But did you know that even when you factor in the cost of travel, gaining an entire college degree in Europe as an American student is often cheaper than one year of tuition fees at an out-of-state or private college in the US?
Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of average college tuition fees in the US vs Europe:
College Tuition Costs in America
According to the 2018 Education at a Glance Report by OECD, the US spends more on higher education than almost any other country, even for public universities.
What is the average cost of college for 4 years in the US?
According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of tuition fees for a student in 2022 living on campus at a public 4-year in-state institution is $25,707 per year or $102,828 over 4 years. Out-of-state students pay $43,421 per year or $173,684 in tuition fees over 4 years. Private, nonprofit university students pay $54,501 per year or $218,004 over 4 years. But these amounts don’t take into account transportation costs, daily living expenses, or student loan interest.
Keep in mind that although 4 years is the duration we normally assume for a bachelor’s degree in the US, only 38.9% of bachelor’s degree-seeking students graduate in 4 years time. Most confirmed bachelor’s degree earners report graduating within 6 years; leaving the cost of tuition fees to $213,306.
With these price tags, most middle-class families have had no choice but to take on considerable debt if they want their children to obtain a four-year degree. And dishearteningly, a recent study showed that only 38% of recent US college graduates felt that their education was worth the cost.
Why is college in the US so expensive compared to other countries?
But unlike the EU, and other parts of the developed world, the US doesn’t sufficiently subsidize its colleges and universities, which leaves higher ed institutions to operate in a more entrepreneurial way, and much like big business. Like healthcare in the US, higher ed is market driven, a rather unique facet when compared to most other parts of the world.
Climbing Walls and Dining Halls
Underlying costs and overspending by US colleges are also at the root. For instance, upscale dorms and student apartments, expensive meal plans, not to mention the money spent on rising staff salaries, university marketing, new wellness centers, and the constant upgrades to sports facilities, are all part of the rising school price tags.
Not the Norm to Pay Tuition Fees This High
Rather than asking why higher education in most other parts of the world, including Europe, is so inexpensive, it’s important to ask why tuition fees in the US are so expensive. It’s nuts – the average cost of college in the US has more-than doubled in the 21st century, with an annual tuition fee growth rate of 7.1%.
Recognizing that our frame of reference around things that are or are not “normal” can contribute to our skepticism is critical when it comes to this topic of tuition fees. Parents and students taking on massive amounts of debt to pay for higher education is not the norm in most first world countries, especially European countries.
Consider the Hidden Cost of Tuition Fees
These usually show up as “mandatory fees” for students attending colleges in the US. Student health insurance, room and board, and transportation-related costs are just a few. But they also reflect fees associated with future school renovations, expanding a fitness center and/or student center, as well as a campus transit operations fee, student union membership fee, technology fee, and intercollegiate athletics fee, for instance.
Beyond the States founder, Jennifer Viemont, takes a close (and personal) look into these hidden costs in a recent blog post, where she breaks down these fees, but also compares degree costs between her daughter, who is in college in the US, and her son, who is getting his degree in Prague, Czech Republic. It’s mind-blowing!
College Tuition Costs in Europe
Is studying in Europe cheaper than in the USA?
Yes, by a large degree. As we mentioned earlier, the average tuition fee of all the 100% English-taught, accredited bachelor’s programs in Europe is just $7,390 per year for international students, and even lower for European students.
Further, the duration of many bachelor’s programs in Europe is 3-3.5 years, vs 4+ years in the states, making the entire degree even that more comparatively affordable.
The cost savings extend to master’s degrees as well, as the average tuition fee of a master’s degree in Europe is just $9,050 per year. The typical duration for grad school is only 1.76 years in Europe, and so the average cost of getting a master’s is just $15,928 for American students.
With average grad school tuition fees at over $30,000 in the US, a student getting a master’s in Europe will spend less than half on tuition fees vs getting a master’s from public universities in the US.
How is college so cheap in Europe?
Europe considers education to be a right, not a privilege, and the feeling is that an educated populace contributes to society, pushing the country forward. That’s why these EU countries make it a priority to subsidize college education and in tandem promote a stronger work-force, which will then pay taxes as a productive citizenry. Typically, a European country will recover college expenses after 9 years, even when you factor in that many students are international.
But “do you get what you pay for”?
This is a sentiment often asked, especially across social media. Consider this: does a student paying out of state tuition fees in the US receive a substantially superior education than the student paying in state tuition? No! It’s similar in Europe, and one of the reasons tuition costs are so reasonable is because it is subsidized by the country.
Although the US does have a large number of elite universities, only 1 percent of American students attend these kinds of highly selective colleges. According to Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the OCED, “The US is in a class all its own. Spending per student is exorbitant, and it has virtually no relationship to the value that students could possibly get in exchange.”
