Want to minimize student debt? Why not go to college in Europe?


Samuel Morris, a California native, says he’s happy about deciding to attend the Free University of Berlin.

Samuel Morris, a California native, says he’s happy about deciding to attend the Free University of Berlin. LENA MUCHA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By Simon Constable

March 4, 2023 11:00 am ET

A college degree and drowning in debt don’t have to be synonymous.

College tuition in the European Union tends to be far less than in the U.S., not only for locals but for students who come from outside the EU as well. Indeed, both undergrad and graduate-school degrees in Europe often can be earned at a fraction of what it costs in the U.S.

Another possible attraction for visiting Americans: Many of the programs offered by European universities are taught in English. 

“Clearly, there’s a benefit to being able to graduate without that debt,” says Melissa Torres, president and chief executive officer of the Forum on Education Abroad, a nonprofit based in Carlisle, Pa., that, among other activities, promotes degree study at foreign institutions.

Costs are one part of the equation. Foreign study is a better way to understand the world versus the superficial encounters that happen while traveling, Ms. Torres says. “They are also developing skills to compete in an international environment,” she says.

Among the more than two dozen potential host countries in the EU to choose from, one standout is Germany, where tuition costs at public universities are typically zero, even for foreigners, and poststudy work visas are available. 

Private German colleges do charge tuition fees, but generally they are a fraction of those at U.S. universities. To get a visa, international students need to show they can cover living expenses, as determined by the German government, which this year were set at €11,208 (about $11,950) a year.

“It’s been the best decision of my life so far,” says Samuel Morris, 27, of Alameda, Calif., an undergraduate student at the Free University of Berlin. Part of that decision, he says, was the absence of needing to take out huge loans.

German and other European schools can lack the teacher-student communication that might be more common in the U.S. Shown, Berlin’s city center.PHOTO: LENA MUCHA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Large undergrad classes at public universities in Germany are the norm. There often is little guidance from counselors when enrolling or picking courses. The consistent message: Students must be proactive and figure things out themselves.

Annie Atkins, 26, originally from the Minneapolis area and now on a master’s course in the school of sustainability at the University of Kiel, says students in her program typically write a 10-page essay every other week. The workload can seem lighter than in a typical undergraduate curriculum in the U.S., she says, but the pressure may be higher. “Your grade comes down to one paper or a big project at the end of the semester,” she says.

Another contrast between public higher education in Germany and the U.S.: While Ms. Atkins says professors in her master’s program are supportive, elsewhere observers say there can be an emotional distance between faculty and undergraduate students.

“You are dropped into the deep end, and you sink or swim,” says Eric Raymond, 36, a former student at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Ga., who now is a student in Hamburg. “There are lectures available to show up at, but there is no interaction, just lecture,” he says. Mr. Raymond says this was a shock, especially when he struggled with math-based courses.

Brad Farnsworth, principal of Washington, D.C.-based Fox Hollow Advisory, a provider of consulting services on international higher-education policy and international student recruitment, says German and other European schools can lack the kinds of strong communication with faculty that is generally found at U.S. colleges. Such bonds can help students foster and rely on a network of like-minded people long after graduation, Mr. Farnsworth says.

Another possible drawback: In the U.S., a German college degree might not impress recruiters. Many major U.S. corporations have preferred lists of institutions from which they hire. That could make finding a job more difficult, although certainly not impossible.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I have to,” Mr. Morris says.

Campus area of the Free University of Berlin.PHOTO: LENA MUCHA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

For Free University of Berlin, he pays about $330 a semester, which includes free transportation on public transit. Books are largely provided by professors in PDF form, and those that need to get purchased tend to be at most $15, Mr. Morris says.

“I am learning what I care about,” he says, “and I don’t have to worry about being in debt for the rest of my life.”

Mr. Constable is a writer in the Occitanie region of France. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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