College in Abroad: Your Guide to English-Taught Degrees
Maybe you’re like me, and when you first learned about the option of an affordable, English-taught college degree in Europe, you were simultaneously intrigued, skeptical, and kind of jazzed. Eventually my mind was blown as I learned more, and as a parent of a teenager, I was hooked. So much so…that I eventually joined the Beyond the States team.
Know this – there are thousands of accredited, 100% English-taught bachelor’s degrees to choose from across Europe; no foreign language required. More and more students from the US, and other countries, are heading to Europe for higher ed opportunities, and for good reason – there are so many affordable, high-quality English-taught programs that offer something…more. Read on, as we give you the goods on exploring and pursuing your university degree as an international student in continental Europe and Ireland.
Why College in Europe
Okay, if you’re seeking an alternative to the soaring cost of tuition in the United States, want a way to opt out of the flawed US admissions process, are looking to give your child or yourself a competitive advantage toward future employment, and value travel and global citizenship, then college in Europe is something to consider. Even if you ultimately end up choosing a school in the US, just knowing these options exist will help you make an informed decision.
Whether you’re on the cusp of graduating high school or you’re older, having missed out on attending or completing college the first time around, opportunities abroad are abundant. So long as you are willing to travel and step outside your comfort zone, exploring college options in Europe will show you that exciting and affordable higher education alternatives are within your grasp.
But perhaps the most important trait prospective international students need to possess is a desire for independence. This is not to say that students will need to do everything on their own, but they will need to be proactive about getting the resources and information they need. Most schools do offer tutoring, language learning, mental health services, career counseling, help with residence permits, and various programs to help with acclimation. If information isn’t offered about these programs and services, students will have to be willing to ask around to find it.
Independence and self-discipline are also crucial when it comes to academic life. Students are expected to do a lot of studying on their own. Unlike many classes in the United States, this is ungraded work that is not monitored by the professors. The work in between classes is done to prepare for the next class discussion, as well as to prevent the need to cram for tests. The professors let students know what they need to read and do each week, but it is up to the student to actually get it done.
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Let’s Talk Tuition
This will come as no surprise to you. In recent years, college tuition has skyrocketed to levels that just a few decades ago would have seemed inconceivable. Like many parents, we had squirreled away what we could in our children’s college funds. Though the national average for private university tuition is reported to be $32,000, most of the schools I looked into were closer to a jaw-dropping $50,000 a year! With that price tag, most middle-class families have no choice but to take on considerable debt if they want their children to obtain that four-year degree. A recent study showed that only 38% of recent college graduates felt that their education was worth the cost.
Even state schools have seen a drastic rate increase. In-state tuition and fees at UNC-Chapel Hill were slightly more than $1,000 in 1992 and are now almost $9,000 per year. From 1980-2010 there was an 1120% increase in tuition—an increase higher than in any other good or service, including healthcare. Further, only 19% of students at American public universities graduate within four years, and even state flagship universities only have a four-year graduation rate of 36%. Each extra year it takes to graduate contributes to massive amounts of student loan debt.
Compare that to the more than 300 schools in continental Europe and Ireland (not the UK) that offer more than 3,200 English-taught bachelor’s degree programs. On average, international students would pay $8,000 per year to attend one of these schools. One of the reasons tuition is so reasonable across Europe is because it is subsidized by each country. There are almost 800 hundred programs alone with tuition less than $4,000 per year and even a number that are tuition-free—even for international students. The savings are further increased when you factor in that most bachelor’s programs take three to three-and-a-half years to complete. In many cases, it costs less to obtain a full bachelor’s degree in Europe, including the cost of travel, than ONE year of US out-of-state or private school tuition.
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- The Study Abroad Guide to College Tuition in Europe
Financial Aid Options
While many schools in Europe work with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), many do not. However, sometimes they offer other funding opportunities. At most schools in the Netherlands, for instance, incoming international students can apply for the merit-based Holland Scholarship, which is a one-time payment of 5,000 euros. And in France, all students— including international students—can receive a housing subsidy, called CAF, of around 100 euros per month. Finland just recently began charging international students tuition fees; however, along with the fees came a mandate that every school offer scholarship opportunities for international students. These scholarships are generally a merit-based tuition waiver for anywhere from 25-100% of tuition.
