone, where college fees for Americans are less than $1,000 a year, compared to $23,410, the average tuition cost per year for a public university in the U.S.

But American students aren’t just taking flight to foreign shores to save money on education. In today’s ever-smaller globalized business world, earning your degree overseas can have huge benefits for your career throughout the course of your life. A QS Global Employer Survey Report found that out of 10,000 companies contacted, more than 80% said they actively sought out graduates who have studied abroad. That’s not to say there aren’t some drawbacks to moving abroad for an international education, however. Homesickness and missing out on life experiences with your family and close friends can be challenging for some. The need to learn and write in another language–depending on the country chosen–and unexpected culture shock can also take their toll. The question is, could a degree earned overseas be the right choice for you? We spoke to three current and former American students to find out the reasons they went abroad to earn a degree, and whether they would recommend you do it.

Matthew Krugman, 18, originally from Breckenridge, Colorado, is currently earning his bachelor’s degree in London.

In May, Krugman moved to London, where he began his Baking and Pastry degree program at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. Krugman is concurrently earning a business and wine management degree as well.

What was the primary reason you decided to earn your degree overseas?

The primary reason for wanting to attend Le Cordon Bleu was the caliber of education it offers. Generally, LCB London, Paris, and Sydney are considered the top universities in the world for culinary school, and the option to attend a university that cooks for the likes of queens and has taught chefs like Julia Child was an offer I could not pass up.

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Another smaller reason for wanting to go overseas is my education would take two years; this would include two culinary degrees and a wine and business degree. To receive this in the United States, I was looking at closer to six years in total, which wasn’t realistic, especially for a field where you have to hop in at a young age.

Have there been any unexpected benefits of earning your degree overseas?

I have found some, including slowly learning different languages. As my school is so diverse–the incoming class had around 90 nationalities–I’ve started to pick up little sayings in different languages as well as able to work on my French and Spanish. Another benefit is that until now, I didn’t realize how much more desirable a person who has studied overseas is for a position back in the States, as I’m already receiving many job offers.

Have there been any drawbacks?

Feeling homesick at times.

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Do you feel an international degree makes you more attractive to employers?

I think an international degree makes me more attractive to prospective employers. International schools are seen as a “higher standard” in my field since it’s where culinary generally came from. I think as well you learn so much more just from being in a different country, and that helps a lot in the job field.

Emilie Ronald, 21, originally from Buffalo, New York, earned a bachelor’s degree in Paris and a master’s degree in London.

In 2011, Ronald began the International and Comparative Politics bachelor’s program at the American University of Paris and earned her BA in three years. She followed that degree up with a master’s in international law from the University of London. She earned the master’s in only a year.

What was the primary reason you decided to earn your degree overseas?

I had the opportunity to come to France in the summer when I was 16 years old, and immediately felt right at home. I have always wanted to travel the world, and up until that point, I was planning to just study abroad. It was just this feeling inside of me that this was home and that I needed to do everything I could to come back and stay in France for as long as possible. So, I found the American University of Paris and applied, got in, and made my decision to start the process of moving overseas right when I turned 18.

Have there been any unexpected benefits of earning your degree overseas?

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Because AUP is obviously an American university, the fees were no different and the curriculum was the same as if I would have stayed in the U.S. But studying for my degree in such an international environment–in the French capital at a university where roughly 100 nationalities are represented in a graduating class–was the perfect fit for me. Class sizes were small and everyone was cultured and had unique perspectives on everything. I knew that studying at AUP and in France would change my life for the better probably more than if I had chosen a university in the States.

Have there been any drawbacks?

I’m currently planning to return to the U.S. in the next week. As much as I would have loved to have stayed in Paris or Europe in general, I’ve found that it is extremely difficult to find a job–let alone one where you need visa sponsorship–when you are just finishing school. I’m sure it can be done, but for the moment, the visa fight is one that I’d rather not deal with right now. I am, however, trying to remain optimistic about the opportunity to return to Europe in the future for work.

Do you feel an international degree makes you more attractive to employers?

I think that it does. My perspectives and points of view have been molded to be much more international and my experiences have really given me something extra than my peers in the U.S. I didn’t just study abroad–I lived abroad. I am now bilingual, and would love to learn more languages. I have cross-cultural cooperation experience from working on group projects with students from across the globe.

How many other job-seekers fresh out of university have traveled so much? Since I turned 18, I have lived in three different countries: France, U.K., and a semester in South Africa. I think this definitely gives me an edge and interesting stories and experiences to share–giving me a leg up on someone I would otherwise be on par with. Especially in today’s world, which is so incredibly globalized, working internationally is becoming so important.

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Steve Geinitz, 37, originally from Denver, Colorado, earned his PhD in Zurich.

In 2009, Geinitz moved to Switzerland to earn his PhD in applied statistics from the University of Zurich. After graduating, he took a job with eBay in Zurich. A few years later, he was recruited by Facebook and now works as a quantitative analyst/researcher for the social network in London.

What was the primary reason you decided to earn your degree overseas?

From a pragmatic point of view, it was for the quality of the degree program offered there. The University of Zurich, along with its closely affiliated neighbor, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), have one of the most reputable communities of statisticians in the world. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study there presented to me. Even before beginning the switch, I was already looking for ways to do at least some of my studies abroad. This was because I had previously worked abroad for some time and found it to be an amazing and enlightening experience that traveling alone cannot match. So when this opportunity came up, and I discovered it was in such a reputable environment, there wasn’t a lot of hesitation.

Have there been any unexpected benefits of earning your degree overseas?

