For some, it’s a chance to experience a new way of learning. For others, it’s about experiencing new places and a new culture. And for certain students, it’s an opportunity to get a degree in less time than it usually takes in the United States.

For an array of reasons, more than 40,000 American students each year pursue a full-degree program overseas, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education. While this less conventional path can be incredibly rewarding for many, it’s not without potential problems.

Experts advise any student who’s thinking about an undergraduate or graduate program abroad to do plenty of homework ahead of time. In particular, scholars need to assess whether a degree from a foreign institution will be a net plus or deficit when it’s time to come home and look for a job. The answer to that question can vary based on the college and the program he or she enters.

The Appeal of Studying Abroad

Perhaps the biggest reason for attending an overseas university is simply to acquire a new, and very powerful, life experience. Many students see the college years as their golden opportunity to spend a prolonged period away from home, before the constraints of a family or a career enter into the picture.

But there are more concrete reasons for crossing international borders as well. According to IIE, research has shown that students who study in another country tend to earn better grades and graduate at higher rates than those who stay in the U.S. What’s more, with the increasing globalization of the world economy, students with an international perspective would seem to have an advantage over other graduates in the job market.

And – surprising as it may seem – studying in Europe can often be less expensive (see You CAN Afford to Study Abroad). The main reason is that many of the degree programs on the other side of the Atlantic are shorter than those in the U.S. For example, it’s not uncommon to find bachelor programs that take three years instead of four. And in many countries, students can complete a master’s degree in one year that would take two years at home.

When you factor in the lower tuition costs in some countries – thanks in large part to government subsidies for education – the price drops even further. In countries such as Germany, American students can find state universities where attendance won’t cost them a dime.

It is true that the cost of living in some parts of Europe is significantly higher than in the U.S. Even so, the quicker path to a degree and typically lower tuition costs can make the trip a relative bargain.

Often, students can still qualify for federal loans when they study abroad. If you plan to borrow, just make sure the colleges you apply to participate in the U.S. Department of Education loan program.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for many grants, which are generally only offered to students taking classes stateside. But there are exceptions.

A Different Learning Model

If you’re thinking about traveling overseas to earn a degree, keep in mind that you’re not just learning in a different place, you’ll probably be learning in a whole new way. It’s not uncommon for European schools, in particular, to foster a more independent approach to education (see The Pros and Cons of Going Abroad For Your MBA).

In addition to attending classes, students can expect to get massive reading lists that they’re responsible for mastering throughout the term. At the end of the course, students often have a written exam that counts for their entire grade. If you’re not the type of student who excels under this sort of pressure, it can be a daunting ordeal.

There’s another difference that can come as a shock to American students. Whereas a grade of “C” is not an impressive mark at U.S. colleges, it’s a much more common middling grade at some foreign institutions. Consequently, students have to be comfortable living with a slightly lower GPA than they might otherwise be able put on their résumé.

The Long-term Impact

One of the biggest factors students need to think about is how studying in another country will affect their marketability for jobs. Companies that do a lot of business overseas tend to look for job candidates with a broad range of experiences and a sensitivity toward other cultures so having a foreign degree could be an advantage.

Yet students shouldn’t be overoptimistic about the power of their study-abroad experience. A 2012 study by Michigan State University, for instance, found that most employers still put a number of other factors, including internships, higher on their wish list for applicants.

Above all, college students should make sure that the degree they pursue will translate in the U.S. job market. That’s not always the case. Experts suggest talking to alumni from the same program to see what kinds of roles they were able to secure post graduation.

Choosing a School

Whether one’s study-abroad experience ends up being an advantage or a disaster depends in large part on which university you choose. For most students, the first step is deciding which country interests them the most. While you may have some preconceived ideas about your “dream” experience, talking to other Americans who have studied at a particular place is a good reality check.

Figure 1. A list of the top destination countries for U.S. study abroad students, based on 2012-2013 data.


Source: Institute of International Education

Once you’ve the country where you hope to study, the first thing to check is whether a particular university is accredited or not. Beyond that, it’s always a good idea to do some research on the institution’s reputation, the cost of tuition, which entrance exams are required and how long it takes to earn a degree. And if you’re not fluent in the native language, make sure you can take all the required courses in English.

The Bottom Line

Traveling to Europe to earn your degree is a big decision for any student. In order to get the most out of your experience, do plenty of research and talk to people who have already traveled the same path.

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