As a matter of fact, some of the highest ranked and internationally recognized universities across Europe have English-taught programs for international students and relatively low tuition fees. We have example after example of these schools in our materials and resources and database.
Which European country has the lowest tuition fees?
According to our comprehensive tuition data page for English-taught schools in Europe that serve international students, these countries currently have the lowest annual tuition fees for bachelor’s degrees: Iceland, Latvia, Norway, Germany, and a number of others. For international students enrolled in these countries, the lowest annual master’s degree tuition fees are in Norway, Germany, Liechtenstein, and a number of others. You can dig into our database and learn all about these programs.
Free College Tuition in Europe
Can an American get free college in Europe?
Technically, yes. We have over a thousand programs with $0 tuition fees listed in our database in countries like Norway and Germany, across many areas of study. This perk is not just for European students.
But “free tuition” does not actually mean cost free. You knew there was a but coming…
You’ll need to consider the cost of living and a country’s proof of means, which is more properly described as “proof of means of subsistence”. Essentially, this is the minimum amount of income a student will need to live as a student. This is an amount set by the individual country’s government as part of the immigration process. Students who aren’t EU citizens need to provide proof that they have the full amount for the year during the immigration process.
Are master’s programs in Europe free?
Some are. We currently have 918 English-taught master’s degree programs for international students in our database with free tuition. Language and linguistics, architecture, biochemistry, engineering, mathematics, international relations, computer science, and anthropology, are just a handful of degree categories where there are no tuition fees, even for international students. Yep, these benefits are not just for European students!
Which countries offer free education in Europe?
Currently, these countries offer some or most of their bachelor’s and/or master’s programs free of charge, even for non EU/EEA students: Germany, Norway, Iceland, and others in our database. That’s right, international students pay nothing in tuition fees. These tuition free universities accept international undergraduate students with virtually free college tuition.
Norway, the Highs and Lows
Norway is one of the countries that currently offers international students free tuition at their public universities. But even without tuition fees, and the fact that Norway is a truly beautiful and remarkable country, it famously has a high cost of living. According to Expatistan, Oslo, Norway’s capital, is slightly more expensive than Los Angeles (after New York and San Francisco, LA is the 3rd most expensive city in the US). Certainly something to take into account, especially if you are only looking at considering countries with $0 tuition fees. *Free tuition for international students at Norway’s public universities may be changing – stay tuned with Beyond the States for any updates to this.
For instance, non EU/EEA students in Norway will pay no tuition fees, but they will pay more than $10,345 a year on housing, food, transportation, and leisure expenses (and that is on a VERY tight budget). In fact, proof of means in Norway is $11,173 which often allows for a very modest lifestyle.
Estonia, on the other hand, has many similarities to the Nordic countries, and students pay an average of $3277 per year in tuition fees. However, the living costs are so much lower that EVEN WITH TUITION, they end up paying almost $2069 less per year. Of course, because cost of living is so much lower, the amount of money you need for proof of means is also easier to swallow at $4655 per year.
Free College Tuition in Germany
Families and students are frequently drawn to the “free college in Germany” idea. Of course, the admissions requirements often create obstacles for students. The cost of living in Germany can be quite reasonable. Berlin is on the more expensive side at just 28% less expensive than LA. However, it would still be a mistake to focus solely on Germany.
Let’s compare Germany to the Czech Republic. Proof of means in Germany is $10,589 and is $3724 in the Czech Republic. Depending on the source, Berlin is anywhere from 32%–49% more expensive than Prague. Even using the lower cost difference, a student in the Czech Republic would have 41 bachelor’s and 98 master’s options in which they would pay the same for living AND tuition fees as they would pay for living expenses alone in Germany.
PRO TIP: DON’T LIMIT YOUR SEARCH TO FREE COLLEGE TUITION
Given what we’ve illustrated above, you should be comparing your overall expenses including tuition fees. Free tuition for students studying abroad doesn’t mean you won’t pay fees in other areas, although these minimal fees pale in comparison to the hidden costs in the US.
Nonetheless, the fact that you can pay less overall while paying a few thousand euros a year in tuition is precisely the reason not to confine your search to only those with free tuition. For a student who has a tight budget, those savings can mean a lot and/or open up a lot of options that are comparable in cost. In fact, there are thousands of bachelor’s degree options in our database with very low tuition fees.
How to Pay for College in Europe
Are there financial aid options?
Even though tuition fees are significantly more affordable across Europe, even for international students, there are a number of options for financial assistance.