So what happens if you have money saved in a 529 account and the European school you want to go to doesn’t have a FAFSA number? Here’s a podcast episode we did on this very topic.
How to Apply
This is when your jaw-drops. Unlike in the US, schools in Europe don’t use admissions rates as an indicator of educational quality or prestige. The reputation of the school is not generally linked to how selective it is. At most schools, the admissions process is less competitive, even at highly-ranked, reputable ones. Each school has its own set of admissions requirements. If you meet those requirements and there is room in the program, then you are admitted – it’s that simple.
The admissions criteria might be a certain ACT/SAT score, a set GPA, a defined number of AP courses, or as little as a high school diploma. A number of very reputable European universities have programs without enrollment caps, so students who meet these criteria are accepted. Period. It doesn’t matter if they have a higher GPA than the one required, or more AP courses. They aren’t being compared to the other applicants; they are being assessed to see if they have the qualifications needed to succeed in the program, like we’re problematically accustomed to in the US.
One of the first things a school wants to know is whether the high school education of the applicant is equivalent to the one they would get in the country where they are applying. The requirements vary country to country and school to school. For instance, in Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, and some schools in Switzerland, students with a regular US high school diploma must also have at least three, and sometimes four, AP courses with scores of at least 3. In other countries US students don’t need the AP courses, but must submit SAT or ACT scores. Other schools across the EU may or may not require AP classes or test scores for US students, depending on the school and program and many require only a high school diploma.
And good news for students graduating with an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma—you get to bypass all these extra requirements. The specific requirements needed for an IB diploma allow students to apply to college in Europe with automatic equivalency, with some intricate exceptions in Germany. Some schools require students to complete entrance exams, and in certain instances, the SAT or ACT can substitute for these scores, but in other cases, the exams must be completed.
While there are variations with admission in Europe, what is more-or-less distinctive is the level of transparency, even in the schools that have more competitive admissions. There are a few schools that make admissions decisions based 100% on SAT scores. Mediocre grades? Doesn’t matter. No sports? That’s fine. While I don’t agree that the SAT score is necessarily the best indicator of future success, I do appreciate the total transparency. This process allows US students to make mistakes, to explore their interests—even those that aren’t quantifiable—to spend time with family, get after-school jobs, and end the day with a good night’s sleep.
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Applying as US citizen
The application process varies from program to school to country. Once you’ve explored our database of accredited, English-taught bachelor’s programs across continental Europe and Ireland, and carefully narrowed down a list of prospects, you’ll use the info we include within each program listing in the database to learn about the school (or country) admissions process. From there, you’ll head to the program’s web link – also included in each database listing – to learn even more details around admissions requirements and how to apply.
In tandem with your research, beginning with our database listings, we have a number of in-depth courses and masterclasses that offer insight into how admissions work and help guide the step-by-step process of applying to college in Europe.
As an international student, you’ll be living and learning with peers from around the world. The cultural differences between a student from Atlanta, Georgia and one from Tbilisi, Georgia are glaring. These contrasts are recognized, openly discussed, and valued. Though there are differences in background, there are meaningful common experiences and values among international students. They are all experiencing living outside of their home country, which is a significant and life-changing experience. Further, most of these students do have the values associated with global citizenship, which connects them on a very deep level.
When it comes to campus life, as is similar to some urban schools in the United States, such as New York University, the majority of campuses in Europe are decentralized, with various buildings spread throughout the town or city. However, since students have most of their classes with one academic department, this has little impact on their lives. Most academic departments at large universities are fairly self-contained and provide their students with the majority of the resources and services they need, like academic advisors, an international office, cafés—often referred to as “canteens”—and a career counseling/internship office.
It is here that you will find the most striking differences between US colleges and their European counterparts. In Europe, the schools almost never provide housing. Student residences (dorms) are scattered throughout the city and house students from different schools. Sometimes, a school may contract with a student residence provider and hold blocks of rooms for their students, but rarely do schools own their own housing. One advantage to this system is that it creates market competition. Housing in student residences is much more affordable than in the US dorms, while also offering layouts that are more appealing.
