Updated: Jul 19
As a career international high school teacher, I've seen dozens of students graduate to colleges and universities around the world. I'm consistently surprised, however, that many of them continue to choose America when applying to study abroad. In this blog post, I'll suggest several alternative countries that are cheaper, more accommodating, or provide a more unique cultural experience.
With some of the world's highest tuition fees, outrageous housing costs, and rising inflation, only the wealthiest international students can afford to enroll in American schools. Once you add safety, health care, and immigration concerns, the United States starts to look downright unpleasant. Despite this, many students still dream of graduating from one of America's illustrious colleges like MIT or Harvard and clamour to gain acceptance. According to Project Atlas, almost one million international students are enrolled in US colleges each year. It remains the single most popular study destination in the world by a wide margin, but I regularly encourage students to look past the rankings and reputations to really think about each school's location and the education they will receive there.
The following list is in no particular order and is by no means exhaustive. It's just meant to give students interested in overseas learning something to think about when considering which colleges they will apply to and where.
If cost is a concern, consider studying in Germany, where tuition is literally free. It makes no difference if you're a domestic or international student as well, which isn't true in many other countries. Not all undergraduate programs are offered in English, but the major ones like engineering, business, and science often are, and Germans generally understand English anyway.
Even if tuition is free, the cost of living isn't. Overall, Berlin is about as expensive as Vancouver or Tokyo - not cheap cities by any means - but you can put the money you saved by not paying college fees towards rent and food.
A great option for many students who can't afford the US is Canada (my home country!). We have only a fraction of the schools available down south, but you'll get a similar experience without picking up as much debt. It's still not cheap, and International students pay considerably more than locals, but you can take advantage of government student loan plans which don't need to be repaid until you start making a decent living.
Since the majority of universities in Canada are publicly funded, you'll get a consistent quality of education everywhere, so you really just need to decide which city or province you'd like to live in (they're all cold - sorry). You'll also want to consider your program of study since some schools have a reputation for being specialized in one area or another. Waterloo, for example, is a great place for computer science and math, while UBC has excellent environmental programs.
Since nearly all Canadian cities are within a few hours of the American border, you can always drop in to say hi before returning to the land of maple syrup and free healthcare (which international students also qualify for). Should you decide to stay in Canada after graduation, you can get a work permit and eventually apply for citizenship. We like immigrants and would be happy to have you.
Similar to Canada in many ways (minus the snow), Australia is a great choice for international students. While the tuition and cost of living are high, international students are eligible to work during and after their studies which can help offset some of these costs. Also, if you're going to spend a fortune to live and study away from home anyway, why not take in a new culture and enjoy the sunshine down under at the same time?
You might think that Australia isn't very diverse, but like Canada, it's a country of immigrants. Many of them are from the UK, but there are also significant populations from China, Germany, and India, among others. Of course, it helps that Australians speak English, which will make your school and home life a lot easier if that's your first language as well.
Another budget location for international students is France. Annual tuition averages around 3000 USD and rent can be very reasonable as well, particularly if you're willing to avoid Paris. Some of the schools with the highest student satisfaction are the Université Aix-Marseille and the Université François-Rabelais, neither of which are in the capital.
You'll want to learn at least a little French while studying, but if you already know English, Spanish, or another Latin-based language, you should be able to pick it up fairly quickly. Also, as one of the top tourist destinations worldwide, they're used to foreigners. In addition, France shares its border with no less than eight other countries, so the opportunity for travel during your breaks is a major bonus.
Would you prefer to learn Spanish rather than French? Well, Spain is a great choice for international students too! Even big cities like Barcelona are budget destinations compared to many cities in North America and the UK, on par with Taipei, Taiwan and Suzhou, China in terms of costs.
How much is tuition, then? If you're coming from within the EU, probably under 3000 Euros. If not, it will often be higher, but nowhere near what you might pay in America or the UK. It also helps that an undergraduate degree can be obtained in just 3 years, and many programs are offered in English.