For American students, this is the form you fill out to determine eligibility for student financial aid. While many schools in Europe work with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), many do not. In this case, you cannot apply US loans to these schools in Europe, but rather there will not be fees or penalties for using your 529 plan funds. In our database of 11K + English-taught degrees, we have a filter option where you can search for schools in Europe that have a FAFSA #. Currently, 1004 English-taught bachelor’s and 2902 master’s degrees in our database work with FAFSA in this way.
European Aid for International Students
It is sometimes the case that schools in Europe offer funding opportunities and scholarships. At most schools in the Netherlands, for instance, incoming non EU/EEA students can apply for the merit-based Holland Scholarship, which is a one-time payment of $5172. And in France, all students— including international students—can receive a housing subsidy, called CAF, of around $103 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 non EU/EEA students. These scholarships are generally a merit-based tuition waiver for anywhere from 25-100% of tuition.
This is the tax-advantaged college savings plan for those in the states. Many families have chosen to invest in one of these plans during their child’s life. But what happens when your child chooses to get their bachelor’s degree at a college in Europe? Does this plan still apply, and if so, how and where? Here’s a truly insightful podcast episode we did on this very topic.
This refers to any US Department of Veterans Affairs education benefits that have been earned by military veterans and their families. Even schools in Europe recognize these benefits. Currently, 1790 English-taught bachelor’s and 4444 master’s degrees in our database align with the GI Bill benefits.
Beyond Tuition: Other Expenses to Consider
Student life in Europe is a far cry from that in the states. As non EU/EEA students you’ll operate more as residents of the city you’re in, and much less as students within a university system, relying on inclusions the school provides.
Campuses are more decentralized in Europe, and dorms and student housing are less common. Student cafeterias and meal plans aren’t the norm, and you’ll find yourself more often living in private rentals (sometimes with other students), and eating, shopping, and cooking independently, as a citizen of the city.
This may seem unfamiliar, but in the end, it allows for more student independence and self-reliance. And the cost of living in European countries often breaks down more simply, and more affordably when compared to student life in the US.
Cost of Living
To live in Europe as an international student you’ll need to show a “proof of means”. As we discussed earlier, 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 European 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.
The cost of living will vary considerably of course, depending on the location, but let’s take a look at the Netherlands first, since this country has the highest number of English-taught degrees on the continent. According to Study.eu,”the monthly cost of living in the Netherlands for an international student will be around €800-1200. An average room will cost between $310 and $620, but keep in mind that small towns will generally be cheaper than cities and that the type of accommodation will also have an impact on the price.”
Compare this to the cost of living in the Czech Republic, where it is more affordable at $350 to $750 per month, and this includes meals, accommodation, public transport and culture.
Cost of Transportation
Public transportation is famously excellent, and relied upon across European countries. Students can purchase a monthly train or bus pass, and often there is a student rate and discount. In Belgium for instance, a monthly transport pass is $50, while in France the cost of a monthly pass is $67, and in Finland it is $60.
But don’t discount that your feet, or two wheels, often become your primary means of getting you across the city you’re living and studying in.
Cost of Travel
At Beyond the States we always take into consideration the cost of travel back and forth from Europe to the states, since as an American student you’re likely to fly back for holidays and breaks, and this may mean two international flights per year. Airline costs vary of course, depending on the time of year, and the locations from which you depart and arrive, but you might consider around $1000 per international flight, when building your budget.
As a student in Europe you’ll be naturally traveling around the continent as well, visiting the sea during one of your breaks, or a friend’s family home in Croatia. Getting from here to there across European countries is so simple and accessible, and relatively affordable.
Erasmus Program – European Study Abroad
Speaking of travel, one perk you may not know of is the Erasmus Program, which is Europe’s version of study abroad across European countries. Essentially, Erasmus helps organize students (even international students) getting their bachelor’s degree or master’s with study abroad opportunities within Erasmus+ program and partner countries. By studying abroad with Erasmus+, you can improve your communication, language and inter-cultural skills and gain soft skills highly valued by future employers.
But there is also a financial benefit to European study abroad. Students on Erasmus continue paying the tuition fees of their main school, even if the tuition at the university they are visiting is more expensive.
Study in Europe: Tuition Fees per Country
Beyond the States has created the only database that contains tuition data on over 870 colleges and 11,400 programs in European countries. This data covers accredited European English-taught bachelor’s degree and master’s programs exclusively and is updated on a daily basis. You will not find this information elsewhere, especially our exclusive list of programs that offer free tuition.
Cost-Comparison Chart | A Degree from Europe vs the US
Another way to look at the truly mind-blowing cost savings of college in Europe vs the US is through one of our cost-compare charts. For instance, choosing a 3-year bachelor’s degree at the prestigious KU Leuven in Belgium over a comparable degree from either a public or private university in North Carolina can save you as much as $332,948. We’re not kidding!