Schools in Europe also have many student associations that can connect students with various interest groups based on religion, culture, the arts, sports, or other hobbies. International students also have access to an abundance of social opportunities through the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). This group works with all international students (full-degree program and semester abroad) to help acclimate them to life outside their home country.
Sports & Athletics
Sports are another area that may be tied more to the city than the school. Many schools have their own sports facilities and teams, but they are generally fairly small. More commonly, there is a Student Sports Center for the town, often with several locations and facilities. Just because you won’t be tailgating outside a big stadium, like you might at an American college football game, does not mean that a sports fan will be bored in Europe. There are opportunities for spectators or participants in soccer, rugby, ice hockey, basketball, and more, with popularity generally dictated by the country.
To live in Europe as an international student you’ll need to show a “proof of means”. This is an amount of money set by each country that students must prove that they have access to in order to support themselves for their student visa and residence permit. This amount varies from country to country. Most countries fall between $6,000-10,000 per year. The money you provide for proof of means is the money you will use to live on during the year.
US vs European Degrees
First of all, unlike typically homogeneous classrooms in the United States, the English-taught programs in Europe are developed to attract students from around the world. Needless to say, classroom discussions reflect an expanse of perspectives and experiences, which allow American students to have a better understanding of the world and how current issues affect their citizens.
In Europe, there are different types of higher education institutions: research universities, universities of applied science (UAS), and university colleges.The majority of bachelor’s degree programs at research universities take three years to complete. Programs at universities of applied sciences generally take three-and-a-half to four years. The program structure is usually well-defined, with required courses laid out for the entire program. Almost all programs have a semester (generally the first semester of the third year) set aside for the student to complete an internship, study abroad, or minor. The EU program Erasmus+ offers all degree-seeking students in Europe, including international students, the opportunity to study in another country with no additional fees, as well as the possibility for a monthly stipend.
Speaking of the Erasmus+ program, it’s an umbrella organization for the many programs that encourage mobility among young people. Students have the opportunity to spend up to twelve months studying in other European countries (and sometimes outside of Europe as well). The attendance can be studying at another university or doing an internship in another country, or a combination of the two. There is no additional cost to these programs and students can even apply to receive a stipend of 150-500 euros per month while participating. Many schools have their own bilateral agreements with other schools, which allow students to study in another country outside of the EU for no additional costs. Some schools have active international student organizations that plan day and weekend trips around Europe, further enhancing a student’s understanding of other people and cultures.
Also distinctive to the European bachelor’s degree is something called Binding Study Advice (BSA). This is a common practice at schools in the Netherlands, but is also used at many other schools in the EU (sometimes with a different name). Instead of utilizing stringent admissions requirements, as is done in the US, students are expected to prove that they can succeed academically during their first year of study. Each school has different requirements about how many classes students must pass in order to be allowed to return the second year. Many schools offer a non-binding evaluation after the first semester before the binding decision is made at the end of the year, which can serve as a warning for students who aren’t on track.
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Choosing a Major
Okay, there is a different approach in Europe. Traditionally, when you apply to a university in the United States, you are applying to the institution in general, and rarely need to specify your major when you apply. In Europe, you are almost always applying to a specific program, rather than the school as a whole. This basically means that you must know your major when you apply. Refreshingly, all of your general education requirements will relate to your program, with the opportunity to explore other interest areas through your electives.
There are program options for students who know broadly what they would like to study—such as business— and also for those who know that they want to study a more specific area—such as finance or international sports management. There are even options for students who want to merge more than one interest area—like business and sustainability; or business, languages, and culture; or international business and politics. And there are also a number of liberal arts programs that allow students to choose their major in the second year of study.
Don’t let this stress you out – there are many avenues to take here, regardless if you know what you want to study or not. We have a class specific to this topic called How to Choose a Major, as part of our Mini-Courses, where you’ll learn how your unique interests translate into the different study areas in Europe, and which programs you’re most aligned with.
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Will my degree work in the US?
