Foreign Universities vs. US Colleges: What You Need to Know

Interested in pursuing a degree overseas? Here's what you need to know to start your international university search, plus factors that may differ from US colleges.

When the Petersen family’s daughter, Makenna, 19, considered an English-language bachelor’s degree in Europe, her family was more interested in the value of the international experience than the cost. Makenna’s first year in Prague, Czech Republic, was such a success (with a first-semester learning curve) that their younger daughter, 17, plans to apply to a Business and Marketing program in the Netherlands. 

“The education is tremendous,” father Brian Petersen says. “Students learn to work with people from different countries, of different cultures, of different religions, with different habits and customs and languages.” The significantly lower-cost tuition was also a bonus. 

American interest in earning academic degrees abroad is growing. Popular destinations are the United Kingdom and European countries, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But these university systems differ from US universities and require persistence during the adjustment period. Here’s what students should know about studying abroad all four years. 

Think through your goals

Simply saving money on a degree isn’t the right reason to go abroad, says Jennifer Viemont, founder of Beyond the States, a college planning business for English-language programs in continental Europe. Students need to be curious, independent, and resourceful and should want the international experience. You don’t need prior international travel experience to be successful, she says, though it does help.  

Consider why you want to study abroad and whether an international degree meets your career goals, says Beth Gilfillan, assistant professor in the School of Counseling and Special Education at Bowling Green State University. Many employers value globally educated students, and you’ll gain international friends, global experience, and “career competencies” that companies seek in new graduates. But be aware that professional degrees such medicine, law, or engineering might require extra credentials to be recognized in the United States. 

Primary degree differences 

When you apply for admission abroad, you typically apply to a specific program and jump straight into your “course.” That means being prepared to declare a study path. Degrees are focused and don’t require general education classes as in the United States, Gilfillan says. Many take just three years to complete, although that varies by country—Scotland requires four years—or university type. In Europe, applied sciences programs take three and a half to four years to complete. 

You can study in English

In continental Europe, English-language programs abound with some 300 universities offering more than 2,100 degrees. Viemont’s book College Beyond the States highlights lesser-known countries like Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. 

For more English-language programs, the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) Guide to International University Admission provides information and web resources for 13 emerging and top destinations: Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, Spain, and the United Kingdom.  

However, you shouldn’t expect to operate in English outside the classroom. In non-English countries, universities might encourage—or require—language learning to function in the host culture. Learning the language also facilitates part-time employment if it’s allowed. 

Related: Going (and Staying!) Abroad

Transparent admission requirements 

Admission requirements are generally more transparent than American applications, ignoring “holistic” factors like leadership and extracurriculars. They rely instead on evidence that you’re academically prepared.

Universities might require AP classes with specific scores, SAT or ACT scores, a certain grade point average, or an entrance exam. An IB diploma might bypass these requirements. Detailed course descriptions might need to be submitted, or you might need to complete a foundation year requirement. Some universities offer conditional acceptance, with confirmed acceptance hinging on final senior scores.

In Germany, the 2019–2020 admission requirements toughened up to require an IB diploma, two years of college credit, or an associate degree—and credits might not transfer if they’re not specific enough for a program. Requirements change, so be sure to research the latest information. 

Related: My Experience With IB Exams

Different types of universities 

University types vary by country but generally can be divided into research universities and universities of applied sciences and/or a technical variation, all of which usually emphasize internships. 

Research universities focus on academic and theoretical concepts, preparing students for independent research. Many students go on for a master’s degree. NACAC recommends Americans consider whether long-term goals include a master’s and in which country they might want to pursue it. 

Universities of applied sciences highlight practical knowledge and applying it in solutions-oriented ways to a specific profession. Students gain job skills and must complete an internship. “We have nothing like these universities in the United States,” Viemont says.

The Netherlands also offers the more recently created university colleges within the research university description, which include selective honors colleges offering liberal arts degrees.  