What was a revelation for me was that attending graduate school doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. Although I had known ahead of time that the rate of pay for a graduate student teaching assistant is greater in Switzerland than in the U.S., I didn’t realize this would relate to how going to graduate school is regarded in the two countries. Graduate school in the U.S. is, for most, an extension of being an undergraduate student.

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That is, you are either eking by, or you are incurring significant debt, all the while not being seen as a fully functioning member of society. Even when you do finish, it’s often a toss-up as to whether or not you’ll eventually earn more with the degree than if you had joined the workforce earlier (MD/JD/MBA degrees excluded). This means that in the U.S., you really have to want to study. This was at least how I and most other graduate students I knew in the U.S. felt about it. In Switzerland and most other European countries, it simply isn’t this way. This was a huge, and unexpected, relief.

Have there been any drawbacks?

The only drawbacks to moving and studying abroad that I anticipated were being away from friends, family, and Mexican food. I knew that there would be cultural differences and a new language to try to learn, but fortunately these were all part of the motivation to go.

Do you feel an international degree makes you more attractive to employers?

Yes, I would like to think so. Given two equally skilled candidates, one exposed to primarily the same environment their entire life and one that has lived in an area with cultures/customs/languages different from their own, I think the employer would choose the latter. Getting away from what you have always known and interacting with people from other parts of the world forces you to look at the world from someone else’s point of view. Not only does this help to be able to communicate more effectively, it helps to learn how to empathize more readily. Also, having a richer set of experiences will allow you to think more openly and creatively.

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So, should you go overseas for college?

From the outside, Krugman, Ronald, and Geinitz couldn’t be more different. One is in their teens, one in their twenties, and one in their thirties. Their areas of study and professional careers range from culinary to business and law to statistics, and their degrees span from a bachelor’s to a master’s to a doctorate. Yet their answers are virtually the same when I ask them if, considering all the benefits of earning a degree overseas: lower cost, shorter degree timelines, the chance to learn new languages and earn global experience, increasing your attractiveness to employers–-would they recommend that everyone look internationally for their degree?

Their answer: It depends on your temperament and what you want out of your college experience.

“You would really need to think about what kind of experience you want from your time at university,” says Geinitz. “The experience of being at college in the U.S. is unlike that in any other country. There are sports teams with die-hard fans, fraternities and sororities, and plenty of extracurricular activities. People in the U.S. tend to form a strong identity with their alma mater that graduates in most other countries do not.”

That identity and Ivory Tower isolation is something notably absent from most European universities, says Geinitz. “I think that in most foreign universities, people are there first and foremost to study. For myself, I would choose to go abroad. Although I can certainly see why many people would want to have the type of experience that only a university in the U.S. could offer.”

And those aren’t the only differences between university life in the U.S. and internationally, says Ronald. “The American grading system seems to be more forgiving, there is more wiggle room to get good grades or to improve your overall grade. Whereas in the U.S., typically there are many factors that go into your final grade, I have now had exams that are 100% of my final grade. It’s terrifying that one mistake could mess up your entire degree.”

Because of this, Ronald says that there is a maturity level people should possess if they want to thrive in an international higher-education setting. Krugman agrees. “In essence, you are thousands of miles from home; you have to be able to support yourself and be OK living on your own. The people I’ve seen who come over here to study I feel should not be over here are the party-mindset type. Instead of worrying about uni, they are out partying and getting drunk because of the low drinking age, and full on ignoring their studies.”

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Yet if you have the desire to explore other cultures and the drive for serious study, Krugman believes there’s one simple reason you should go overseas for your degree: the cost. For Krugman’s two degrees he will be earning, he’ll spend $80,000 in fees. The average cost for one four-year undergraduate degree in the United States is $144,000, according to HSBC. Krugman is studying in the United Kingdom, which, though it has lower fees than the United States, has much higher education costs than many European countries that are luring American international students. But even so, because of the lower fees in the U.K., Krugman says he’ll graduate without student loan debt.

For PhD’s in the United States, the average cost ranges from $28,000 to $40,000 per year, according to TopUniversities. How much did Geinitz, who earned his PhD in Zurich, Switzerland, pay over three years? “The total cost for three years [was] 1,500 CHF [Swiss Francs], which is/was roughly equally to $1,500 USD,” he says, and notes he has no student debt.

“Having to be rich in order to attend the best schools isn’t right in my mind,” Krugman says of America’s education system. “I’ve seen so many of my friends who are bright and passionate have to pick a lower school in order to go–-or in some cases not go altogether.”

Indeed, a recent VitalSource/Wakefield survey found that 81% of currently enrolled college students surveyed agreed fewer students will attend college over the next 10 years due to the expense. Further, 57% of those surveyed had turned down a place at a university because they couldn’t afford it.

And the crushing effects of a higher education in the U.S. isn’t something only American students are noticing. “I’ve met so many international students who want to know why we pay so much for education in the U.S. when their countries are able to offer free or very low-cost, quality higher education,” says Ronald, who also spent $80,000 in total for both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The average master degree program alone in America costs $55,489, according to the New America Foundation.

“I think as a country, if we want to continue with economic growth and innovation, then we should bring tuition down. How many students with the potential to change the world are being kept from achieving amazing things because of money?”

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With the advantage of lower fees and acquiring a wealth of global experience, Ronald thinks most people should give serious consideration to earning their degree on foreign shores.

“I won’t lie,” adds Ronald. “It is incredibly difficult! But if you are someone who is adventurous, doesn’t give up, and wants a unique and life-changing experience, studying overseas for your full education might be for you.”

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