We could go on and on about the positive aspects of studying outside your home country, even its impacts on employment, due both to globalization and also the skills (especially “soft skills”) students gain by the dynamic experience of studying abroad. Degree recognition is so rarely a hindrance. Just take a look at the international student percentages for master’s degree programs in any US university, and you’ll see that degrees are accepted by accredited universities from all over the world. In fact, there were more than 1 million international students studying at universities in the US during the 2019-2020 school year alone.
With that, let’s talk a little bit about accreditation, and the different types. In the US the government doesn’t give accreditation to universities itself, but instead approves various accrediting agencies, as does the Council for Higher Education. And so these are often, but not always, regionally based. Then there are national and specialized accrediting agencies also, for degrees like law, nursing, medicine, and on.
In most other countries accreditation is granted by a governmental body, which is usually the Ministry of Education. Since public universities in Europe are heavily funded by taxes, the accreditation process is really quite thorough. And since there’s only one accreditation agency per country – the Ministry of Education – the criteria used is consistent. This is the type of accreditation we rely on at Beyond the States when we list schools in our database, since this is what’s going to matter, and we take no risks here. This type of accreditation is a deal breaker for us.
Even further, there is degree recognition. This is the process of getting your foreign degree accepted as valid by an employer, a graduate school, or licensure board. Most grad schools will use a credentialing agency to do this. This is why national accreditation is key – it’s a required component. Some employers will just look at accreditation, or they may already know the school, especially if it’s a multinational company that recruits from around the world. And there are so many companies that hire in this way, often making a degree from outside the US is a non-issue, and often a plus.
Now, careers that require professional licensure, like in the fields of healthcare, education, psychology, law etc, are a different matter. Most of these kinds of careers are going to require a master’s degree before licensure – something to keep in mind. Although many of our members choose to work in Europe after graduating, those who do choose to return to the US will have to go through their state or regional licensure process. If you are hoping to pursue one of these specific careers that require licensure, and you intend to return to the US to work, one idea to consider is to get your bachelor’s degree in Europe and then your master’s degree in the US to make the process more straight-forward.
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- The Workplace of the Future Demands These Soft Skills
Job & Career Opportunities
Learning for learning’s sake is a noble proposition, but few students go to college for reasons that don’t relate to employability in some way or another. Students know that a degree is required to access many career opportunities. Why then, are US universities not preparing students for the workforce? In his book Life After College, by Jeffrey Selingo, he notes that nearly half of all college graduates in their twenties are underemployed, meaning the jobs they can get don’t require a bachelor’s degree. Few schools in the United States require internships or help students find them, and only 1 in 3 graduates had an internship in college, despite the fact that internships are recognized as a fast track to a job. According to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute, employers hired around 50% of the interns who worked for them as full-time employees after graduation; in some fields, it is closer to 75%.
Bachelor’s degree programs in Europe usually have at least one semester set aside for an internship. Having a semester to do internships removes many of the obstacles that students in the United States report, such as deciding between a paying summer job or an unpaid internship, or trying to juggle internship duties and classwork. This dedicated semester also means that the internships can be completed in countries outside of the one they are studying in, increasing international opportunities and exposure. The internship opportunities in Europe are particularly interesting and include many international companies. A number of universities have partnerships with these companies or organizations, and they will often work together to place students in appropriate internships.
This is a good place to talk about “soft skills”. These personal attributes, like assertiveness, resilience, self-direction, empathy, cooperation, diversity awareness, and adaptability are lacking in traditional education in the US. Students who have studied outside of their home country are immersed in a different culture and able to cultivate their awareness and appreciation for cultural differences. The emphasis on group work in European schools gives students the opportunity to work with people with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. These graduates are often flexible, adaptable, and experienced in navigating unfamiliar circumstances, all of which lead to success in the workplace. Employers have noticed that these soft skills are greatly lacking among US graduates and a recent study by the Institute of International Education found that studying abroad for longer periods of time has a high impact on job offers, as well as job advancement.
More to the point, if you’re concerned about employment post-graduation, you can certainly find employability numbers advertised on certain European school or program pages. Schools that have high levels of employability for their graduates will certainly make that known on their pages. Schools and programs featured in any of our Beyond the States ranking lists often have high employability numbers.