Academic expectations 

Students at foreign universities are expected to handle their studies without much oversight, but countries vary in instruction style, homework policies, and group and project work. Grades might depend on a single exam or project.

Initially, Makenna Petersen didn’t feel prepared with good study or time management habits. “The grading and exam style are very different from the United States. It’s heavily based on exam scores,” she says. But after a bumpy first semester, she got the hang of it. (Keep in mind that American universities also require greater independence and often weight exams heavily. All students go through an adjustment whether they attend university across town or around the globe.) 

Another similarity to US universities: you won’t have to go it alone. The office for international students can point you to resources like tutors, career advisors, language learning, and acclimation help. But students will need to ask what’s available. Annalia Destefano, who just completed her first year at Tallinn University in Estonia, says her biggest adjustments were the winter weather—with only four to five hours of daylight—and reserved locals.

Tuition and living costs

Tuition varies by country, university, and even program. Free or low-cost English-language undergraduate programs can be found in public universities in some countries such as France, Norway, and parts of Germany.  

English-language tuition for non-EU/EEA students in Europe will cost approximately $2,000–$14,000 per year, many in the $2,500–$4,000 range, says Viemont. The UK tends to be more expensive with tuition ranging from $7,100–$15,000 per year. In Australia, it’s $10,500–$23,000. To compare, the College Board determined the average US public in-state tuition was $10,230 for 2018–2019, while private colleges averaged $35,830.  

But don’t forget to add on living costs. The NACAC Guide lists estimated costs by country. Some countries are pricey, but in other places, the final tally might be much lower than totals for an American education. Be sure to factor in your travel, visa, currency fluctuations, and international health insurance if needed.  

Student housing 

In many countries, universities don’t own or provide housing, so students don’t live on campus. However, they still often live together in privatized student residences, usually with their own bedroom and access to a shared kitchen. (European universities don’t offer meal plans but typically provide a cafeteria or a café for incidental meals.)

In Ireland and at many English universities, on-campus housing is provided for international students for the first year. In Australia, students live off campus, but universities are building more accommodations for international students. You’ll likely need to secure housing separate from your program. 

Proof of means and a visa

You’ll need to demonstrate proof of means as a visa requirement. You will also have to provide a bank statement showing you have enough money to cover costs for the year. Parents can usually help by demonstrating financial support. Most countries require between $6,000–$10,000. For Norway and Australia, students need approximately $14,000. 

Be sure to allow plenty of time to secure your visa—two months or more. Makenna Petersen had to submit additional information to authenticate her high school studies, a process called nostrification for the Czech Republic. Check what your country of interest requires. 

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Student Visas

Social life

You won’t be attending college football games or Greek life parties overseas, but you’ll have plenty of access to cultural, sporting, and social events. European and other universities often offer student associations that can connect you with interest groups.

You’ll also be socializing with other international students, “which will open up your eyes and be rewarding in so many ways,” Destefano says. You can likely find intramural-level sports through a student sports center associated with the city, says Viemont. 

Financial aid and scholarships

According to the Department of Education, more than 700 international universities allow US student loans through the FAFSA form (federal Pell Grants aren’t allowed). And some countries offer scholarships or other funding for international students. In the Netherlands, you can apply for a merit-based €5,000 Holland Scholarship (one time only). France offers a housing subsidy of €100 per month. And Finland offers merit-based scholarships to international students.

Related: Great Scholarships, Fellowships, and Grants for International Students

How to get started

The best place to begin is with your high school counselor, says Gilfillan. Also, look at Viemont’s book, the NACAC Guide, and International College Options, a Chicago-area resource that now hosts events in several US cities. For English-language programs, search online for a consulate’s education branch with the country name. Here are a few examples:

TopUniversities (hosted by QS World University Rankings) and Studyportals are useful starting tools. But to search English-language programs, the individual country’s education consulate will serve you better. Be sure to screen for undergraduate options. Some universities only offer English-language programs at the graduate level.  

Start searching for your best-fit universty here or afar using our College Search tool!

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