For some, it’s a chance to experience a new way of learning. For others, it’s about experiencing a new place and a new culture. It may also be an opportunity to get a degree in less time than it usually takes in the United States.

More than 40,000 American students pursue a full-degree program overseas each year, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education (IIE). While this less conventional path is extremely rewarding for many, it’s not without potential problems.

Key Takeaways

  • A foreign degree can be beneficial if it enhances your qualifications for a job in your field.
  • Tuition can be lower and degree programs shorter.
  • Make sure the qualifications you earn abroad are accepted here.

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 a minus when it’s time to come home and look for a job. The answer to that question can vary based on the college, the program, and the field of study you're pursuing.

The Appeal of Studying Abroad

Perhaps the most common reason for attending an overseas university is to acquire a new and powerful life experience.

But there are more concrete reasons for crossing international borders. According to IIE, research has shown that students who study in another country tend to graduate at higher rates than those who stay in the U.S. What’s more, with the increasing globalization of the economy, a graduate with an international perspective would seem to have an advantage over others in the job market, at least in some fields.

The United Kingdom

...is the top destination for U.S. students studying abroad. The rest of the top 10: Italy, Spain, France, Germany, China, Ireland, Australia, Costa Rica, and Japan.

In addition, studying in Europe can be less expensive. Part of the reason is that degree programs are often shorter than in the U.S.

In Europe, bachelor programs that take three years instead of four are common, as are master's degree programs that take one year instead of two. Many of India's undergraduate programs also take three years of study, although programs in China and Japan generally take four years.

Tuition Costs

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 universities where tuition won’t cost them a dime. 

Tuitions vary greatly, though. Australia's are relatively high, and Great Britain in recent years has gradually hiked its tuition rates and reduced government subsidies. But tuition at the University of Costa Rica costs about $2,800 a year.

(Great Britain, Costa Rica, and Australia all are among the top 10 destinations for U.S. students abroad.)

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

Loans and Scholarships

Students can often qualify for federal loans even if they study outside the U.S. If you plan to borrow, make sure the schools 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 usually offered only to students taking classes stateside. But there are exceptions, including scholarships specifically for students studying abroad.

A Different Education 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 experiencing a new way of learning.

European schools, for example, foster a more independent approach to education. In addition to attending classes, students can expect to get massive reading lists that they’re responsible for mastering during the term. At the end of the course, students often sit for written exams that are the sole basis for their grades. If you’re not the type of student who excels under this sort of pressure, it can be a daunting ordeal. 

Grade Deflation

Another difference can come as a shock to American students. When it comes to grading, European professors are tough. Your work has to be truly superior to win a grade above a “C.” Be ready to live with a slightly lower GPA on your résumé. 

The Career Impact

One of the biggest factors to consider is the impact, for better or worse, on your marketability with a foreign degree on your résumé.

Companies that do business extensively overseas tend to look for candidates with a broad range of experiences and a sensitivity toward other cultures. If they actually have branches in foreign countries, a degree from one of those nations can be a real plus.

What's Your Specialization?

Your career specialization also matters. If you're seeking a job in fashion or the arts, a degree from an Italian or French university could be a plus. If you hope to spend much of your career working abroad, experience living and studying in China or a Spanish-speaking country could be a great advantage.

Students shouldn’t be overly optimistic about the power of their study-abroad experience. A study by Michigan State University found that most employers still put some other factors, including internships, higher on their wish list for applicants. 

The Credentials

Above all, college students should make sure that the qualifications they pursue abroad will be accepted in the U.S. job market. That’s not always the case. Notably, in fields such as medicine, pharmaceuticals, and law, you may have to undergo additional testing, training, or certification in the U.S.

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

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.

The Language Barrier

In addition, there's the language to consider. You're unlikely to get into a foreign university without true fluency in its national language.

On the other hand, if you were good at Spanish or German in high school, a little intensive study could get you up to speed. Don't forget, you will be writing essays in this language as well as listening to lectures.

Most Popular Destinations

That said, the United Kingdom was the most popular destination of Americans studying abroad as of the 2015/2016 academic year, according to a U.S. government agency, USAStudy Abroad. Others in the top 10 included Italy, Spain, France, Germany, China, Ireland, Australia, Costa Rica, and Japan.

Once you have the country where you hope to study, the first thing to check is whether a particular university is accredited. Beyond that, you need to research the institution’s reputation, entrance requirements, and tuition costs.