The staggering cost of higher education in the United States has many prospective college students wondering if free opportunities exist in other countries. While conventional wisdom still points to the benefits of having a college degree, more students and their families are seeking alternatives to lower their college tuition bills.

More Americans are looking abroad, as some countries offer free or low-cost tuition to international students and programs of study entirely in English.

Key Takeaways

  • The high cost of a U.S. college education has many prospective students looking at countries that offer a free or low-cost college education.
  • Five countries that offer a free or low-cost college education are Norway, Finland, Sweden, Germany, and France.
  • For many U.S. students contemplating moving abroad for college, a key consideration is finding a program of study that is taught in English.
  • While some countries offer free tuition, students need to be aware that a high cost of living in a foreign country can still put them over budget.

1. Norway

Students willing to brave exceptionally harsh winters and one of the highest costs of living in the world might consider earning their degrees in Norway. Tuition is free at public universities, giving students the opportunity to earn degrees at top-ranked institutions such as the University of Oslo, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and the University of Bergen.

2. Finland

Until recently, citizens and international students paid no tuition at state-run universities. However, starting in 2017, international students wishing to earn degrees in English will pay a minimum of 1,500 EUR per year (approximately $1,654 per year as of Jan. 2020), though many universities charge far more depending on the degree level and program of study. 

Doctoral students, as well as those pursuing their studies in Finnish or Swedish, still pay no tuition. The government also plans to offer scholarships and financial aid to international students with exceptional academic backgrounds.

3. Sweden

Only students pursuing research-based doctoral degrees get free tuition in Sweden; some programs of study even offer stipends to international students. Nevertheless, students should be aware that Sweden’s high cost of living may put them over budget, even when they pay nothing to earn their degrees.

4. Germany

Germany needs skilled workers, and this reality creates a win-win situation for American students. Students enrolled in many of the country’s public universities can attend for free. What's more, German universities offer a wide range of programs entirely in English, and an American student can earn a university degree in Germany without speaking a word of German.

Top-ranked institutions, such as the University of Munich and the University of Bonn, mean that U.S. students don’t have to trade prestige for cost.

However, not all German public universities offer free tuition for non-European Union (EU) students. In 2017, the Federal State of Baden-Württemberg introduced tuition fees for non-EU citizens as part of its plan to reduce government debt.

5. France

In the past, students needed to speak French in order to attend university in France. This is no longer the case, however, as many programs of study at both public and private universities are offered in English. Students who attend public universities usually pay a few hundred dollars per year, depending on the degree level and program of study. Over the years, France has modified its free tuition model, and some EU students pay tuition based on family income.

Such changes may eventually impact how much international students pay to attend French universities. The French government is attempting to implement significant price hikes for students who are not from France or the EU.

In Oct. 2019, France's Constitutional Council struck down the legislation that would have hiked the annual tuition fee to €2,770 ($3,065) for a bachelor's degree and €3,770 ($4,170) for a master's degree. It's unclear whether the government will continue its battle to raise international student tuition fees, but both students and French universities have pledged to fight against such measures in the courts.

Beyond Europe

Europe remains a well-known, highly sought-after destination for students seeking refuge from high-priced U.S. colleges and universities, but public universities in countries such as Mexico and Brazil also have virtually free tuition. Students pay registration fees, which amount to very little when considering the exchange rates.

Some universities offer top-quality programs of study in English. Earning a degree south of the border also makes it possible for students to learn highly sought-after languages of commerce, such as Spanish and Portuguese.

Americans can also attend public universities in China and pay tuition costs between $2,500 and $10,000 per academic year, which can be affordable when compared to U.S. tuition rates. The best tuition deals in China, however, are reserved for students able to pursue their studies in Chinese.