General Education

You Can Go to College for Free — If You’re Willing to Travel

You Can Go to College for Free — If You’re Willing to Travel
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Jessica Tomer September 18, 2015

Feeling the rise of U.S. college tuition, more students are looking abroad to find an affordable education. Learn more about this "free" college option.

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Maybe you’ve heard about those mythical foreign countries that offer free or seriously cheap college education, not just to their citizens but for all students.

You read that right: free college.

According to The College Board, the average price paid for tuition, fees, and room and board in the U.S. in 2014–2015 was $42,419 at private colleges and $18,943 at public institutions. With these prices, it’s no wonder that international options start looking attractive. And that’s before considering the other benefits of studying abroad, like gaining marketable career skills, once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunities, and finally having easy access to magical little Kinder Surprise Eggs.

But what does attending a university abroad really mean? Is “free" really free? How do you find the right school? Consider this your introduction to a wonderful — and wonderfully inexpensive — international adventure that may await you.

A Popular Choice

“I am very happy to say that I received my undergrad and graduate degrees from schools in Canada and spent significantly less money to do so," says Lori Weiss, a producer, writer, and actress in the Los Angeles area. She went to McGill University for undergrad and then HEC Montreal for grad school.

“I am also proud to say that I graduated without any debt for myself or my parents, and I fortunately never had to apply for any loans or scholarships. It was a school that was financially and academically within reach," Weiss added.

A family friend first suggested she look at the Canadian school for her bachelor’s degree. “Once I started researching McGill, I was hooked," Weiss says. “I loved the idea of studying in another country, especially in a city with another language and culture, while not really being very far from home." She says her tuition was about one-quarter of what she would’ve paid in the U.S. “And, of course, it didn't hurt that McGill was a top school in the world!"

For many students (and their families), it’s about getting more “bang for the buck." Schools like Weiss’s beloved McGill offer internationally renowned programs at a fraction of the price of a typical U.S. university. It’s no surprise that more American students are choosing this route as well, according to a 2013 report from the Institute of International Education. In the 2011–2012 academic year, more than 46,500 U.S. citizens were enrolled in degree programs (42 percent bachelor’s, 42 percent master’s, and 16 percent doctoral) at universities abroad, up 5 percent from the previous year.

Close to 70 percent of these U.S. students were attending degree programs in an English-speaking country, with the United Kingdom coming out on top. Other popular countries include Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, China, Netherlands, Ireland, Spain, Sweden, Japan, and Denmark.

Reasons to Go Abroad

Lower cost is just the beginning of why students are increasingly deciding to pursue degrees abroad.

International schools can offer opportunities uniquely tailored to your interests. How about studying economics in China or the United Arab Emirates? Or art history in Italy? Or automotive engineering in Japan? There may be an international university that offers exactly what you are looking for.

Then, there are all the benefits that come with immersing yourself in a new culture: learning about a different language, customs, habits, and more. First, you learn to be self-reliant to the extreme. When your high school friends balk over needing to do their own laundry, you can smile and nod and think about how you got your own apartment in Berlin all by yourself, no big deal.

Certainly, you’ll gain a global perspective, which is especially helpful if you’re interested in a career in government, business, or humanitarian aid. As businesses continue to expand and grow internationally, you’ll also be an attractive candidate to many far-reaching companies.

But even if you don’t see yourself jetting around the world, employers right here in the U.S. love seeing international study on resumes, because it demonstrates the qualities they want from new hires: problem-solving skills, independence, and confidence. And you’ll stand out! “The fact that I studied in Canada sets me apart from others," Weiss says. “It makes me memorable and demonstrates that I think outside the box." (And, don’t forget, grad schools like to see those qualities, too.)

You can also cram in even more travel during your time abroad, taking short trips to surrounding countries and experiencing more culture and history. Studying in London, for example, means France, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are within easy reach. And as a relatively unattached young person, with few responsibilities holding you back, you may not have the opportunity to travel like that again — possibly ever.

Finally, you can’t discount the adventure factor. “I learned so much just by living in a city and province that retained its cultural roots," Weiss says. “I gained perspective about the world and about the U.S. that I would not have acquired had I studied at an American institution."

International Opportunities and College Costs

So, you’re sold on studying abroad. What about those enviably low tuition rates? The following countries in particular offer free or incredibly low college tuitions, according to Consumer Reports:

  • Argentina
  • Austria
  • Brazil
  • Czech Republic
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Iceland
  • Luxembourg
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Norway
  • Panama
  • Spain
  • Turkey

Other Costs

International degrees tend to be cheaper due to the time involved, too, as most programs last less than three years. Of course, just like in the United States, college costs don’t stop at tuition, and your living expenses while abroad may surprise you.

In addition to the basic costs, you may be charged more as an international student, and you’ll likely encounter a slew of other processing fees (like you would in the U.S.), such as student life fees or lab fees. Plus, you have to consider travel costs there and back, not to mention coming home for holidays or special occasions. Any emergency travel savings you’d have needed as a domestic student are going to go way up, too. And because you can only pack so much, you’ll likely need to buy more day-to-day living items.

There are also outlying costs to consider, like transaction fees if your family needs to wire you money. The currency conversion rate, which can make your tuition fluctuate, may also present issues. Taking advantage of your location (as you should) by traveling to surrounding cities or countries, will cost you as well. Compounding the problem of these extra expenditures is the fact that you may not be able to get a paid part-time job as a student abroad, due to visa restrictions. Yikes!

