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  • Sharon Olofsson

Pros and Cons of Earning an Undergraduate Degree Abroad

Image of a globe on a desk.

With college tuition skyrocketing and total U.S. student loan debt now over $1.75 trillion, more and more Americans are studying abroad, not just for a semester but for their full undergraduate degrees. According to the Institute for International Education, there were over 50,000 American students pursuing full degrees outside the country just before the pandemic.[1]

There are a variety of reasons to consider earning your degree outside the U.S., including:

  • Significant cost savings

  • Shorter time to completion (often three years instead of four for a bachelor’s degree)

  • Foreign cultural immersion

  • International work experience

Cost is the biggest factor leading American students to consider universities abroad. In 2023, the average cost of an undergrad degree at a public university in the United States is $156,000 for an in-state student and $173,000 for an out-of-state student. [2] The average cost for a bachelor’s degree at a private university is $225,000, but this can range to over $360,000 as some universities have an annual cost of attendance for the 2023-24 school year of over $90,000! [3] [4] [5]

In comparison, degrees at well-known universities abroad can cost about half as much as comparable U.S. institutions, and in some cases they even cost less than in-state public universities. For example, tuition and fees for a Bachelor of Arts for the 2023-24 school year at McGill University in Montreal, Canada costs CAD 42,000 (approximately $31,000 at today’s exchange rate). [6] Adding in room and board, which averages about $14,000, [7] we’re talking a total of about $45,000 per year, which is 50% less than at NYU or USC, for a total savings of about $180,000 over the course of the degree. What’s interesting about the way many foreign universities charge tuition is that often the costs are tied to the program, so for instance, engineering and sciences tend to cost more than liberal arts or business as there are more expenses due to labs. It’s therefore important to make sure you’re comparing costs for attending similar programs. There are some foreign universities, like University of St Andrews in Scotland, for instance, that charge a flat fee as is common in the U.S. At St Andrews the current annual cost of attendance, including room and board, is about $58,600, which is approximately 40% less than comparable U.S. universities.

Another potential huge cost savings can be found in countries where a bachelor’s degree takes only three years versus the normal four years in the U.S., Canada, and Scotland. In England and Ireland, for instance, most bachelor’s degrees take only three years, so the total cost for a degree can be less than at an in-state public university. For example, at London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE), the annual tuition is currently GBP 25,272, [8] which is around $32,000 at the current exchange rate. Add in about $16,000 for room and board in London, [9] and you’re looking at about $48,000 per year and $144,000 for the full three-year degree. That’s less than the average in-state public university and less than half the cost of a comparable private university in the U.S.

While the cost savings can be substantial, there are also other benefits to pursuing an undergrad degree abroad, including experiencing a new culture, instilling independence, and developing a global perspective. There may also be the opportunity to become fluent in another language, though most often American students choose to study in English-speaking countries, with over 60% attending university in the U.K., Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. [10] The U.K. is the top destination, with over a third of Americans studying there, and Scotland is the most popular country for American students since their four-year degree is most similar to the structure of an undergrad degree in the U.S. With the proliferation of English-taught bachelor’s degree programs in Europe over the last decade, American students are also increasingly heading to countries such as the Netherlands and Germany.

There are, of course, some risks to consider when studying abroad, including:

  • Currency fluctuations mean it’s hard to predict exactly how much the degree will cost.

  • Financial aid may be hard to find, and there are restrictions on FAFSA loans and tax-free 529 plan distributions outside the United States.

  • Additional expenses, such as international flights, student visas, health insurance, etc.

  • Lack of support, particularly in finding housing and for students with learning differences

  • Narrow degree focus

  • Possible lack of accreditation in the United States

The most popular major on college applications in the U.S. is “undecided”, so for most students the idea of signing up at age 17 or 18 for a particular major is daunting. For the undecided student, earning a degree abroad is unlikely to be a good fit as it’s generally required to apply to a specific program, and there may be very little flexibility to change majors. It is also relatively rare to double major or major-minor abroad unless the double-major or major-minor come as a prescribed set (for instance, mathematics and computer science). [11]

Since the degree may be only three years, there are few, if any, general education requirements compared to the U.S., so the degree focus is very narrow. This system works well for students who know what they want to study and are eager to begin studying their major straight away, but only for certain majors. While undergrad degrees from Canada are widely accepted in the U.S., it’s important to note that degrees from other countries may not meet entry requirements for certain graduate degree programs or careers in the United States, such as medicine, law, nursing, dentistry, and architecture. The most popular majors for American students abroad are therefore in areas such as business, social sciences, humanities, math and computer science. [12]

Overall, earning a degree abroad offers American students a top-tier education at a discount price, the opportunity to specialize earlier in their intended major, a sense of adventure, exposure to new cultures, and a global network. College abroad is well worth considering as an option, particularly for families that don’t qualify for financial aid in the U.S. yet find paying full price for American universities burdensome.


[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

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