All of these factors have kept Spain in the top 10 destinations for studying abroad, but with only 91,000 international students as of last year, there's room for more!
If you're looking for a completely different university experience, consider Japan. Although I didn't go to school here, I've taught here for over 10 years and consider it my second home. The biggest issue for those interested in studying or living in Japan is the language, which is very difficult for English speakers to learn. On top of that, few locals can communicate with you so you may find it difficult to accomplish anything more than simple day-to-day tasks. More and more English language degrees are offered here every year, however.
There are many universities to choose from in Japan, but the big three are in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka as you might expect. Lucky for you, those are all great places to live and learn, and there are plenty of foreigner-friendly services to help you as you adjust to living overseas. International students usually pay the same fees as domestic students, which are 1/4-1/2 of American tuition, on average, and there are excellent scholarship programs available to you as well.
As with other destinations on this list, you can work part-time as a student while going to school in Japan, but keep in mind that because of the language issues there aren't a lot of job opportunities available to you (aside from teaching English - plenty of that!).
About as popular as Spain but no less interesting, the Netherlands is another top location for overseas study. With low tuition fees and excellent student loan programs, you should be able to survive there even with the reasonably high cost of living. You are free to work as well, and since 95% of the Dutch population speaks English, you shouldn't have much trouble communicating wherever you go.
The Dutch education system is also well-regarded internationally and your university classes will reflect that. Small class sizes are common and you will benefit from having more contact with your professor instead of just being a number lost in a class of hundreds. There is also an emphasis on practical skills and work experience, something sorely needed in higher education.
With the two highest-ranked universities in all of Africa, you can't go wrong with sunny South Africa. In a culturally diverse nation with incredible wildlife, 11 official languages, and a rocky past, you will likely learn as much outside of school as inside. Also, with the weakness of the Rand compared to many other global currencies, your money will go further here, and it's relatively inexpensive to begin with.
As for disadvantages, it's far from home for most people, and not particularly well-connected to other destinations you might be familiar with. The crime rate is also higher than some people are comfortable with. Still, if you are the adventurous type, this might be just the experience you are looking for.
Public education is free to Brazilians, but some schools also offer free tuition to international students too! Even private school fees are significantly less than you'd pay in other countries like Australia or the United States, so you'll be able to learn without fear of crushing student debt. You won't be paying much for rent and food outside of school, either, as the cost of living is generally low.
As an emerging market, Brazil is eager to globalize, and that means attracting young people from overseas to study and eventually join the workforce. As a result, entrance rates are high and companies regularly recruit international students. All students receive a 1-year visa that can be renewed annually.
Schools in large cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro offer English language programs, but many will only have classes in Portuguese. Don't let that stop you, however, especially if you already speak French or Spanish as it's apparently quite easy to pick up.
Nearby Singapore is well-regarded among international students, but this same quality spills over into Malaysia at a fraction of the cost. I spent only a few weeks traveling in Malaysia, but it was a great country that I would be happy to return to. As a nation of diverse cultures, languages, and religions, you will encounter plenty of interesting people and food during your stay (SO much food!). English is widely spoken in addition to Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, and Tamil.
Although small, Malaysia is well-connected to the rest of Asia, giving you similar travel opportunities to those available in Europe just a short flight away. You are likely to find yourself in Kuala Lumpur for most of your educational needs, but I would encourage students to visit more remote destinations during their stay, including some of the islands nearby.
For most students, attending college or university is going to be financially challenging, but there are numerous destinations where you could actually end up spending less than your home country while receiving a similar education (or better!). Many countries also allow you to work part-time in order to support yourself, which you should definitely take advantage of if possible.
Then there are the non-academic benefits of studying abroad, including being immersed in a new culture and learning new languages. Besides, once you're out in the real world, hardly anyone will ask what school you went to, so why not make it an experience you won't soon forget by studying overseas? And hey, if it doesn't work out, you can always come home.
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