Financial Aid

But even after all these things, earning your degree abroad may still end up being cheaper than your domestic options, especially since there are also scholarships and federal aid to be had! One big-time example: recipients of the Boren Scholarship get $20,000 for an academic year. These scholarship may be more difficult to come across than your local Rotary Club award, but all it takes is a dedicated scholarship search.

You also may be able to use your federal student aid toward your international tuition. “If the student is studying for just a semester or two, they can use their U.S. federal student aid for the study abroad program if the coursework is accepted for credit by the U.S. home institution," says financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher at

“If they are pursuing the entire education overseas, some colleges are eligible for U.S. federal student loans — but not grants. There are a few hundred of them with U.S. Federal School Codes who have institutional eligibility.“ 
You can check to see if the international university you’re considering is eligible for federal student aid using this search tool from the U.S. Department of Education.

For example, Canadian schools tend to accept greater amounts of American financial aid, and they also allow students to get paying jobs. You can also save on travel costs, and you may find the cultural fit is more familiar. Oh, Canada.

Making It Happen


If you want to pursue your degree in another country, starting your college search is still largely the same: think about why you want to go to college and what you want and need from your school. After you figure out your primary wants and needs, think about why you want to go abroad specifically.

Do you want to immerse yourself in a particular culture? Do you want to become a diplomat? Will it improve your future career prospects in ways that domestic study can’t? You should have meaningful reasons for completing your degree abroad — “because it’s cheap" won’t cut it.

Spending several years in another country is a big undertaking. You may find you’re unhappy with the cultural and academic differences. Or your future job search may be tougher if your international degree isn’t relevant to your career path in the U.S. (More on that in a second.) But if you've considered all those things and you still can’t imagine a better academic and cultural fit for you than Germany or Malaysia or Australia, you should continue investigating your international university options until you find the right fit.

Do as much research as you can online, and reach out to the school’s international counselors for help. They should also be able to connect you with current U.S. students studying at the school so you can get a first-hand account of what it’s like to attend. Finally, you may see some international universities at your next college fair. And they’re excited to meet — and recruit — you! Many countries, including Denmark, Spain, and Japan, have offices dedicated to helping American students pursue an education in their countries.

Here’s a sampling of the questions you’ll need to ask and answer in your research:

  • What is the teaching and evaluation style like?
  • What kinds of jobs do international graduates typically go on to have?
  • Where do students live and how much does housing cost?
  • What support services are available to international students?


The Common Application is increasingly used by international schools, too, which makes applying more familiar to American students. Unlike most schools in the U.S., however, international universities are primarily concerned with your GPA and test scores — there’s no admission committee on the hunt for well-rounded students like you’ll find stateside.

Often, professors review your application, because you’ll apply directly to an individual academic department. This also means you need to have a major picked out when you apply, so attending an international university isn’t the right choice for undecided majors.

As for the technicalities of studying abroad, you will need to confirm what’s required of you with your college, from application documents to vaccinations. You will likely need a student visa, and you’ll need a passport if you don’t have one already. (Your parents or guardians should also look into getting passports, in case they want or need to visit you.)

Downsides and Drawbacks

Naturally, there will be some less-than-optimal aspects of earning a degree abroad, even beyond logistical hurdles and acclimating to a new culture.

For starters, even though foreign universities have a lot in common when it comes to low costs, they vary wildly in, well, just about everything else. Language of instruction, admission requirements, cost of living: these are all over the map. (Pun super intended.) Going to college in Brazil for free would be fantastic — except it would actually be lindo maravilhoso, since the language of instruction is Portuguese. That free college tuition is worth diddlysquat if you can’t understand the professor.

The differences don’t stop at language, either. Each country has its own unique teaching style and set of academic standards. Grade inflation hasn’t been as prevalent abroad as it has been in the U.S., so you’ll likely earn a lower GPA than you may have expected. Many foreign schools also expect students to be self-sufficient, doing more reading and research on their own, with less accessible professors. You’ll probably encounter less structured campus life and fewer classes as well. So you’ll need to be okay with being independent — really independent. But that’s all right; you can use your free time to brush up on your conversational skills in your new language!

After graduation, despite the clout studying abroad gives you, you may run into a few snafus in your job search. If you want to stay in the country, you will have to meet residency and employment criteria. If you intend to return to the United States after you graduate (and you may have to, given the stipulations of your student visa), you may find your experiences don’t stack up evenly with job applicants educated in the U.S. That’s why it’s important to do some research into how your degree will translate to the American job market.

Finally, there’s good ol’ fashioned homesickness. Of course, many college students experience it, but being 4,000 miles and several time zones ahead adds a layer of difficulty. Luckily, between Skype, email, and messaging apps, there are plenty of ways to keep in touch. And, just like with domestic college students, these feelings often pass as students become accustomed to their new home over time.

If the cons outweigh the pros on earning a degree abroad, but you’re still intrigued by the idea, you can look for long-termstudy abroad programs, available for a summer, semester, or even full year.

With thoughtfulness and careful planning, attending college abroad can be a lindo maravilhoso way to earn a valuable degree and save money. That often makes the added complexities worth it. Besides, you may find you are better off after learning from those challenges. And a little richer, too.

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