College in Europe Should Be Part of the American Conversation

It’s that time of year again when many of America’s high school seniors turn their minds to college applications. My younger brother’s mind was so turned this time last year. Like many of his peers, he was concerned about the debt burden that an undergraduate education in the US typically entails. As of this year’s second quarter, the US Department of Education reported $1,331.7 billion in outstanding federal loans to 42.3 million recipients. That’s on average just under $31,500 per recipient.

My brother and I discussed his options over the past year. Unlike many discussions happening in homes and counselors’ offices across the US, ours included the possibility of undergraduate programs in Europe. For full disclosure, I’ve attended grad school in England over the past four year and I was eager to have him join me on this side of the Atlantic. My eagerness prompted some googling that confirmed that a college education could be had in Europe for far cheaper than in the US.

In Germany, for example, some universities have just nominal administration fees or fees of less than $4,000 per year for non-EU students. Affordable programs can be found in other countries as well, including Italy, France, and Norway. Even in the England, where fees are markedly higher, it is possible to find programs with lower per year tuition than some institutions in the US. The difference can be striking. It is even more so when it is discovered that many English courses take just three years.

These findings surprised me. But what surprised me even more was that undergraduate programs in Europe are seldom part of the discussion when Americans select a college. It certainly was not part of the conversation with my parents and advisers when I applied to bachelor’s programs. Nor has the option received much attention in public discussion. Sen. Bernie Sanders has repeatedly discussed the rise of student debt in America and advocates eliminating student debt through federal spending. Mike Rowe, the host of the Discovery Channel’s past series Dirty Jobs, also talks about student debt and advocates young people’s considering trade schools and junior colleges. Absent from these discussions are the numerous options just on the other side of the Atlantic.

Perhaps that is part of the problem—the other side of the Atlantic. College is an exciting new experience and lifestyle. Its novelty, however, is wed with the familiar. Mom, dad, or Aunt Patti perhaps attended the same school. Or perhaps the university of choice is in one’s home state or city. Or perhaps access to NCAA sport is the aim of everyone in one’s friend group. Or perhaps foresight says that a domestic network would be handy after graduation. Even if none of these are true, at least the basic four-year structure, the language of instruction, and financing options are familiar. Study abroad may sound exciting, but just not yet and when it’s time, most likely as organized by one’s home institution for a semester or two.

It’s worth thinking again. In addition to the possibility of its being more affordable, European bachelor’s degrees often require only three years of study, rather than the four years typical in US programs. This means one less year of paying tuition fees and an additional year for career building, volunteering, or travelling the world. Many programs are available in English and many institutions accept US federal loans and veterans’ benefits.

From my own experience, studying in Europe provides an additional education as well—an immersion in another culture. In addition to developing a taste for crumpets, Six Nations Rugby, and punting (think British gondoliering), I was this past year provided with a front row seat for Brexit, with British friends on both sides of the referendum. Of course, cultural difference can be found by studying in a region of the US other than one’s own and many US universities have themselves become international hubs. Nonetheless, they are still embedded in American communities and the attributes shared across the country.

European (and other foreign) undergraduate programs will not be the best option for everyone. I was pleased with my US program and the network it provided. Nor was Europe the best option for my brother in the end (to my disappointment). Sports and career goals made a US college the more appealing choice. Even with rising tuition costs in America, many of my brother’s peers will continue to choose a US four-year college. For them, like my brother, the traditional American college education will better suit their needs. But even though European programs may only occasionally prove the best option, why shouldn’t they at least be part of the conversation?